Friday, 23 May 2014

On 19:12 by Victoria Stanham in    No comments
photo by Anja Osenberg

I used to hateworking out. Really, REALLY hate it. It made me sore, it tensed me up, it made me feel inadequate when I couldn’t perform half the movements in class, while the person next to me seemed to breeze through the workout without even breaking a sweat. I quit going to gyms completely and turned my back on anything that looked remotely like a PE class.
That has all completely changed for me. Now I find myself going to the gym 4 times a week where I run, jump, squat, ab-crunch, pull-up, push-up and generally do, with great gusto, all the sorts of movements I used to abhor.
What produced this change in me? Becoming fairly fluent in psychophysical language.
One of the keys to enjoying a workout is enjoying performing the movements that are an integral part of it.
Granted, no one “enjoys” doing three sets of 10 burpees (squat-plank-squat-jump) at the end of an hour long workout. But having good body mechanics can make the whole difference between hating your trainer’s guts or taking it all in good stride as part of what’s got to be done to complete that day’s workout.
Good body-mechanics is something most people have lost somewhere down their lives’ paths. At some point bizarre ideas about how your body works and where your body parts join each other have crept up on you, with the devastating result that you move expending way more energy than necessary, and using muscles ill-suited for the job at hand. No wonder you end up all tense and exhausted. The worst part is that strain injuries are only a step away from faulty body-use.
Any good trainer will have an eye out for lousy body-mechanics, and will give you pointers on how to correct your technique. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll be able to put that advice into action. If your perception of where your joints are really located in your body-map is a bit (or a lot) askew, then you’re in for a lot of frustration.
Lousy body-mechanics will become more evident once muscle fatigue settles in. You’re on the third round of the workout circuit and suddenly your realize that your right shoulder and arm aren’t responding as efficiently as your lefts, making you rely heavily and overuse the left side. Or perhaps you’re at ab-crunch number 30 of the 4th round and you realize your previously symmetrical torso rise has become a lopsided affair: you twist up instead of rising up parallel.
This seeming trivial asymmetry wouldn’t have risen to the surface if you hadn’t taken yourself to the limit. Perhaps you weren’t even aware that you favored one side over the other, you were happily and unconsciously compensating. You might be tempted to think that all you need to do is “strengthen” the muscles on the weak side. However “logical” this reasoning might appear, it is way off-target. The asymmetry, or twist, that becomes evident when you take yourself to the limit, is not something that wasn’t there before, it was there all along, it is how you habitually activate the muscle pattern for that particular movement.
So, if strengthening the weak side isn’t the solution; what is there to do?
You figure out if you’ve got a stage 1, 2 or 3 problem.
Movement patterns are learned and integrated in 3 stages, following the standard neurological pathway of habit formation.  So correcting body-mechanics is really all about re-training habits.

The first stage is awareness.
You need to recognise 4 basic things:
1) The mechanics of what you want to do (e.g. what does a correct squat entail);
2) What you are in fact doing (e.g. what am I doing when I squat);
3) In what ways what you want to do and what you are in fact doing differ from each other;
4) What you need to (re)learn to get nearer to your goal.
Sometimes it’s hard to see this on your own (we can’t see what we don’t know). So a good idea is to find outside help. Personally, what I do is go to an Alexander Technique teacher or any other movement specialist who has a really good eye for movement patterns and can tell me what I’m physically doing that is manifesting as wrong muscle activation sequences. Such a teacher can also help me figure out what wrong ideas I’m harboring about my own body and its mechanics, and can help me see what mood is concomitant with this state of affairs.
Stage one is all about recognition, learning to perceive what you were blind to before. It’s basic body mapping, recognition of habitual muscle activations patterns, becoming aware of discrepancies between my perception of reality and what is really happening.
During this stage you lay down new neural pathways.

The second stage is directed conscious application.
Every time you’re faced with a cue for action (e.g. “squat!”) You need to practice NOT automatically doing how you did it before (this is harder than it sounds, believe me), and instead doing it the new way.  
Stage two is about being able to consciously deactivate the sequence that’s causing the faulty execution, and consciously choosing the new activation sequence, EVERY TIME the action is called for. This stage requires ATTENTION & THOUGHT, you need to be FOCUSED & PRECISE.
During this phase you’re strengthening the new neural wiring you laid down in stage one.

The third stage is using your new knowledge in physical reality.
Stage three is when you take your newly integrated pattern and test drive it in real life, in situations when you can’t over-think it, when speed and power are called for. During this type of training you get to see how much of the new sequence has become truly automatic and second nature.
After a while at this stage you will run into apparently new (but in truth really old) faulty mechanics. Patterns that used to be hidden under the old compensations will rise to the surface. But this time you’re prepared: you won’t try to deal with them with more reps of the same; now you know you have to get back to the drawing board.
Working out has become not only a pleasure, it is now also a science. You’re now not only stronger, faster, leaner, fitter, healthier; you’re also SMARTER.
So, if you’re stuck in your progress, if working out isn’t fun anymore, if it is just too painful, or if you don’t seem to get any better… then you might need to take yourself to stage one, and build yourself up again towards finally embodying your true potential.
See you next week.
If you’re interested in getting better and enjoying your workouts more, then check out what my work is about or contact me about lessons.


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