Are you training patterns or just training muscles?
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Imagine you just dropped your car keys and you reach down to pick them up. Chances are you don't give much thought to how you bend down to get them, you just pick them up. Odds are, if you dropped them again, you'd still pick them up the same way. Matter of fact, you've probably been picking things up in the same way throughout your life, and have never thought twice about it.
Now, what if instead of car keys, you were now picking up a pumpkin? Would you organize your movement differently? Would you bend more at the hips, at the knees...how would it change? Then imagine you have pain in your lower back, but you still want to pick up the pumpkin. Maybe your child or grandchild asks you to lift it for them, and you want to help even though it hurts. Does this change how you pick it up?
The thing is, people are creatures of habit when it comes to movement. We learn how perform a variety of movements when we're young, and then continue to perform them the same way throughout our life. That is, until something goes wrong, starts to hurt, or gets in the way of how we normally move. We get very comfortable with our patterns, and will often chose to continue to move the same way, even in pain, over new and unfamiliar patterns.
In the fitness industry, there's a lot of talk about training muscles. You've probably been in a gym at some point in your life and heard conversations like "I'm working on leg day today," or "it's my day to train back and biceps." The truth is, when it comes to fitness, the majority of the focus seems to be on strengthening individual muscles. But, muscles don't work in isolation. They work as a team, and can organize how they work together depending on a variety of factors. These include things like our side dominance, our emotional state, sense of safety, past experiences, current injuries or pain, familiarity, social influences, and our own proprioceptive awareness, or our sense of where our own body is in space.
So maybe instead of thinking about strength as a result of only having larger muscles, we can open ourselves up to the idea that strength can also be gained by moving more efficiently. Think of a Slinky (for those of us old enough to remember these fun toys,) a Slinky isn't necessarily what looks like a "strong" toy, but place it just right going down the stairs, and it will make it down the whole staircase in one try. Why? Because it's efficient at recycling energy by design. Try that with a Tonka truck. I would argue that it would look quite different.
Developing patterns as a means to better strength, mobility & injury prevention
When clients come to me, I often hear things like "my right knee really hurts...I've been told I need to strengthen my quads, glutes, etc." My question to them is usually something like "but, how are you moving around your painful knee?"
It's like having a bumpy road you've traveled on a million times. The one where you know the route, there's a familiar rest stop along the way, and your favorite place to eat, but there's also a ton of potholes that are slowly damaging your car's suspension. There may be a brand new, recently paved, six-lane highway now available, but driving on the highway scares you, and you're just so comfortable with your regular route...plus you'd miss your favorite restaurant, You decided to just accept the wear and tear on your car, and continue down the bumpy road. Just like strengthening your quads, it doesn't matter how smooth the highway is if you 're not comfortable using it.
So, what if instead of trying to complain to the city to get each and every pothole filled in, what you really need is just a good friend to ride with you along the new freeway the first time until you feel safe. To help you find a new place to eat, locate the rest areas, and travel that new route together with you for the first time, or the first few times until you feel comfortable with it? Or, in the case of the person with knee pain, to help you move down the stairs more like a Slinky, rather than that Tonka Truck.
When I work with a client, I don't just look at the spot in which they're having pain or the places that they want to "look better, or get stronger." I look at how their whole body moves together. How do they prefer to walk, run, climb stairs, get off the ground, turn, throw, sit down? I look at the patterns they choose and find out which ones are working well for them, and which ones could use some help. I look at the whole person.
We then work together on learning new patterns to teach the body more than one way to perform movements, because when it comes to moving, options age good (think falling and breaking your arm, and still needing to get up, or trying to get dressed with frozen shoulder.) We play with teaching both sides of the body individually since they are very different in their strengths and weaknesses (think throwing, kicking, writing, opening a jar.) We also talk about how stress and other emotional factors can influence our movement (think pandemic or just 2020 in general). Most importantly, we focus on learning and creating a space where new awareness can take place, and where women can begin to have a new relationship with their body and a better understanding of how it moves. They often come away finding a new sense of strength, and most importantly - options for how they can move! Options that may be less painful, and allow them to do things they never thought possible.
Carrie Craven is a holistic movement practitioner who owns and operates Your Health First LLC out of Portland, OR. Since 2013, she's been devoted to helping women make their own health and wellness a priority by learning new ways to explore movement in order to improve activities of daily living, reduce injury, feel more connected in their bodies, and grow stronger and more confident.