One day at the gym I ran into one of my “regulars”. She was excited to tell me about a group exercise class she had just taken: “It went so fast, we jumped from one exercise to another and I didn’t even have time to think about what I was doing…I just kept going and going until it was over…I couldn’t even tell you what exercises we did…it was awesome!”
You know that feeling you got in school when a kid scraped his/her fingernails across the blackboard? yes…that feeling.
I am all for enjoying your workout and if time flies when you’re having fun that is an added bonus. Do you feel a “but” approaching? Here It is…
For starters, if the entire time you are working out you are just waiting for it to be over – look for a different modality. Your workout should be an activity you enjoy and look forward to, it should not feel like a chore nor should it be a punishment for eating “bad” food on the weekend. Wanting to get through it without feeling it is not going to help you stick to it and work hard to get better at it.
Once you’ve found that class you enjoy, the trainer you want to work with or the program you want to follow, it’s important to understand the process your brain and body go through when learning new movements and understand why thinking about what you are doing is important.
Think about the last time you moved to or visited a new city. Getting from point A to point B was a mystery. Nothing looked familiar. You set your GPS and followed the instructions very carefully. After driving that route a number of times, you started recognizing certain streets and marks along the way but still relied heavily on the commands of your GPS. As time went on and you drove the route more frequently, you anticipated the commands to come, noticed when you made the wrong turn and eventually became autonomous, leaving the GPS off. You might have even found better routes to get to the same destination.
The process we go through every time we acquire a new skill is what we call “The 3 stages of learning”. Those are: Cognitive, associative and autonomous.
When you first learn to squat, deadlift, swing a kettlebell or any other exercise – your brain is a clean slate.You follow the coaching and over-think every step. You are not sure what the movement should feel like and it looks different every time you do it. As you progress, you may feel it isn’t quite right but you are unsure of how to fix it. Your coach will give cues for positioning, breathing patterns and so on. Gradually, you begin to be more consistent with your form, you can identify when it feels off and you know how to correct it.
When you perform the exercise, neural pathways are formed, like imprints. The more repetitions, the more familiar your brain becomes with the movement and the more natural it feels. What once was awkward and required a lot of concentration eventually comes naturally.
Although it may sound obvious, this is also the most important part: If you “train” your body and brain to follow the wrong path you will become autonomous in squatting with bad form. Squat with bad form and add weights – you will end up injured and conclude that “squats are bad for my knees”. Yes, they are bad for your knees if you do them wrong and under load. The only way to prevent that is practicing good form over and over again and with intent. Developing awareness of where your body is and what it is doing. As a rule of thumb – you must move slow before you can move fast. If you want to bang out 100 air squats – more power to you but first make sure you can do one with good form – slowly and intentionally.
Many coaches, no matter how experienced, say that every time they perform a drill they have a soundtrack that goes along with it. A mental checklist that sets them up for success. Different cues work for different people so it is important to figure out what you need to remind yourself of and write out the soundtrack that works for you.
Last week I was working on a new skill I’m training for my next certification. I had only practiced it twice before and I could feel how mechanically I was performing it. I had my headset on and I saw the person working out next to me smile. I realized I was cuing myself out loud: ” Turn, Hinge, Lower, press”. I do the same even when I’ve been doing the drill for years.
For example. when I deadlift, my mental list is: Hinge, pack the shoulders, take the slack out of the bar, inhale, press heels into the floor. Those are cues that help me.
A few months ago, I had a woman walk out of my class and wait for me outside the door when it ended. She came over and apologized for leaving. She said: “I wasn’t mentally prepared to think so much”. In my mind, that is great feedback! I want my clients and students to think about what they are doing, where their body is and how to use it. I want them to figure out what feels good and what doesn’t, what heavy really means for them.
Being mindful of the way you move will position you to move better, get stronger, train smarter and achieve better results.