Strong is a word that denotes many things and can be interpreted many ways but for simplicity’s sake, let’s break the idea of strength into three separate categories.
(1) There is physical strength, the kind that allows you to lift heavy things and move large pieces of furniture from one place in a room to the next.
(2) There is mental strength, which for many conjures up an image of perseverance, or the mental fortitude required to write a book or perform heart surgery.
(3)Finally, there’s emotional strength, a kind of resiliency that exists when you make it through something emotionally challenging. Caring for a sick parent, the death of a sister, or going through a divorce all require emotional strength.
These types of strength are not isolated, and all can be developed with practice. A physical movement practice develops the three types of strength in an integrated way, which carries over into how you handle everyday life.
Using movement to develop strength on a broader scale means stepping outside of your comfort zone. It takes a commitment to exploration and taking the time to learn different positions without rushing the process. Most importantly, it requires becoming comfortable touching discomfort.
Did you make it up the first steep hill you ever tried to run? What about the first time you tried to do a cartwheel as an adult- did you succeed? I have quite the laundry list of skills I have attempted over the years that I tried enthusiastically, overestimating my abilities only to fall short (and end up grateful I didn’t hurt myself). What the items on my laundry list all have in common is I tried them before I developed adequate strength, mobility, and proprioception, not exactly setting myself up for success. I wanted desperately to skip the work and just be able to do the cool thing because, let’s face it, the work is hard.
When you begin working on a physical skill, joints work together to create a dispersal of load across the skeleton and the neuromuscular system informs the joints of the options they have available. The neuromuscular system takes a huge number of things into account when it decides how to perform the objective task, including information from the sensory receptors embedded in the muscles and ligaments, past experience, and environment- are you in a safe place to be trying this thing?
The biomechanics of your musculoskeletal system provides feedback to your neuromuscular system throughout the skill. It lets your nervous system know what’s working and what isn’t and provides information about joint position. Let’s put these ideas into a more practical example so you can see how all of this relates to strength by looking at the skill of crawling.
Let’s assume for a second that when you set up in a hands and knees position to begin crawling, you set up with your shoulders behind your hands. When you look down, you see where the base of the wrist connects with the floor rather than the fingers. Let’s also assume that your ribs dip towards the floor in this position, creating a downward bow in your spine.
The first time you are cued to move your weight forward so your nose is even with your fingertips and your ribs are parallel with the floor, there is going to be a lot of sensation.
Before I continue, it’s extremely important for you, the practitioner, to be able to differentiate between the sensation of muscles being in positions that are new and joint pain. Muscles working in a different way isn’t bad. Joint pain is.
You stay in the new crawl set-up for four breaths and you move away from it, grateful you don’t have to stay there any longer. You touched discomfort in a very simple position that had little risk associated with it. And here is my favorite part: the next time you adjust your weight forward so your nose is even with your fingertips and your ribs are parallel with the floor, there will still be sensation, but it won’t be as strong. Your neuromuscular system will begin to realize that these new joint positions aren’t threatening, so the volume knob of the sensation is turned down. As time goes on, the sensation you were experiencing in the new position will continue to decrease, until eventually, the discomfort is gone. You will gain enough physical strength to support the “new” hands and knees position and it will no longer cause your neuromuscular system to loudly chatter about how hard it is to hang out there.
When movement skills are approached in this way, broken down, touching the discomfort for a short time, and eventually getting comfortable there before moving on to the next step, you become able to progress to more challenging skills. And what’s fascinating about this entire process (at least to me), is every time you challenge yourself to touch the discomfort, you are practicing mental strength by persevering when your brain says, “you know, I don’t really think feeling this much work is a good idea. Netflix is a good idea, chocolate is a good idea, but feeling a deep burning in my abdominals? Not a good idea.”
At some point, as the skills progress, you will also find yourself face to face with emotional discomfort. The first time you jump on something a little bit higher than you are used to, or you lift a weight that’s more than you have ever lifted in your entire life, or you find yourself contemplating an entry into handstand that you you’ve never tried but you have all of the parts dialed in you will find yourself face to face with fear and doubt. Overcoming fear and doubt requires emotional strength. It also requires learning to acknowledge your feelings without spinning yourself up into a state of anxiety. A little bit of anxiety is okay and normal, just like muscular work is okay; too much anxiety will impact your ability to do the skill.
This becomes the true art of practice. The ability to find your edge, the place where you really aren’t sure you want to be, stay with it for a moment, and then step away to a place physically and mentally that is safe and unthreatening is a deliberate dance. It’s different for all of us, and requires self honesty and compassion, traits that are often pushed aside in a world that favors comparing our abilities to those around us.
When exercise is no longer about burning calories or looking a certain way, and instead becomes an exploration of potential and skill, the capacity to become strong in an all encompassing way is limitless. When you find yourself touching discomfort see, if for the smallest moment, you can welcome it by acknowledging what it can do for your entire self and remember that all things worth doing are challenging- including embarking on a movement practice.
Jenn Pilotti loves to learn, teach,and move. As a result, she spends a lot of time working with personal training clients, sharing her knowledge through workshops, reading, and, of course, moving. When she isn't rolling around on the floor or running the hills on the California coast, she can be spotted writing fervently, usually with a dog hovering nearby.
For more information about Jenn, please visit www.bewellpt.com