“We commonly ask how much & how many, but rarely do we ask HOW WELL the exercise was performed – and since “how well” cannot be easily seen or measured, it usually takes a back seat to rep-counting and mindless weight swinging.”
Exercise, at its core, is physical challenge. Many people measure and track exercise challenges with numbers. They measure the amount of weight, the number of repetitions, how quickly the challenge is completed, how long the challenge is endured, etc. Variables such as these have become the standard among exercisers world-wide. We have accepted these “external performance” numbers to be accurate indicators of our fitness progress, they provide us with some degree of certainty, and they often provide us with a model for future exercise progression. But can counting numbers lead you off track? Yes, it can.
“Strong” is in style these days, and setting a new personal record, heaviest weight, highest number, longest time, and/or greatest physical feat can all be very exciting. But there is a long-term problem with applying a sport mentality to exercise: our number-chasing approach often leads to muscle, joint, and tissue damage (and therefore limited exercise options down the road). Although it’s a very common exercise mindset, the external performance and sport-like approach provides opportunity for mechanical wear and stresses on the body that are not always healthy. Negative stresses related to repetition, poor alignment/positioning, poor movement control, and excessive forces, can lead to tissue damage and failure. So should we really treat exercise like a sport? …at what age do athletes retire? Shouldn’t exercise be healthy enough that we could keep doing it?
Exercise is said to be the ‘medicine’ for many different health conditions, but does it make sense to approach all exercise with an “external performance” perspective, measured in numbers, times, and scores? The exact answer to that question, of course, will depend on YOU and your individual needs, your goals, and your tolerances. But if your exercise goals include the improvement muscle tissue & the preservation of your joints, you may want to add an “internal performance” model to your training regime.
Here are some additional questions to ask ourselves:
- What kind of physical adaptations are we seeking?
- Is there more than one way to stimulate those adaptations?
- Are we exercising because we want to improve the tissues we are stressing via exercise?
- Should we treat the exercise “medicine” like a competition?
- What if those numbers (weight, reps, etc.) weren’t entirely accurate?
- What if that external performance model challenges us in a way that is not congruent with our goals?
- Is it more important to feel like a gym-hero, or is it more important to improve the health of the body?
Perhaps many of us should shift our exercise attention back to where it usually needs to be; the human body. After all, exercise is first and foremost, about improvement of the body; not just a workout performance and/or something that gives us gym-bragging rights. Shifting our attention internally can give us an opportunity to effectively stimulate and improve our muscular tissues, while reducing the exposure to many detrimental forces on our joints.
How can you begin to focus more internally? One way to begin is to use better control, and emphasize the muscle-tension you generate and maintain throughout the set. Try the following:
- Make the goal of the exercise to fatigue in a specific body part (instead of tired all over, or targeting a rep number)
- Decide on the muscle/motion you want to challenge
- Do not allow any other motions to occur throughout the exercise
- Monitor your posture/position and make sure you maintain it throughout the exercise
- Your first rep and last rep should look the same (although the last few may be shorter in range)
- No counting
- Maintain control over the moving body segments, maintaining a consistent tempo (perhaps something like 2sec up, 4sec down)
- Keep your movement robotic and strict
- Focus on the muscle(s) you want to perform the contraction
- Intentionally perform mindful muscular contractions in the targeted muscles throughout the challenge (squeeze the muscle throughout)
- Squeeze and fatigue the muscle group without changing the way you perform the movement
- Training to failure here means you cannot perform another rep the same way
You will be able to use this as a strategy for many exercises. You will find that you have to reduce the amount of weight you handle, as you will no longer be able to use other muscles or ‘momentum’ to assist you on each lift. Be patient with yourself, as “proper form” is a skill in itself, so it takes a few sessions to hone.
Good luck with this – Stay Focused!