I have a shoulder problem. I’m always a little unsure how much I can do with it – I want to keep strong, and get stronger, and maintain my range of motion – which is to say, I want to improve my condition. I want the problem to resolve.
I’ve been to my Osteopath, I know the exercises I’m supposed to do and what I’m supposed to avoid and all that – the boxes have all been ticked – but there’s always going to be this question mark – there’s always this aspect of needing to feel your way through.
Some days, exercises I should be doing feel funky, uncoordinated or painful. Other days, exercises that I probably should steer clear of feel fine. And there are certain exercises that I’m supposed to do if they feel okay.
And I often find myself coming back to these old programming ideas – I should be doing five sets of five reps, or I should train military press differently, train more scapular retraction, dumbbell rows, etc. I need to do this and this and that to maintain strength and range of motion and be strong.
But when I keep in mind that the purpose of training is to get better at moving, my shoulders feel better. It is easy to be blinded by concepts. When I pay attention to my scapular movement, to my muscular awareness, I feel like I know what to do and I can follow that. I can sense where my movement is inhibited, and where it is free – I can sense where I am strong, and I can sense where my awareness is poor. I can feel where my awareness does not exist. This is one aspect of awareness. I can sense its limit. And I can try to move differently, to bring my attention there, knowing that it might not happen today, but that my awareness can deepen over time.
To get better at moving is not a vague goal. It is, in that you don’t know when you arrive – you can’t track it as such – but it is also immediate and useful. You can ask the question all the time, when you’re training, especially if you’re practicing exercises or sets that you aren’t sure are useful. It can bring your attention back to what you’re actually doing, as opposed to what you think you should be doing.
It’s easy to get caught up in pushing myself, training hard, doing more – it’s easy to be blinded by preconception. But when I remind myself – when I ask the question – is this helping me to get better at moving? – my attention shifts, and I can perceive the exercise more clearly. I can think and feel with less prejudice.
I journal my training sometimes. Often, people talk about the importance of writing down what you do, to measure progress. I record notable lifts or techniques, but also events, realisations and feelings. This is how you really measure progress. It’s not just numbers; numbers don’t mean much. 100 pounds on a day where you felt good is quite different to 100 pounds on a bad day. Over time, do you feel better in your body? That is progress. Your training is working. Do you feel worse? Then your training is not working for you. It is not about measuring you. It is about establishing whether or not your training is helping, whether or not it is useful.
We have this idea that sets and reps exist to progress us to another thing, another technique, a stronger state of being. But it’s a limited way of thinking. If the purpose of movement is the movement itself, if what’s good about exercise is the exercise itself, what are you progressing to? What is it that’s good for you? What is the purpose of just adding more reps or exercises? Is what you’re doing actually helping you to become better at moving?