DEVELOPING STRONG PROPRIOCEPTION, OR BODY AWARENESS, IS CRUCIAL TO MAINTAINING BALANCE AND POSITION AND STRENGTH.
Most of us, myself included, have learned a lot about exercise from observing others. In the age of YouTube, this is even more prevalent as scores of trainers, equipment manufacturers and training companies post hundreds of videos that provide visual instruction on proper exercise form.
But just as the degree of hair loss and head shapes vary by individual, so too does the rest of the body – which can make a difference in your exercise form. There is great variance in the geometry of our bodies – some people have longer legs, others longer torsos or shorter arms – a difference encountered when buying suits and bicycles. And, the proportion of strength in those different body parts can vary as well due to genetics and past physical activities – e.g., the competitive swimmer with Michael Phelps’ body will have well-developed shoulders but not the short, thick legs of a wrestler. Each would perform exercises in important, slightly different ways.
These differences greatly affect individual exercise form and technique. Professional, world-class athletes can afford to tap into 21st century technologies to analyze their variables and come up with optimal training techniques. But most of us don’t have access to such resources.
The solution is to instead develop strong proprioception – a sense of the relative position of parts of the body – along with a rudimentary understanding of human physiology. Envision the muscles working in specific ways as you perform a certain exercise and you’ll make that exercise optimally effective.
The mind-body connection
Practitioners of Eastern mind-body disciplines (yoga, tai chi, qigong) have great advantages in this area. These practices are built on body awareness, knowing how to manage leg muscles, for example, enough to maintain balance and position while your eyes are focused in entirely different places.
In more traditional, gym-based strength training, the trainee often mistakenly focuses on the choreography of an exercise he observed in others, failing to give full thought to the muscle group being targeted. A good example is a seated lat pull-down exercise. It appears as if the objective is simply to pull the grip bar and the weight down, then return it to its starting position. But this can go wrong in two ways:
- Too much weight: If the trainee figures “more is more,” the tendency is to load up too many weights on the stack, then apply as much body force in pulling that sucker down. This tends to then engage core, back and shoulder muscles to a greater degree – but not the latissimus dorsi (lat) muscles, as intended.
- Pulling from the thumb part of the grip: Also often a function of too much weight, the trainee grabs the bar most strongly from the thumb-forefinger end of the grip, effectively engaging biceps and shoulder muscles. Again, the lats are not really doing this work or developing because of it.
The right way to do this particular exercise generally involves pulling from the pinkie-heel end of the hand, which allows a transfer of force from the lat muscles through the backside of the arm to the hand. To a casual observer and even a professional trainer, the difference is subtle and may not be noticed. But in both executions, the exercise fails to do what is intended. Only when the trainee knows where his or her lats are, the bones they are connected to and how it feels to exercise those specific muscles, can the exercise be performed correctly, safely and effectively.
How this mental connection can be developed
Three steps can get you closer to that goal:
- Study an anatomy chart: A book to carry to the gym would be great, or you could access this website for more detailed advice. If you have a home gym, you could purchase a chart for your wall.
- Run through the exercise at low-level weights/resistance: Before you attempt to actually build strength and size, grab a lightweight to perform the exercise for five to ten reps. This allows you to find the optimal form. Add increasing amounts of weights while keeping that form in check.
- Pay attention to which muscles are fatigued during and after the exercise set is complete: Do you feel your muscles “bite” into the weight as you perform each rep? Do you feel “the pump” in the muscles you were targeting, or is it elsewhere?
It still doesn’t hurt to learn how to exercise by observing others. But what matters most is what’s going on inside your head and under your own skin.