Have you ever had that experience of driving somewhere familiar, say on your way to work or on your way back home, where you suddenly realize you’ve been driving but can’t remember actually doing it? There have been stretches of very familiar road on the commute to post (Army for ‘base’) where I’ve been physically present in my car, obviously in control of the vehicle as I’ve stayed on the road through it’s many curves and avoided other cars, and then realize I don’t have a clear recollection of actually driving my car through that stretch of road because I hadn’t actually been consciously present. My body and brain worked together to do what was habitual while my conscious mind was checked out, thinking of other things. Scary. But not uncommon….
It has to do with mindfulness, or being mindful, and when you’re just going through the motions it means there’s a lack of mindfulness happening–you’re not really ‘present’ in your body in the now. And it doesn’t just happen driving, it can happen at the gym, too. It can be really easy to just ‘dial in’ a workout, to go through the motions, do the exercises or plod away on a cardio machine without really being present in your body. How often have you mindlessly done a set of bicep curls, just swinging the arms away with a blank look on your face, or witnessed someone else do it? It’s a ‘check the box’ effort, but not a wholehearted one, not a mindful one AND it’s not one that you will reap much reward from.
One of the simplest, best, most effective things that you can do to make every workout more effective and yield faster and better results is to be mindful. I like to call it ‘putting your mind in your muscle.’ It’s a get-more-bang-for-your-workout-buck technique for sure.
It’s not necessarily about how much weight you’re moving or for how many reps, it’s about how intensely you’re using those muscles. My own at-home ‘structural maintenance’ workout last week was virtually without any external weights added (no dumbbells, kettle bells, medicine balls or weight plates), but was wicked for my glutes because of my focus. I put all of my attention on mentally reaching my glutes in my mind, focusing on the amount of contractio–every rep of every set, from start to finish. In this way I was able to really work my glute muscles effectively and thoroughly even though I was using only my own body weight. The same is true of my own therapy work in Physical Therapy for my SI joint/lumbar scoliosis issues: to be really effective and get the most benefit from my prescribed exercises, appropriately termed ‘neuromuscular reeducation,’ I have to be completely present in my body, focused on which muscles I’m recruiting and what posture my pelvis is in throughout the movements. I’m not going to lie–there’s a lot of brain sweat that happens, too!
And wow, have I been sore (or ‘gluteally aware,’ as I like to joke with my clients and class participants) the next day after these sessions of intense concentration, which tells me I used things thoroughly and effectively….So whether you’re working against your own bodyweight, working with a heavily loaded barbell, or a moderately weighted set of dumbbells, really make a connection to the muscles you’re using–put your mind into the feeling and function of that muscle/those muscles. This practice alone can massively boost the quality and effectiveness of every strength training workout you do.
“Energy goes where your attention flows.”
This practice has also helped me become a more efficient, more comfortable runner who sustains fewer injuries. I’ve learned to concentrate on each stride, on keeping my pelvis level (which requires using my obliques, or muscles in my waist), on feeling the difference between flinging my leg forward from the hip and using my glutes to propel myself forward. But the same practice can also be applied in a spin class to core bracing and feeling the hamstrings work as you pull the pedal up through the back of the pedal stroke, rather than bouncing side to side, pumping your body weight down through the hip, or in a step class to keep your abs braced and your landings soft and springy rather than a heavy stomping that reverberates up your leg into your spine. It can also mean making sure your hips don’t sag during a burpee, or that you land softly on the box during a box jump, or sink into your hips when landing from a jump squat.
“Wherever you are, be all there.”
~ Jim Elliot
Besides the practice itself of directing your focus inward, into the muscles active in your own body (rather than talking to your friend, or paying attention to other people in the room–both so easy to get sucked into doing), what can help enable you to ‘put your mind in your muscle’ is learning a little bit about your own anatomy. After my at-home structural maintenance workout last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Körperwelten (‘Body worlds’) exhibition in Nürnberg, Germany. It was absolutely fascinating to be able to examine closely the muscles, tendons and ligaments that I’d been working with just an hour earlier. Seeing where things attach helps to make how I’m moving and when and how I’m squeezing those muscles make more sense, and it makes visualizing them, and therefore connecting to them so much easier for me. It might work for you, too!
Whatever activity you engage in, and whatever method you choose (‘see’ it, feel/squeeze it, or both), take a moment at the beginning of every set of your strength training sessions to make a your connection and put your mind into your muscle. You might be shocked at the response from your body and power you develop from this practice.
“Those who are awake live in a constant state of amazement.”~ Jack Kornfield