Try this self-test... Reach your right arm above your head. Then bring it back down to rest. Notice, did you reach as far as you can? Or did you stay within a range of movement that felt completely comfortable to you?
My guess is that you probably reached to your limit, or at least close to it. The thing that stopped you from going further was probably some kind of sensation that let you know it was time to stop. Perhaps pain, tightness, or discomfort?
Almost everyone who comes to work with me moves this way in the beginning. They interpret a simple movement instruction like this as a test to see how well they can do it or how far they can move.
You might think "so what's the big deal Tom?"
The big deal is that this seemingly normal behaviour comes bundled with some complex and troublesome baggage.
Like a fly in a web, the harder we try, the more entangled we get. This idea of "doing well" is actually the thing which keeps us knotted up with our movement habits (including our bad backs, poor posture and painful body parts). When we consistently go to our limits we stay stuck in endless repetitive patterns.
In order to change our habits and learn to move with ease and pleasure we need to carefully disentangle ourselves from this paradoxical trap. We need to swap out achievement for a far more powerful tool... One that has the power to change habits quickly!
What is that tool? Let's find out...
Habit Change Requires Learning
When you lifted your arm do you know which part of yourself was the first thing to move? Was it your eye? Perhaps your hand? Maybe you gently pressed your foot into the floor?Not sure? Try the movement again with the intention of finding out.
By investigating your movement using questions you've already started to build awareness of your current habits. You're learning about yourself. This is what builds the groundwork for habit change.
So if your eye was the first part of you to move, try with another body part. Perhaps your pelvis, breastbone, or your foot.
Boom! You've just interrupted one of your habits. More learning.
I know this is a simple beginning. It's also an important one. It is this basic principle of learning about yourself and then trying new things that will get you out of trouble (pain, stiffness, discomfort) and into freeeeeedommmmm.
What if one of those options for moving was significantly easier than the others? What if you'd just never thought to try it and you went through your life lifting your arm "the hard way"? What if you could learn about yourself so intimately that you were able to find ease and pleasure in ALL of your movements?
That's lots of questions I know. I do that sometimes. Let's move on.
Let's take a look at learning, how to optimize it and how trying too hard interferes with it...
Going to Your Limits Interferes With Learning
One of the keys for learning and improving anything is to receive feedback. Without feedback there's no way of knowing whether your actions are helping or hindering you.
If we're talking about movement, then the feedback is the information you receive from your senses. It could be...
- seeing your arm unbend
- feeling the trajectory that your elbow moves through
- sensing your muscles lengthening or shortening.
In order to learn as much as possible, we need to pay attention to this feedback. We also need to stop distorting or dampening it. One of the key ways to interfere with this feedback is by trying too hard.
Trying too hard usually comes in a few different flavours. I could push to my limit of...
- Force or...
- Speed or...
- Range of motion
Or I could do some combination of those three. Each of these affect us in different ways. Here's how...
Too much force
There's a law called the Weber-Fechner law. It basically says (in a German accent of course)...
Zee more force I use, zee less I can feel.
Zee less force I use, zee more I can feel.
In practical terms - When I reduce the amount of effort I use, I have access to far more sensations. This helps to improve the rate at which I learn about my movement. If you'd like to read more about how using lots of force dulls your sensitivity, click here.
Moving too quickly
Doing something quickly is a guaranteed way to engage your habitual way of moving. It turns you onto autopilot. There simply isn't enough time to do anything other than what you already know if it's too quick.
Sure, given our example, you could quickly reach with your arm in different directions. But the subtle underlying habits in the way you prepare yourself for movement stay unchanged. These are the one's we're most interested in.
An additional downside to moving quickly is that it doesn't give you much time to feel what you're doing. And if sensory feedback is what we're after then that's a bad thing.
your movement to a snails pace, you have all the time in the world to FEEL where you contract, where you hold still, what pathway you take etc...
Going to your end range of movement
Your brain is always trying to keep you safe. It scans for threats and does what it can to minimize those threats.
When your brain perceives it's unsafe to move in a certain way, it will tighten up your muscles and stop you from going any further. This stops you from moving into potentially dangerous positions where the forces could damage you.
So when you reach high and can't go any further, it's not because your skeletal structure limits you. It's because your brain stops you on purpose to keep you safe. The sensations of stretch, the feeling of tightness, the inability to go higher - it's all in the name of safety.
Going to end-range is not helpful. It has a double-whammy negative
Firstly, the sensations you get at end-range (pain, tension, tightness) are typically LOUD. They drown out the subtle sensations of comfortable, coordinated movement. When these types of sensations are blaring in your ear, it becomes difficult to sense anything else and therefore difficult to learn anything new.
Secondly, hitting end-range engages your protective habitual pattern. From this place you cannot do anything other than your habit. It acts as a way of literally practicing your limits...
"Oh, yup...that's where my limit is"
"Uh huh...there's my limit"
"Yup... it's still there"
"Mmmmhmmmmm...still feel it"
Do Less Than Your Best To Improve Your Movement Faster
So you see, this trying hard business is problematic stuff. It deeply interferes with our learning process which is the only real way to make progress.
Not only that, the idea of trying hard and doing well is entrenched in our culture. Like a toddler who's found the honey, this syrupy stuff is smeared everywhere. It's a big sticky mess.
But we can learn to lick our fingers clean and move with curiosity, play and joy again.
When it comes to learning something new, do less than your best. Forget about the need to do things well and enter into learning mode. This is the tool that will help you...
- Get out of pain, stuckness and restriction.
- Rebuild effortless posture.
- Rebalance and realign your skeleton.
...and most importantly, untangle yourself from that spiders web.