I didn’t always have an easygoing relationship with my body and my fitness routine. That’s putting it nicely… To be blunt and judgmental: I used to be a real asshole to my body.
And I could feel the effects of my choice.
Recurring aches and pains. Feeling like my back muscles were perpetually as tight as a guitar string. A consistent whisper that whatever I did wasn’t enough. Fatigue that never seemed to dissipate. Workouts that were non-negotiable…complete them, end of story.
Because, the goal! I must achieve the goal! Yeah. Ok.
Your body does not respond well to force.
Your effort always creates effects in your body.
Trying really hard, forcing yourself to tick all the boxes on the ‘fitness checklist’, and using high-tension movement strategies, all can lead to…
Overuse injuries. Chronic muscle tightness. Fatigue. Stress. Lackluster results.
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What Is A High-Tension Movement Strategy?
A high-tension movement strategy is signified by having excessive muscular tone (tightness, tension) and contraction. These are deployed during movement, but also are noticeable at rest (holding tension even when just sitting). High-tension movers are also recognized by their inability to move slowly, their difficulty in relaxing, and they tend to have one setting, “on”.
The question I had to ask myself was this, ‘why would you try so hard to get your results if it means you also end up with a bunch of things you didn’t want?’ The only reason to do this would be if I had the mindset that it’s the “cost of doing business.”
Know this: feeling bad and getting hurt is not the ‘cost of doing business’ to get fit.
But so often, the body and mind become disconnected from each other, and that is a real problem. Because when you force your body to go somewhere it does not want to go (or isn’t ready to go) trouble looms.
If you want to feel good, move well, learn new things, avoid injuries, and get stronger, you have to know the difference between ‘forcing it’ and ‘giving effort’.
The Problems With Forcing It
Maybe you feel like you “should” be exercising more.
Or perhaps you desperately want to achieve a particular movement or sports feat.
Or maybe you’re someone who holds themselves to a standard that does not allow for deviations from the original plan.
Wherever you’re coming from, you want to ‘try hard’ to accomplish the goal.
But, there’s a difference between ‘giving effort’ and ‘forcing it’. It’s the difference between asking your body, “would you like to do this?” and telling your body, “WE’RE DOING THIS!”
You can sense the tension in that second statement just in reading it. Now imagine spending the time when you’re meant to be caring for your body via exercise and movement in that state.
Remember, tension is not just feeling “tense” like when you’re stressed about work or school. Tension is also referring to the state of your soft tissue perpetually holding excessive tone or tightness in it. Soft tissue was not meant to be be held in an ongoing state of greater tone than is necessary for doing the task at hand.
Think of a cat: when the cat is stalking a bug or a mouse or its toy, picture how it walks as it stalks the “prey”. Now imagine the cat when it’s lounging in the mid-afternoon sun. Is the cat lounging in the sun carrying the same tension as the cat stalking the prey? No, it’s not. This is a gross oversimplification, but it gets the idea across.
If you spend your entire life walking around like you’re stalking prey, your body is going to be affected.
When you use high-tension strategies for movement and exercise, you ramp up your sympathetic nervous system, which is your “fight or flight” response that the nervous system engages in when trouble is afoot.
Having your sympathetic nervous system ramped up long-term contributes to:
- Muscle rigidity
- Feelings of stress
- Stress chemicals perpetually flushing through the body
- Decreased ability to self-regulate (handle emotions and states of being)
This is also what happens when you’re experiencing a high-stress lifestyle. And if you’re experiencing both a high-stress lifestyle and you’re engaging high-tension strategies in your workouts? That’s going to be tough for your body to make any headway against.
In addition, your ability to learn and adapt is impacted when you use high-tension strategies to perform the movement.
When you’re told that you must get from point A to point B and you absolutely must take path X to get there (as is the case in much of fitness instruction), you diminish your nervous system’s ability to develop its own movement variability. A better solution than saying “this is how this exercise must be done” would be to give a set of guidelines to work with, and then let the person explore the movement while being mindful of the guidelines.
Because without movement variability, your injury risk goes up (both overuse injury and seemingly “random” injuries from moving wrong).
In the case of overuse injuries, a lack of movement variability means you rely on just a few tissues repeatedly instead of spreading the work out over many tissues.
In the case of “random” injuries, since you lack movement variability, your body wasn’t ready to handle the slightly different organization of tissues and joints that occurred just prior to the injury happening.
What To Do About Your Tension
By now you may be thinking that you should never use tension ever because it’s a horrible monster. Don’t let the pendulum swing away like that! There’s a happy medium to be found here.
Tension is definitely sneaky because you so rarely realize how much of it you’re using.
You become accustomed to holding low-level tension in your body for your entire workout, and throughout your day. And in fact, you become so accustomed to it that not holding that tension would feel weird at first, like you aren’t trying hard enough. (for more on holding tension, see this post by Dr. Seth Oberst)
The goal is to become someone capable of using varying degrees of tension based on the current situation you find yourself in. In other words, be adaptable.
Start to become aware. Begin to notice yourself as you go through your workout and your day. You may not be able to notice your tension yet, but you can start to notice your breath.
See if you can notice when you’ve been holding your breath slightly. You’ll likely be surprised at just how often you aren’t fully exhaling or inhaling during your day. Once you notice, you’ll exhale. This is an excellent first step to letting go of unnecessary tension in your soft tissue. It also supports the parasympathetic nervous system (aka, your “rest and digest” system) which helps ease feelings of stress, reduces muscle rigidity, and reduces stress chemicals in your body.
I am well aware that you may read that suggestion and roll your eyes at the simplicity of it. That’s ok, your response is simply another thing worth noticing. 😉
In part two of this post, I’m going to have more strategies for learning how to “give effort” without “forcing it”, and how to listen to your body and find ease in the work you’re doing with it. If you start on the awareness of your tension and your breath now, you’ll be well on track to apply the lessons in the next post.
A final reminder –
Movement and fitness are not wars to be won.
‘Giving effort’ is doing enough work and not more. It’s listening to your body’s signals and adjusting accordingly.
It’s trusting in the work you’ve put in already and it’s patience that the journey is progressing in a timely and appropriate manner.
Yes, it can be “hard to fight your own bullshit” as my client Dan commented once when we were having a talk about his workouts. But there is another way than the way you’ve been doing things.
Click HERE to be taken to Part Two of this post
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Want to understand, once and for all, how to start feeling good and moving well?
My book, The Movement Manifesto, will help you get started on the right foot.