When Exercise Doesn’t Work – Part 1


Banging-your-head-against-aHave you ever had an exercise program that just didn’t work because it didn’t feel good,  it didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to, or it was something inconvenient you’d have to do for the rest of your life in order to maintain the results? Frequently, the actions we’re told will help us improve turn out to be the very things we avoid because they’re unpleasant, and in some cases even injurious.

My first experience with learning to racewalk typified this. The drills and techniques I practiced led to a disabling hamstring pull.1  However, my second attempt two years later, using the very same exercises, resulted in great success.  How could this be?

Let’s start by examining the exercise protocols.2  It’s not important that you understand the details, but rather, that you get the gist of what’s being asked for.  What’s most important here is that this could be any exercise protocol.  Something shared by most recipes for fitness or skills is that they describe exercise from the outside looking in.  The instructions tend to come in two flavors:

  1. Move a body part from a starting position to an ending position along a particular trajectory, at a certain speed, maybe moving a weight or pushing/pulling against resistance, perhaps maintaining a specified posture, and possibly holding the end position for a given time. The assumption here is that if you make it from the start position to the end position, you’ve done the exercise properly. Emphasis is placed on the moving part.
  1. “It should look like this.” The assumption here is that if you appear to properly imitate the demonstration, you’re performing the desired activity correctly. Note that the demonstration often consists of an idealized cartoon line drawing.

What all these programs have in common is that they require you to make ever-increasing effort and push through discomfort. But there is actually a much larger problem with these programs, namely, they are based on a flawed idea of why they might be useful in the first place.

They assume that achieving particular exercise goals will actually improve performance of specific activities.3 With some exceptions, this simplistic view begs a fundamental question: is a deficiency truly what it seems, or is it a symptom of something else that actually needs addressing?

To be fair, outside-in programs really do work for some people. However, many others give up without improving much, or lose their gains in the long run, and perhaps end up worse than when they started. I have long been convinced that those who achieve lasting benefit luck into feeling what their bodies have to do in order to maintain useful change. They somehow  figure out how to move differently in ways that feel better than what they’re used to.  Those who aren’t so lucky never actually get the hang of feeling different for very long, and they remain governed by entrenched, uncomfortable, perhaps injurious habits of movement.

Here’s a basic physiological truth: barring disease or injury, muscles are always as strong and long as they need to be for a typical range of activities. They dynamically remodel according to what they’re repeatedly asked to do.

For example, people with chronic knee pain frequently exhibit weak quadriceps muscles (a.k.a. “quads”). The fundamental question here should be, why are the quads weak? The answer is, because they’re habitually underutilized. Why are they underutilized? Because typically, the person has been performing weight-bearing activities with inefficient patterns that under-use muscles and over-stress joints.  Thus, if you improve the movement patterns,

  • The quads will get strong on their own, without any special exercise at all. Better yet, they’ll stay strong without ongoing maintenance exercises.
  • Joint wear and tear will decrease because movement will harmonize with the innate skeletal structure.
  • Pain will likely diminish or disappear because, simply put, if you stop aggravating the part that’s mad at you, it will stop yelling at you.

Here’s another truth: in order to exercise, you have to move. Frequently, people simply cannot perform the movements an exercise demands. So they either avoid the exercise because it’s difficult or uncomfortable, or worse yet, they do something wholly other which looks like the exercise.4 In general, people move almost entirely automatically, using their habitual movement patterns. The requirement to do something new doesn’t necessarily override entrenched patterns. On the contrary, because outside-in programs reinforce existing movement habits through repetition and effort, they actually tend to preclude improving movement.

Obviously, to ensure success with exercise, it makes sense to address the movement infrastructure upon which exercises are built. Ask yourself: in the absence of external measurement (e.g. stopwatch, camcorder, coaching, etc.), how do you know you’re actually accomplishing a specific movement? What determines the inner knowledge that you’re walking, riding a bike, standing, falling, lifting a cup to your lips, drinking, etc? How do you know if you’re moving quickly or slowly, if you’re relaxed or working hard? Is pain or discomfort the only indicator that you may not be doing something well? Do you need your eyes and ears to tell you how you’re moving? (Blind people can walk and run even though they can’t see the scenery go by. Deaf people can speak with vocal expression even though they can’t know what their voices actually sound like.)

Thus, viewed from the inside-out, movement is purely a matter of feeling.  It is more than proprioception5 or body mechanics.6 Rather, it encompasses:

  • Nuanced awareness of how all the moving parts interact with and relate to each other and the environment
  • A sense of comfort, ease, and smoothness (or lack thereof)
  • Recognition of whether or not the intended task is actually being accomplished, and how well.7

Inside-out learning cultivates the sensibility of how things are working.8  Developing a finely graded felt sense of the subtleties involved in any movement leads to enhanced control. With inside-out learning, it is possible to refine and augment the movement infrastructure you gained in childhood. You can actually devise new movement patterns which feel better and are easier to do than the old familiar ones, and accomplish the same things.

By learning about movement through the way it feels, you can accumulate a richly varied repertoire of movement choices that you can apply dynamically. So, learning or performing a particular exercise– or any other functional activity — becomes a matter of selecting the optimal sequence of sensations.  This has a happy side effect of guaranteeing that you don’t injure yourself because when movement feels good, that means you’re moving harmoniously with your structure.

To exemplify these principles, in the next post I’ll examine the racewalking protocols with which we started this discussion. I’ll contrast the difference between interpreting those exercises from the outside-in, which led me to injury and failure, vs. inside-out, which produced immense improvement and success.

Stay tuned…

  1. See first post in this series.
  2. Thanks to Karen Kaye for permission to use her handouts.
  3. For example, if you strengthen your core, your posture will improve, and your low back pain will disappear; if you do wand, elastic band, and stretch exercises after a stroke, you’ll regain use of your paralyzed shoulder; if you practice singing scales regularly, you’ll sing every song that has a scale better. In fact, there are many people with fused vertebrae, post-stroke patients with minimally functional limbs, and frustrated musicians who know this just isn’t true.
  4. For example, it is common to see people in gyms performing biceps curls by arching their back as they jerk the weight upwards.
  5. Defined as the ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium
  6. Which focuses on maintaining certain postures while performing specific tasks (e.g. lifting)
  7. Interestingly, objective (i.e. outside-in) biomechanical measurements tend to validate these sensations.  So, for example, you can know with certainty that you just ran faster than you’ve ever run before without pain, and the stopwatch will tell you exactly how fast.
  8. Of course, outside-in instruction also includes guidance for what to feel. But it is usually simple, generalized, and focused on a point of maximal effort. (e.g. feel the stretch, feel the burn, are you breathing hard, etc.)