When we train, we don’t often think about what we are experiencing. We simply grab the bar and go, assuming that all parts are contributing the way they are supposed to, and not caring what we feel or what supports us. The lack of internal awareness moves us further away from a meaningful connection with how our body works. Sometimes, it results in the development of specific movement habits and/or the sense our structure isn’t fully supporting us as we move outside of the gym.
Internal sensing is more than just what happens in our muscles. Interoception, a fancy word that means sensing the physiological state of the body, helps us understand when we are feeling fatigued, if our heart rate is elevated unnecessarily, and how we are breathing.1 It is a term that links our physical selves to our emotional selves, since what we are experience at a physiological level is influenced by what happens on an emotional level.
I was in a fairly serious car accident 2 1/2 years ago. As I dialed 911 to report the accident (after I pulled my car over to the side of the freeway), I couldn’t help but notice my breathing was quick and shallow and my heart rate was elevated. My body was responding not to interval training, but to the fear caused by the spinning car that hit me. My emotion had a direct impact on my physiology; my awareness of my physiology enabled me to focus on breathing slower and more deeply. Awareness gave me the opportunity to tap into what I could control in that moment.
Increasing awareness both of how it feels when the muscles are supporting our structure and tapping into our physiological markers, such as breath and heart rate, can improve our workouts and our general sense of self during everyday life.
How Muscles Work
Muscles have specialized cells embedded in the muscles called proprioceptors that send information to the brain about all things movement related, including position in space and force production or muscular contraction.2 Muscles allow joints to move by working together with other muscles.
Many muscles are always working a little bit to keep us upright. When someone says, “my glutes don’t fire,” or “my physical therapist told me my TrA isn’t working,” this isn’t entirely accurate. If your glutes weren’t working and your transverse abdominis wasn’t firing, you wouldn’t be standing. Muscles support the skeletal structure to keep us upright, but also generate force to enable dynamic, athletic movement. The force created by the muscles allows load to be transmitted from one joint to another in an efficient way.3
- Let your arms hang by your side. Imagine someone is taking hold of your right hand, pulling the hand down a little bit.
- Imagine that same person is reaching your arm forward, gently guiding it up overhead and then slowly lowering it back down to its starting position. How does that feel?
- Next, imagine there someone is pushing your arm down. As you raise your arm up, you are resisting the person that is pushing your arm down, and then you try to overcome him. How does that feel?
In which situation does your arm feel lighter? Hopefully, the one where the person is lifting your arm for you. In the second scenario, you are increasing internal force to overcome the imaginary person. Simply by changing your perspective of what was happening to your arm, you changed what you experienced.
When I reach my arm overhead to grab a towel off the top shelf, which strategy is more effective? What about if I am pushing a kettlebell overhead?
The amount of internal force we create with our muscles should adequately meet the demands of the task. The ability to feel both what it’s like when our body feels light and what it’s like when our body feels tense or engaged enables us to better channel the right response at the right time.
We all have movement habits. These habits are created by our natural tendencies, by what we’ve been taught, and what feels easiest to us most of the time. It’s the way our body and brain have decided is the most efficient way to perform a task.
Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about movement have created a diverse portfolio of responses. While we have default patterns when we are tired, our movements are often varied. We consciously don’t sit down in the chair the same way because we have lots of ways to sit. We feel when we are arching our back to lift our arms or gripping our hands when we are trying to balance because we have devoted a chunk of our lives to deliberately practicing the skill of movement.
The rest of us don’t give our movement a whole lot of thought. We go through the day, performing our chores, getting up and down from chairs, and getting done what needs to be done using the motor patterns that are most efficient. These patterns are often learned from the people we imitate, like teachers, coaches, or parents. Sometimes, they are a default setting we picked up along the way. Just because the pattern exists doesn’t always mean it’s useful. In fact, often times our movement patterns inhibit us from fully experiencing work in other parts of our bodies.
You can’t change what you can’t feel, and often our habits become so entrenched over time that unless someone that isn’t your spouse or parent points it out to you, it will be difficult to begin exploring other ways of moving and physically responding to various tasks. Once you are aware of your tendency, it will be glaring. You will notice the frequency with which you engage in a specific way of moving or holding yourself.
How to Integrate Awareness
There are a few easy ways to integrate awareness into your movement practice. Let’s start with understanding tension.
Say you carry a lot of tension in your hands. What I mean by this that is you unnecessarily grip your hands throughout the day and habitually tighten your fingers when you are doing things that are challenging for you or that require a lot of concentration, like balancing. Consciously contracting the hands will send information up to brain about what that sensation feels like.
- Notice your hands. Let them rest by your side. Observe the sense of your fingers and how your hands are resting.
- Make really strong fists with your hands. I mean, really strong, so strong that you start shaking. Hold that for a breath.
- Open your fingers and imagine you are spewing energy from your fingertips. This should feel like work. Hold here for a breath.
- Go back and forth between making a fist and opening your hands for three rounds.
- Rest your hands by your sides again. Sense your hands and your fingers. Are you holding your hands in a more relaxed manner? Do your fingers feel different?
The tricky part about learning to create tension in a specific area is that it requires an understanding about how the body part works. Sometimes it is necessary to do a little bit of isolated joint mobility work at low tension so you can have a strong connection with the area you want to focus on before generating a strong muscular contraction.
You can also use external load, like weights, to create muscular tension. In the example of the hands, picking up heavy kettlebells and engaging your fingers around the handles will create a strong contraction. Make sure you actually feel the muscles of your hands working to overcome the load so then you can feel the contrast of what you experience in your hands when you are resting.
Another way to do this with load is to use a lighter weight and slow things down significantly. If you’ve spent time in the gym, you understand intuitively that moving slowly through an exercise is harder. If you don’t believe me, perform 20 quick, push ups. Then, after a short rest of 1-2 minutes, perform another round of push ups. Except this time, lower down for a low count of six and press up for a slow count of six. During which scenario do you feel more work? Slow, controlled exercise can be a powerful tool for increasing your ability to sense what’s happening in a muscle.
The opposite of feeling contraction is feeling ease. Our tendency, in general, is to want to effort through things, so this can be a little bit trickier. A simple technique to create a sense of ease is to breathe into the area you want to relax. Let’s imagine you want your upper traps to relax.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Observe the sense of your body against the floor. Which parts of you rest against the floor? Which parts pull away from the floor? Are there any body parts that demand your attention?
- Inhale through your nose, directing your attention and breath towards your upper traps. Exhale slowly through your mouth and feel your shoulder blades sink into the floor. Let your exhale be twice as long as your inhale (I commonly teach inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of eight). Breathe here for four breaths.
- After you have focused your attention and breath on your upper traps, shift your awareness to your ribs. Notice how they expand with your inhale and contract in on the exhale. Keep the same breathing pattern, and inhale for a count of four through the nose. Then exhale for a count of eight from your mouth. With each exhale, feel your ribs sink closer to the floor. Breathe here for four breaths.
- Finally, change your focus to your head. Feel the weight of your head on the floor as you inhale. As you exhale, imagine your jaw is relaxing and your head is sinking into the ground. Breathe here for four breaths.
Once you are finished, observe how you feel. Is your sense of which areas press into the floor (and which don’t) different than it was when you first laid down?
A big part of understanding what your body is experiencing involves taking the time to check in with yourself and by noticing when things feel different. By using body scans and simple breathing, you can enhance your awareness.
By connecting to what you sense and how you feel during and after your physical activity, you can learn how to self-regulate and encourage a mind-body connection. This awareness will seep into your everyday life as you become more aware of what you are feeling—both physically and emotionally. Awareness gives you the ability to choose between continuing to move in the same way or to try something different. And choice is powerful.
1. Ceunen, E., Vlaeyen, J.W.S., & Van Diest, I., (2016). “On the origin of interoception“, Frontiers in Psychology, 2016.
2. Dover, G., & Powers, M.E., (2003). “Reliability of joint position sense and force-reproduction during internal and external rotation of the shoulder“, Journal of Athletic Training, 38(4), 304-310.
3. Abernathy, B., Hanrahan, S., & Kippers, V., Pandy, M., McManus, A., & Mackinnon, L., (2013). Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, 3rd Edition. Human Kinetics.