Stuck? Try Doing It Right

Are you stuck on auto-pilot? Sometimes breaking through a plateau is as simple as re-committing to doing it right.

My greatest strength, a desire to learn and experience everything, can also be my greatest weakness. I profess the wisdom of essentialism while prioritizing ten things at once. If nothing else, I am constantly humbled by the limits of my time and energy.

My greatest strength, a desire to learn and experience everything, can also be my greatest weakness. I profess the wisdom of essentialism while prioritizing ten things at once. If nothing else, I am constantly humbled by the limits of my time and energy.

My latest revelation came from a lifelong quest to improve my movement quality, specifically my over-extended lower back compensation that the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) calls a “posterior extension chain archetype.” I finally saw a PRI specialist after years of back pain and mobility restrictions. My prescribed exercises yielded amazingly rapid progress.

Eventually, life interrupted as my wife and I decided to adopt a child. We deemed PRI appointments a luxury that we could no longer afford. After all, better movement and exercise is part of my job. PRI gave me a large library of corrective exercises with thorough explanation of the system’s guiding principles. I was in the driver’s seat with the keys to success, I just needed to drive the car.

After steady improvement, my focus drifted to other goals. Only two PRI exercises remained in my daily program, both on auto-pilot. Progress halted for three months until I finally decided to revisit PRI’s foundational principles.

When Autopilot Drifts Off Course

Re-reading the literature exposed a common theme in my life. These exercises had become ineffective, and the reason the progress ceased was simple. I had been doing them wrong. I was coasting through the motions, ignoring the breathing patterns and specific muscle activation sequences that the entire system is built upon. I was pretending to do the work, even convincing myself I had done it. By prioritizing the principles, I quickly saw progress return.

Sadly, I know this story well. I have spent weeks convinced that I am meditating until the truth dawns on me. I have just been laying and thinking. I have been planning articles, daydreaming about past conversations, and worrying about CEU’s not due for three years.

I see the same trend in my athletes’ training. Many kids eliminate the negative and isometric phases of both push ups and pull ups. Correction and a few weeks of focused attention invariably bring massive improvement.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with high school boys and the bench press. They understand tempo, percentages, and movement cues in every other exercise. With the bench press, they would rather kick their feet, bounce the bar off their chest, and squirm wildly, while their partner cheers them on.

Doing It Right

We become less effective and intentional as we stray further from a plan and its original principles. To continually progress, we need to combat this tendency. I recommend these concepts to plan any goal, especially when you feel stuck.

First Principles

When beginning, make a thorough investigation into the first principles—the foundational building blocks we use to construct beliefs and methods. We can easily lose sight of what made a system work. My lower back exercises turned ineffective when I forgot that PRI approaches mobility on the neurological level. Breath is essential to this approach, and I was breathing as an afterthought. Returning to these first principles brought back steady progress.

Beginner’s Mind

Approach challenges with what the Zen Buddhists call the “beginner’s mind.” Teaching a group of five-year-olds to play soccer is effortless; they are little sponges. They listen, have no ego, and work like mad scientists trying to crack the code. When first exposed to a new skill or subject, our minds are open. As we gain experience, we narrow our vision and believe our own method represents the best path. Focus on the task, without allowing your ego to demand being proven right. Beginners learn best.

Set Your Intention

With repetition, we can fall into mindless action. Approach each task without expectation, but set your intention for each action. On the micro-level, focus on small details, such as pressing big toes, pinky toes, and heels down as you drive from the bottom of a squat. For the macro-level, I give athletes the acronym “#FFTA” to set intention for each lift. I outline their performance cues by:

  • Numbers (#): Weights, percentages, etc.
  • Form: Specific exercise cues
  • Flow: Are the exercises paired? Does the order matter?
  • Tempo: The expected negative, isometric, and concentric speed for each phase
  • Attitude: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Consistent enthusiasm creates strong habits and purpose.

We must purposefully maintain vigilance, knowing that we can drift toward comfort and autopilot. We all experience failure and feel humbled by our insights. When we understand this cycle and how to break it, we stay on the path to exploring solutions and prevent ourselves from succumbing to a victim mentality. With a positive mindset, we can solve nearly every problem.