Feeling Strength and Unity in the Body
It can be difficult for a person to figure out how much load to put through their body and when to stop. This is maybe why hard exercise has a reputation for being brutal and silly phrases like “No pain, No gain” have emerged.
Learning to feel the sense of integrity, strength and complete body unity solves both the problem of knowing how much to do, and knowing when you’re done.
First, if you can do the exercise while maintaining the feeling of integrity and unity, then you’re doing it right. That’s the right version for you.
Then, once you can no longer maintain that feeling of solidity, when it feels like your body is starting to turn into a collection of uncoordinated parts, then you know that you’ve done as much as you can do and it’s time to stop for now.
That’s failure, it’s simple, straightforward, and really not so bad.
It’s actually not brutal at all, it’s completely loving. Failure is about loving kindness. The kindness comes in because you have allowed yourself to see clearly where your edge is, and you’ve allowed yourself to accept it. To try something and allow yourself to clearly see and acknowledge when you’ve done as much as you can do and then to rest, is an act of self love.
Self love is good to practice on a regular basis, and exercise helps us practice it.
So, let’s see if we can find that feeling of strength and unity, shall we?
We’ll use Plank position, because it’s physically challenging enough to create a lot of noticeable sensation, and straightforward enough to not have too many details to focus on at one time.
I’ll describe the basic position, but that might not be the right starting place for you. If the position I describe doesn’t work for you, it means we have to change the position until you can feel solid and strong when you start.
Start with your hands and knees on the floor, shoulders over hands, hips over knees. Palms should be flat on the floor. If this is a stretch for your wrists then hang out in this position for a minute or two to let them get used to the stretch before you put any more weight on them.
Push your hands into the floor and straighten your elbows. Roll your “elbow pits” (that’s actually called the antecubital fossa) in the direction the top of your head is pointing. Feel your shoulder blades move more firmly onto your back when you do this.
Straighten your legs and place the bottoms of your toes on the ground. You might step back slightly as you do this so that your arms stay vertical.
Keep your hips straight so that they neither drop down nor lift up. If it feels too challenging to have them perfectly straight it’s okay to lift your hips a little bit toward the ceiling, but do the minimum amount possible.
Again press your palms into the ground and, at the same time, press your toes into the ground. See if you can feel the solid shape of your body between those two points.
This is the basic plank position.
If you’re in this position you might notice a few common areas of physical weakness. Areas in your body that feel like they can’t take this amount of load, or that are giving you an “uh-oh” sort of feeling. Those would be:
The wrists: With this physical deficit you can still practice plank position while you do other work to correct the deficit. You would modify the position by bending your elbows and placing your forearms in contact with the ground either with your palms downward or pressed together.
The knees: This position can highlight knee instability. The position itself is strengthening, so if what you’re feeling in your knee(s) is tolerable you can just be aware of it, but keep doing plank. If it’s not tolerable then you’ll want to look into doing more specific knee rehab which I won’t cover here. You can continue practicing plank by placing your knees on the ground but keeping a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. You’ll probably want a cushion under your knees.
The spine: You might notice a disturbance in your low back or thoracic spine. This means that the work isn’t traveling through your abdominals or that your abdominals are too weak right now for this more challenging position. Try engaging your abdominals more until you no longer feel that feeling in your back. You can also try decreasing the load by dropping down to your knees, or you can lift your bottom toward the ceiling a little more so that the abdominal muscles don’t have to work quite as hard.
A great variation if you’re feeling too much disturbance in either your knees or spine is to not do plank on the ground, but rather to place your palms against the cushioned edge of a piece of furniture. Try something about 24 inches high and see how that suits you. If it still isn’t working try something at countertop height.
The neck: Again, see if what you feel is tolerable and decreases with repetition. An isometric contraction to the muscles on the back of your neck is more likely to be helpful, so long as it isn’t more load than your body can tolerate right now.
Now that you’re in your starting position let’s work on accessing strength, unity and the sense that your body is one perfectly controlled and coordinated whole.
You might get tired. Take a break when that happens.
With your hands, press yourself away from the floor. This will cause your ribcage to move slightly toward the ceiling and you might have a sense that your arms and torso are now forming an inverted U. Don’t let your shoulder slide up to your ears when you do this. Continue to rotate the elbow pits toward the head.
Next tighten the tummy muscles a bit, just so that there’s a sense of engagement. Experiment with lifting your pelvis toward the ceiling and dropping it toward the floor, until you find the perfect place where the abdominal muscles are engaged and pulled closer to your spine and your spine feels supported by the abdominal muscles. It’s a sense that the abdominal engagement is connecting the lower body to the shoulders, rather than feeling like the spine is taking the load of connecting the upper and lower body.
Tense the legs a little, like you’re gripping your own thigh bones with your thigh muscles. Then push the bottoms of your toes into the floor. You want to feel that there is a solid line from your pelvis to your toes.
Now press your hands into the floor while pressing your toes into the floor and maintaining engagement with the abdominals. See if you can feel how pressing your hands into the floor helps you press your legs into the floor.
See how pressing both your hands and legs into the floor helps tone the abdominals and teach them how to carry the load through the middle of your body.
Next, while maintaining all this beautiful integrity you can flex all your toes so that you rock your body headward a little. Then press your hands into the floor to rock your body back toward your feet. See if you can feel how your body is acting as one strong, solid whole as you shift it forward and back by pressing with your toes and hands. If you don’t feel it, check to see if your arms are making the U shape, your legs are engaged and your abdominals are connecting your upper and lower body. If your butt is clenched, unclench it. Let everything that isn’t doing work relax.
I’m hoping that you’ll get what I’m talking about, but it might take a few practice sessions. Or you might feel like you’ve got it, but then as you practice multiple times you might find that you shift from getting it, to really getting it.
Knowing this feeling will also tell you when it’s time to stop doing an exercise.
To illustrate that, just go back to your plank pose and hold the position until your body shifts from feeling solid and strong to feeling like a collection of parts. You’ll probably notice this in your back first as your abdominal muscles tire out and the load shifts onto your spine. Or you might notice it in one of your knees. It’s a bit individual.
The idea is to fatigue yourself efficiently. An ideal amount of time to reach fatigue with this static hold would be about 30 to 45 seconds.
Now that you know what strength and unity feels like in the body you can also recognize when you’re not feeling it. You can use this feeling to correct any exercise until you reach the feeling of your body being one solid, strong, coordinated piece.