Making the Impossible Possible: Understanding Exercise Progression
I was in a low plank position, my body straight, my hands and toes touching the floor and my sternum hovering an inch or two over the floor. I wanted to straighten my arms and push myself back up, but there was just nothing there to push with. I tried it and my body got part way and buckled. It felt impossible.
That was last August.
What I want to talk about today, is how you go about making the impossible possible…and then easy. So easy that you can’t imagine that there was a time when it was impossible.
The first principle of making the impossible possible, is that it takes work.
What do I mean by work?
I know that there are some strong associations with work and feelings of unhappiness, or unpleasant duty. It can also mean one’s career or job, which involves a lot of different things like navigating relationships and feeling appreciated.
What I mean by work is purely the effort of transferring energy from one form to another…in the physics sense of the word.
“Work transfers energy from one place to another, or one form to another.”
Imagine…we have the ability to transfer energy from one form or place to a different one! We’re so friggin’ powerful!
As beings with bodies we can experience work as the sense of effort used to accomplish a task. It naturally leads to fatigue, which then leads us to enjoying the state of Rest.
I have a notion that there are basic states of being.
Inspiration → Work → Rest → (Transformation) → Connection → Inspiration
Work is not bad or good. It is an essential, and satisfying, life experience.
There are factors that affect how much work it takes to transfer energy and thus to make the impossible possible, but whether it’s a little work or a lot of work, we have to accept that we’ll have to show up and do the work. There is no way around that.
The second principle is that it takes a willingness to acknowledge our own power.
We can passively accept what time and circumstance hand us, or we can decide we’re going to steer our own course. It helps to have some gentleness for the courage that this takes.
It is an act of courage to deliberately make ourselves more powerful.
And it is scary to face change. Changing our bodies and what our bodies are capable of is stepping into the unknown.
If we struggle with this it’s best to solve it with love and self-hugs, rather than unkind pushing and name calling.
The third principle is that it takes drive.
When we find that something is going to cost us work, it makes sense to evaluate whether the effort is worth the reward. In some cases we’ll decide it’s not, and choose to put our effort elsewhere. But in other cases, although we might have doubts that the reward is attainable, the prospect of achieving it is so tantalizing that it can draw us onward, through the times when the work is hard.
Finding the meaning we attach to a goal is an individual process. You may want to go mountain climbing, or ride horses…I might want to climb trees. That which most fills our heart could be quite different. But being connected to the larger meaning behind our action can give us the drive to show up for hard work.
When I started my own process of making the impossible possible I had to find a way to show up for the work. That took strategy as well as drive. I had to make it convenient to show up by clearing out some space, and I had to manage my time.
Then I had to think about the larger goal that held real meaning for me, which is not weight loss, physique or general healthiness. There are things I want to be able to do.
This goal is so compelling that on days when I don’t feel like it, I can still get myself to put my shoes on (or take them off), walk into my exercise space and make the first few motions of warming up.
But principle two took some special care. I took on a willingness to change who I knew myself to be, and what I knew myself to be capable of. I was afraid, but as I committed to changing my capability I also opened to changing my identity. Who is “the kind of person who”…can run a marathon? Or climb a rope? Or do a back handspring? Is it you? Is it me?
Today I can lower and raise my body in a push up (several times!) with such perfect form that it might look effortless to the observer.
There are more effective and less effective ways to show up to do the work.
I didn’t achieve a full, solid push up by making myself try the full push up every day, hoping that one of these days it would work. That would have been brutal, unproductive, and probably injurious.
But, for some reason I keep hearing from people that are using that strategy to attempt to achieve a new physical ability.
It’s useful to try to attempt the end goal as an assessment of what you can do. That way you’ll see how your efforts have made a difference, and that’s very rewarding and motivating.
However, in order to actually achieve that goal you’ll need to dial in on the right starting point for you and then doggedly show up to do the work. This is really hard to do in the beginning when you’re just relying on blind faith that your effort is (hopefully) going to pay off.
The good news is that it’s only an act of faith until you see your first bit of measurable progress. Once you see proof that your work mattered, it will start to give you some of the motivation to show up for more work, so you can see more evidence of progress.
Finding the Right Starting Point
The two signs that you’ve found the right starting point are:
- That it feels like work. It might start out feeling pretty easy, but if it’s work you’ll feel fatigue quickly.
- That it’s possible for you to do some small amount of that exercise completely and solidly before becoming too fatigued to continue.
Two signs that you haven’t found the right starting point are:
- It doesn’t feel like work after you’ve done 10 repetitions or 1 minute of the exercise.
- It feels too difficult to do even a couple of repetitions or hold a position for 15 seconds. It either just feels impossible, or your body feels uncoordinated and like you might hurt yourself.
For example, the right starting point for developing the pushing strength to push your body weight directly against the pull of gravity, might be for you to start in an inclined position, doing a push up against a counter top instead of against the floor. That way you’re not pushing directly against gravity.
Or you could start by decreasing the amount of weight you have to push, by touching your knees to the ground.
Or you might spend some time developing the abdominal strength first by spending time in the plank position (that’s the upper push up position, but without trying to lower or raise yourself).
The trouble that I’ve been noticing people have with finding the right starting point, it that they tend to focus on whether or not they can make a gross (large) motion, for instance touching their toes, or bringing their knee to their chest…or whether they can get up and down in a push up. This relies on external, visual cues, “Did my body go up and down? How far are my hands from my toes?” to tell us whether or not we’ve been successful.
What I would encourage instead is using our internal sensations to tell us whether we are successful. For instance, getting back to the push up, do you feel the work in your triceps (back of your arms) and pecs (front of your chest)? Does the rest of your body feel strong and solid, or does it feel like a collection of uncoordinated parts? Many of the details can’t be seen clearly from the outside, but they can all be felt from the inside.
Focusing on the external, visual cues, rather than the internal sensations can cause us to perform an exercise without driving the work into the area that we’re targeting. Which means that when we attempt to progress to the next level of challenge it ends up being too hard. Then we get confused about how it is that we can manage to do one thing with ease, but the next step still feels impossible.
Once you find the right starting point on your path, it’s just a matter of going from one stepping stone to the next. You might need some help figuring out how to line up a few stepping stones. I or another fitness professional can help you get that figured out. But the core idea is that you take a step by changing one part of the exercise. For example, how long you can hold it, how much weight you use, how far you can go, how slowly or quickly you can perform the motion, how many different parts there are to the motion (just the arms, or the arms and the legs).
You step from one stone to the next each time you start to feel solid with the stone you’re on. Where you’re at doesn’t need to be easy to move to the next step. In fact, you’ll progress faster if you don’t wait for it to be easy, but you want it to feel solid and doable, and still work.
As you show up and move yourself down this path, one step at a time, you will quite literally make the impossible possible.