Many thanks to Dan Norman of White Room Coaching for this guest blog.
My wife is from Macedonia and it was during my first visit there that I started to notice interesting patterns in some of the people there. I particularly love people watching, especially trying to see and feel how people move and “where” they are in their body.
The focus of this article will be largely about this “where” we are in our body when we are strength training. So, what I noticed was the lifting pattern that many of the Macedonians, typically short, neat people, displayed. The primary source of income for many folk out there is tobacco picking. They start at 3:30 in the morning and it’s a back breaking four hours of low stooping picking, carrying, dragging and sorting until the sun reaches an appreciable temperature. To stop their spines from exploding, these tobacco pickers have learnt “where to be” in there legs. They have adopted a very flat back, perfect hip hinge that uses the hamstrings, glutes and calves , sparing the less sturdy lower back structure. They have learnt this through trial and error, success in continuation and by holding the concept that if they hurt their backs, they are, well, stuffed. No money, less food and a cold miserable winter. So through a process of imitation, mentoring from elders, cultural wisdom, physical technique and an appropriate level of mental and emotional calm and determination, many of them successfully complete a full season of tobacco picking. I became impressed with how many holistic factors contribute to the definition and embodiment of the “skill of strength.”
My second encounter in Macedonia was with a group of Albanian dry wall builders. Now these guys build the most incredible walls with a chisel and a variety of hammers. They are lean, leathery, smoke continuously, don’t seem to require food and drink stuff that also takes axle grease of old tractors. On this occasion they were all gathered around a huge rock and talking, I approached them and attempted communication. They remarked I looked strong and laughing, handed me a sledgehammer and pointed at the rock. “Good!” I thought, they are too weak and I am going to smash this boulder and be an English hero to become legend in their world. No. I wasn’t. After whacking the rock twenty times at full pelt I could no longer close my hands, the muscles had switched off due to the vibrations of the hitting. Of course they all knew that a big lumpy gym trained man would hit the rock as hard as he could. Bugger. One of the men then proceeded to “tap” the rock, listening to the sound, I was told in order to find a fault in the rock. Audibly, a different sound could suddenly be heard and picking up the now sweaty sledgehammer with bits of my skin on it, he raised the hammer up in a narrow stance, one hand low, one hand high, drove down through his hips and slid the top hand down with a relaxed grip. The hammer hit the rock and in a David Blaine-esque moment, the rock split in half. It was one of the most remarkable displays of understanding and technique I have ever seen. I feebly shook hands and walked off, suitably humbled, amazed and now more than ever interested in what exactly it is that we mean by “strength” and how it’s developed, what the key relationships are.
I coach people in my studio and I primarily see my role as one of teaching someone how to organise themselves both physically, mentally and emotionally to produce excellent movement. Developing strength is a skill and a practiced skill creates an environment (internal and external) where the person will ultimately adapt and display change (result). Yet many of the challenges to being stronger and harnessing the activity well enough to create this environment which is largely internal, are not per se, to do with the weights. Here are some of the vital factors in a deeper, more embodied approach to creating and developing strength.
Internal eyes. I call this “seeing inside” and it’s a simple cue for people to learn how to focus attention and therefore create intent. “Imagine you can see inside your hand. Keep your focus there and now see how that feels. Lift the weight whilst keeping contact with this idea.” This is a great way to start someone kinaesthetically getting a relationship with sensation. Once they have sensation, they can then find that sensation and make the contact clearer and stronger. We’ll move onto creating sensation in and around all of the joints and ultimately you’ll see that someone who can do this can “control their body very well.” They are inside their body as it were, rather than it being solely a mental construct.
Energy types. By this I mean “sharp” “choppy” “expanding” “penetrating” “flowing.” Once someone has learned to create and move sensation with attention and intent we can use metaphor to create an energy or style to their movement. When my female clients are performing chopping, rotation like movements, I’ll say, “be Uma Thurman off Kill Bill!” and they’ll instantly adopt a samurai, kick ass, female warrior type energy. “Now complete it!” Here, we are building the metaphoric landscape for physical referencing. Next time they approach that activity they’ll reverse the learning process. Be Uma, feel the energy, let the energy create the stance and the intent, then complete!!! Asking how that felt they always say “strong!” and I’ll say “you looked strong!” ergo, they are strong and we have created a landscape for strong to exist in their world that we can return to, build upon and feel into.
The ground. The floor. Many folk are unaware of their relationship with the floor, how they can send force down into the ground and have it returned to them, even in a simple dumbbell curl. This is the single most important aspect I focus on. Actually pushing into the earth is not as common as you might think. The next time you lift anything, literally press your foot into the ground and see how that changes your lift. You don’t need to do this much in fact it becomes a suggestion once you get it. I teach people to sink, ground, connect, organise bones in different positions relative to each other, use internal eyes to a key area to “drive” the movement from and feel this relationship with the ground. Once this is developed, balance, timing, appropriate tension/relaxation skills go through the roof and people start getting “ninja” skills as I put it. Your hand doesn’t lift the weight, a kinetic pulse of energy sent down into the earth that returns to your hand via a well organised and aware position moves your hand. Try standing on a scale and doing a quick bicep curl. You become heavier, then lighter as the pulse travels down then up. Your bicep just tugs at the right moment (timing).
These are some examples of how, where and when we can focus our attention, our concentration, how we can shape our intent to move when we train to produce strong, graceful, powerful and clean movement. Weights give us a chance to build a relationship with the earth, the ground, our breath, our animation and our physicality, with tension and relaxation cycles. The metaphor and frames we allow into our training shape our movement, our energy, our look and we become unique in our expression of strength. That’s what strength is, an expression of movement, of force, of intent. When I stand in front of a loaded squat bar I pause, I feel the floor, I focus on the bar and draw inside, feeling my whole body, feeling the ground, my skeleton, letting my adrenalin build as I clear my mind and allow only what I need. I am a warrior on a hill, unmoving in high winds, unphased by elements, I am alive, present and totally committed to the task ahead. It’s my internal metaphoric representation that imparts meaning. Meaning drives values and right now this becomes important, I “bring myself to the task.” This exercise in particular works with this energy for me it might be different for you. What do you want to express?
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