Life: a balancing act

If you’ve followed this blog for a little while, I’m sure it’s become evident that I am still struggling to process certain ideas. Sometimes I feel like I dabble in one too many things.

When I go to hardcore or punk shows, I sometimes feel like I am the only one who can locate my quads or knows what a macronutrient is (and I don’t say that in a judgemental way). When I’m at the gym, I feel like I’d have to explain what hardcore and punk are as music genres.

My piano teacher once cried out in dismay when I mentioned that I had been to the gym, explaining that I would tighten up my wrists and shoulders at the expense of my ability to transmit emotion through my fingertips – meanwhile, in jiu jitsu training, I feel like being the only one with fully functioning, untaped fingers is a sign that I’m not trying hard enough.

I watch – and enjoy – MMA but I vigorously dislike the culture of the sport.

I go out of my way to purchase ethical products from ethical companies, then I order discounted synthetic sports clothes from big brands.

I miss dancing and feeling graceful, but in BJJ I wish I could be less precious and more aggressive; I want to get bigger and leaner and faster and stronger and become a better runner and a better martial artist; I want to go back to spending hours in the gym every day and looking to sweat for salvation, but I also want to take back more of my life for friends and family and my own soul.

You know what they say about jacks of all trades.

It shouldn’t be an issue to enjoy a little bit of everything – some might say it makes you a rounded individual – but as a perfectionist, I find it hard to not throw myself into everything I am passionate about with absolute abandon. Gym sessions get cut short to get to a show, social events get left early to get to the gym, piano practice gets left behind in favour of sport, and gym sessions get squeezed out to make the most of a creative writing burst.

I need to learn that it’s OK to enjoy life as a whole. Unfortunately, I think I live in a world – the fitness world – which is governed by the dictatorial “all-or-nothing” approach.

For most of us, life is not our weightlifting PBs, marathon time, or body fat levels, but the emphasis on all the above leaves many feeling “what’s the point” with regards to fitness – but that’s not to say that fitness and strength don’t play a vital part in our lives.

So for those of you who really hate the gym, hate sweating, don’t particularly enjoy pain and don’t know your bicep from your tricep, yet are being bombarded with ever-increasing minimum exercise recommendations and warnings about sedentary lifestyles, what motivation is there to perform repetitive and seemingly arbitrary movements, lined up in front of a mirror alongside people with whom you can’t imagine having anything in common?

Some obvious real-life benefits to being fit include being able to run faster for buses and trains that otherwise would have been missed, being able to walk further for longer, getting your breath back quick enough to be able to greet colleagues when your office is at the top of four flights of stairs (personal experience), and finding heavy shopping bags less torturous.

Slightly less obvious, especially for younger and/or more able-bodied individuals, is the ability to remain on two feet after slipping or stumbling on wet or uneven ground, to carry multiple loads whilst climbing stairs, and doubtless many other functions.

Even less attention is paid to the importance of proprioception, or the ability to “feel” your body and know where it is and what it is doing – get better at that and reduce incidences of bumping into foreign objects or creating muscular imbalances by, say, letting your shoulders creep up to your ears when straining to read something on a computer screen.

Superman

Superman – harder than it looks!

Most people by now know the necessity of training there core, but few people do it right. Planks are great, but how often will you need to tense your whole core during every day life, especially without actually moving your trunk? Far more applicable are one-legged exercises, wobble board or Bosu-based exercises, TRX suspension training, and resistance band work. I performed planks every day for a few months and saw no real benefit, yet just days after incorporating more of the below exercises I felt so much stronger and more powerful.

Single-legged exercises: I’d venture a guess that we spend at least as much time on one leg than we do on two. Indeed, whenever you’re walking you’re constantly on one leg – then think about how often you’re carrying something, or dodging other people. It makes sense to teach the body how to load one leg more efficiently; single leg squats and single-leg deadlifts are great, just ensure you’re not shifting all your weight over one leg by angling your hips.

Single leg squat

Bottom of a single-leg squat: notice torso is upright, hips are level, and knee is pointing forward

Single-leg squat

Moving into a single-leg squat

Wobble-board or Bosu exercises: Often reserved for rehabilitation purposes, spending a few minutes standing on a Bosu or wobble board can offer a whole new stimulus to strong and uninjured individuals too. Start just trying to stand on it without falling off for a whole minute – having a slight bend in your knees is essential – and watch your posture and awareness of your ankles and feet increase. Exercises like squats and eventually even single-leg squats can be performed, offering a new perspective on effective positioning and centre of gravity.

TRX suspension training: Another way to stimulate your core whilst allowing a greater range of movements – the range of exercises you can perform on a Bosu or on one leg are slightly restricted, and once you learn how to combat the instability you’re not going to feel any more challenged. The TRX allows you to perform upper-body work and greater levels of instability, as the straps can swing in a much greater diameter than a Bosu or wobble board (or your own leg) can rock. Try performing press-ups with your feet in the TRX handles, or for more of a direct ab and core challenge learn to perform a strong and stable pike. See this post for some more TRX talk.

TRX pike

TRX pikes – one of the few exercises worthy of being performed on holiday (and yes, that is a bathmat… and a tiny dog)

Resistance band work: This is my new favourite. You can perform a wealth of movements for virtually any body part, but because the resistance gets stronger the more you pull, and the band constantly wants to snap back, you have to keep your entire core engaged the whole time. It also allows you to perform faster and more explosive movements, which will really get your heart rate up as well as sapping all the strength from your muscles while you’re performing your set.

Sure, these exercises might not make your muscles burn or make you pour with sweat – they won’t burn much fat or build much muscle – but I guarantee that when performed correctly they will teach your body to function as a unit. For me, they have been the key to reminding me what a broad field fitness is, and how vital and helpful it can be to everyday quality of life.

If you know you need to get fit but hate everything you have come to associate with going to the gym, these might be the answer: rather than aching so much you can’t function for the rest of the day, your body will feel so much more switched on, you will feel so much more in control.

That’s empowering, and isn’t that what sport and fitness should be?

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