Many years ago I read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and it completely changed the way I look at my daily interactions. The main point of the book is to give readers four agreements that they make with themselves to improve relationships with oneself and with others. If you have not read this book, I strongly recommend it! Recently I have been thinking about how movement is so critical to a person’s overall quality of life. An inability to move well leads to moving less. Moving less leads to less of an ability to move well. It becomes a vicious cycle that results in a person who can’t even get from the sofa to the restroom under their own strength. The ability to move, and move well, is what allows people to have a life worth living as they age. We marvel at people in their 90s who are physically active. They didn’t just become physically active at 90 — they never stopped being active! They were able to keep moving because they had fewer injuries and diseases than their peers. They had fewer injuries because they moved with intention.
I combined these thoughts with inspiration from Don Miguel Ruiz to create similar agreements that could be made in terms of one’s movement. The next few posts will go over my version of the Four Agreements for movement.
The First Agreement of Movement: Be impeccable with your movement.
The more you practice a movement, the more opportunities you have to make it better. However, just practicing the movement doesn’t create improvement – conscious movement does. Focus on the intention of the movement: what are you hoping to gain by moving that way? To illustrate my point, let’s think about the very simple movement of the bicep curl. The intention of performing the curl is to make the biceps muscle contract, causing the elbow to bend. Many people go through this movement of bending their elbow without ever really feeling their biceps muscle contract. People often bend the elbow first and squeeze later, if ever. To make sure the correct muscle gets worked, start the movement there. You might be thinking, “Well, of course it the movement starts there.” Not so fast, friend. To understand how my way is different, start by doing a bicep curl right now. You don’t need weights to see what I mean. Just move your hand toward your shoulder by bending at your elbow and feel how much your bicep works. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now, start with your arm straight again, this time, however, start the movement at your bicep. What I mean is, squeeze your bicep first and let that contraction cause your elbow to bend. Feel the difference? Good. This type of connection between your brain and your muscles is what should be happening with your movements. The weight will move as long as the appropriate level of strength is applied to the muscle. So, think less about moving the weight and think more about contracting the right muscles.
This can be applied easily to isolation movements, like the bicep curl above, where one joint is moving in order to lift the weight. Compound movements are a bit more complicated. Compound movements, as you may have guessed, create movement among two or more joints. Squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, and presses are some examples of compound movements. For these movements, I recommend starting with zero weight and moving very slowly; take 10 seconds to perform one rep. As you move through the rep, think about what muscles you are feeling at each stage. Then do another rep and consciously squeeze those muscles groups harder. Continue this thinking-and-squeezing action as you add weight and move at a normal speed. When you focus on one muscle group, no need to worry about the others slacking off! They will continue to do their job and may even perform better while you are focusing on one group.
The point of this kind of practice is to strengthen the connection between your brain and your muscles. The ability to consciously contract specific muscles means you can recruit more muscle fibers to move a load. When you recruit more muscle fibers, you can lift a heavier load with better mechanics. Of course, as the weight gets closer to your one-rep max, you will be less able to control the contractions. One study suggests that threshold happens between 60-80% of your max.1 Make the most of your lighter weight reps and be sure you are being impeccable with your movement so that your body will already know what to do when the load gets heavy.
As you practice the connection, it becomes easier to replicate and requires less brain power. Along with that connection, your range of motion is important to moving impeccably. Let’s go back to the bicep curl, since it is an easy movement to discuss. The full range of motion of a healthy bicep starts from a fully straightened arm, and ends with the elbow completely closed, with the forearm pressed against the bicep. There is a time and a place and a purpose for doing shortened reps, but if you aren’t doing curls at that time, in that place, or for that purpose, then you should focus on using a full range of motion. Consistently using a shortened ROM will result in loss of strength across the ROM that isn’t being used. Loss of strength in parts of a muscle group results in a loss of mobility not only in that specific muscle, but a loss of mobility and strength across any movement that involves that muscle group! Biceps, for example, are important in back movements like pullups, pull downs, and rows. A person who doesn’t use their entire bicep in curls, will also have difficulty doing any of those other movements with a full ROM.
Take notice of these things and you will probably notice that you become more conscious about how you move in your daily life. As I always say, “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.”
To get some more guidance on how to increase your mind-muscle connection in specific movements, check out this article: “Developing a Mind Muscle Connection for Muscle Hypertrophy”.
- Eur J Appl Physiol.2016 Mar;116(3):527-33. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7. Epub 2015 Dec 23.