training for life
As a certified personal trainer who has a day job outside of the wellness industry, I get a lot of people asking me for training advice. Their goals are exactly the same as my clients’ goals (believe it or not, people tend to have the same health goals whether they access the traditional industry or not): to lose weight, to get stronger, to gain muscle, to improve their cardio-vascular fitness, to improve their balance. When we start to ask deeper questions about the root of these goals, the answer is almost always the same: we want to feel better in our own skin while moving through our daily life.
I call this “training for life”. Whether we want to lean out or bulk up (i.e. look a certain way) or improve our strength/speed/endurance (i.e. perform a certain way), we are all trying to elevate our physical bodies to a standard we believe will deliver greater wellbeing. Our goal is an elevated feeling of improved wellbeing, even if we have different ideas about how we will achieve it.
While many of my esteemed trainer colleagues have moved to online training during the 2020 pandemic, it’s a move I continue to resist because it doesn’t work with my training style. I run all clients through postural and functional movement assessments, which I haven’t found an accurate way to replicate through a camera. When I ask them to stand relaxed, the way they would usually stand while waiting for a bus or in the checkout line, I view them from multiple angles and look for signs of asymmetry in each plane. Our lifestyles grant us countless opportunities to pattern asymmetric movement, and therefore develop anatomical asymmetries (sometimes known as imbalances, which I’ll get to).
The most common asymmetry I see is anterior/posterior asymmetry where people tend to be stronger and tighter in the muscles at the front of their bodies. I don’t like to call this an imbalance because the term is misleading. Sure, if you view the body as an isolated object then you could say that balance is perfect symmetry and therefore asymmetry is imbalance, but bodies are not isolated objects. Our bodies adapt to our environmental conditions, sometimes over long periods of time (where the genes for optimal health and survival in an environment become selected-for over multiple generations), sometimes in very short periods of time (when we gain or lose weight by increasing/decreasing calories eaten vs calories burned). When our bodies adapt either by losing/gaining weight or by strengthening some muscles at the expense of others, all in the name of finding balance, this affects our appearance or performance in a way that we dislike. As we respond by adjusting our calorie balance or training programme to counteract this, what we’re doing is not balancing an imbalance, but rather unbalancing a balance.
In almost every case where we have anterior/posterior asymmetry, our bodies have balanced the resources going to the muscles in our body with the amount we use them. In other words, if we’re always doing work in front of our bodies (e.g. carrying things, typing things, gaming, cooking, etc.) we are training those muscles and those muscles only, and if we’re always hunched over our work we are teaching that anatomy to our body. Ever heard of the phrase “use it or lose it”? This is what it refers to. By continually repeating the same movements and same posture, we are training our bodies to adapt to them and developing asymmetry.
So here’s where “training for life” comes in, because this is where your life takes center stage. This is the reason why any pre-defined training plan (whether found on social media or purchased from a reputable wellness professional) can only do so much – and why I don’t sell training plans. The patterns your body repeats throughout your day/week/month/lifetime are yours and yours alone. They are a combination of your unique lifestyle and your anatomy (which is constantly balancing itself to fit the requirements of your lifestyle): the position you sleep in, how many pillows you use, the type of bed you sleep on, what time you wake up and what you do first thing, the job you do and how you get to it, the type of dwelling you live in and what environment it’s in, the weather you experience and how that affects how you dress and move, the list goes on and we haven’t even started on what you eat/drink/smoke/pop.
Every 10-day/12-week/6-month training plan assumes that the future is predictable. For some people it will be. People who have been training consistently their whole lives with a consistent diet and lifestyle may be able to plan their training months in advance (experience tells me that not that many people who fit into this category can or want to do that). The rest of us, with more chaotic lives, shift work, impulse control disorders, and/or kids, are another story. And we’re the ones who need it the most.
For those of us whose lives are unpredictable enough that we can’t forecast a 10-week plan to address our asymmetries, training for our lives requires us to recognize our own limitations. If our workloads are variable, we may have more or less energy (physical, mental, or spiritual) to devote to exercise from one day to the next. If our diets are inconsistent (perhaps our incomes are, or we are too exhausted to cook every day, or we work shifts and can’t always eat at the same time), we might not have the same fuel for the exercise or its recovery.
We need to learn to tune into our bodies, to look at them and listen to them. Where do we hurt, feel weak or out of place, see our muscle definition changing, or notice ourselves compensating? This takes time and self-love, it requires us to believe that this one body we have for our whole life is worthy of attention and effort, and this life we’re living deserves us at our best. I’m warning you, it’s a long journey rife with pain and heavy emotional healing, but if we can make it through to the other side we will have a relationship with ourselves that will liberate us from all the training programmes in the world.