Habit, Change, and the Low Bar Back Squat

The change from high bar to low bar back squat was a difficult one for my left shoulder to adjust to. At some point years ago, it received a good bit of impact from a skiing injury, and since then I have piled ample other unknown insult and abuse to the area.  For a low bar back squat, the bar sits just below spine of the scapula; sometimes for me this feels like it’s on bone.  I’m luckier in this department than a lot of women because, as Emily says, I’ve already got “some meat back there”.  Nevertheless, Emily encourages most women to wear an extra t-shirt for back squat to provide a little more padding.  One of the cues that is given when setting up for this exercise is “elbows up.”  This is to create tightness in the upper back, a shelf of delt on which to trap the bar so it is secure.  Somehow in the process of trying to keep the bar off of bone and keeping my elbows up, I ended up turning the proper position into something else that my shoulder didn’t appreciate.

Louise has been working on this shoulder.  And as with anything related to the body, I have found the process to be fascinating.  Long story shorter, my humerus was being pulled further forward on the left side than on the right, the result of tight pecs and lengthened upper back and neck muscles.  Louise says the connective tissue on my left pecs was bound down all the way to the sternum.  The first day Louise worked on that shoulder, she released those bound tissues, and as my scap almost miraculously relaxed down far enough to touch the table under me, I took a deep breath that filled my entire lungs, bottom to top.  It was only then that I realized that the shallow breathing I had been experiencing and attributing to stress was actually also related to a physical cause.  In releasing that bound muscle, Louise allowed me to find increased range of motion in the joint, more space to move, the ability to breath deeper, and greater relaxation.

As my shoulder relearns its original position, the whole experience of lifting keeps changing. I imagine that Louise is like an archeologist digging through layers of bound connective tissue, excavating and sifting through years of assorted pains in the shoulder, unearthing them and clearing the area. As this happens I’m experiencing new sensations in my shoulder as my tendons find different ways of tracking and my body relearns some of its original ways of moving, rather than using the altered movement patterns that it discovered over the years to compensate for weakness and avoid pain.

Our brains work in a similar fashion to our bodies in this regard.  Just as our bodies compensate for weaknesses or injuries by recruiting muscles for jobs that are not their prime purposes, and just as our bodies often find the path of least resistance allowing our dominant muscles to hijack movement patterns, we develop intellectual and emotional coping mechanisms to help us get through our days and our difficulties.  We find shortcuts to help us save time and energy and compensations to make aspects of our lives less painful.  Sometimes these shortcuts are relatively harmless, like always taking the same route to work; potentially some are helpful, like establishing morning routines to ensure that nothing gets forgotten in our rush out the door.  Sometimes these shortcuts are in our thought processes, stereotypes or outdated views of ourselves and others that prevent us from recognizing change or potential or that keep us from truly seeing what’s before us because we are bound down by our views from the past.  Sometimes the compensations and habits we develop are detrimental to our health and well-being, causing more pain for us in the long run than the initial issue: addictions to food, work, substances, shopping, exercise, technology – the list is endless.  Often we irrationally hang onto these compensations long after they have outlived their usefulness and even though they cause discomfort or pain in other ways.

habit-change-650x425At one extreme these compensations can be destructive, but at the very least they limit us; they constrict our ability to fully experience individual moments or appreciate individual people, and they limit the degree to which we fully engage in our activities; they restrict our range of motion as we move through life.  It is important to be aware of our habits and our fallback patterns, of the ways in which we shortcut and compensate, and it is even more important to consciously decide if the trade off is worth it.  Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no; either way it is a question that only we can answer for ourselves.  Then we must decide if we are willing to act upon our answer, to make a change for the better.

A conscious decision inspired by our own desire for change, not based on someone else’s need for us to be different, is the strongest motivator for establishing new habits.  Change is not always easy; it can be a messy and uncomfortable process of wrestling with the memory of old injuries.  But change will not happen by masking all that with compensations and habits that no longer serve us well. And just as with my shoulder, by releasing some what binds us down, we can find relief, a greater range of motion and a renewed ability to move through life more effectively.

The Great I Am

When I wrote my first draft of the “I am” post and sent it to Louise for feedback, she commented that her use of this statement varies from person to person. Initially I had interpreted the “I am” statement as a bold declaration of an imagined future self, and I didn’t feel confident enough to make a statement like that. The friend who had originally relayed the story of the “I am” statement tends to be a bit impatient and this may have contributed to how I was hearing it.  Louise, on the other hand, often aims for something more immediate, for something rooted in the present.  Her goal was for individuals to allow themselves permission to perceive themselves as something different or unexpected, whether that be in the past, present or future, but she also is keenly aware of the value of the present, because that is all we really have. In working through the idea the first time, I settled on different wording, “I am training to be …”, which for me shifted my focus from a future goal to something a little more present, the process. Now that I think about it again though, I realize that even still, focusing on the process is not the same as staying in the present.

We live in a culture that values becoming (working towards goals) over being (finding contentedness within the moment). So I think it’s really not surprising that focusing on the present is something I find challenging, and I also think I’m not alone in this. The difference between goal, process, and present, sometimes can be vast, and other times it can be subtle. It’s easy to miss the value of our present self when we focus intently on the goal or even the process; it’s even easier to do when the present self is the one we have come to a trainer to help us change.

As I was thinking this all through again, it occurred to me that in Christian terms God is often referred to as the Great I Am. He reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:13-14).  I Am – that’s present tense. God is not the Great I Am Working on Being or the Great I Will Become. The power of God is in the present moment, in being able to see ourselves right now in the way that God does, with compassion and love despite our imperfection and brokenness and understanding that this is enough.starfish

Pastor Earl has been working to simplify the message of the Gospel in a recent sermon series. In a world where so many voices have loudly misrepresented the message of Christianity, perhaps from honest confusion, perhaps out of fear, he feels this is necessary. He says that the radical message of the Gospel distilled to its essence is that “I am enough”. He has used a variety of methods to help drive this message home. One Sunday he had us all repeat after him: “I am enough”.  Another Sunday he used question and answer format to help us identify which popular statements were Gospel (“God loves you in spite of who you are and what you do.”) and which were not Gospel (“God loves us most when we do what is right.”).  It was kinda cool listening to him bust Gospel myths like Artemis had busted myths about women and strength training.

We need people like Pastor Earl to remind us of the Gospel, to remind us that, despite our desire to be different or our attempts to change, we are loved and we are enough just as we are. That truth gets muddled when we translate it into the chaos of our daily lives, into the incompleteness of our to do lists, into our attempts to achieve our goals. We forget about the power that is accessible to us when we are willing to see ourselves differently, to love who we are in the present moment, despite the brokenness we might feel. And we need good friends and coaches like Louise to remind us of this too, because any attempt to make a meaningful change to our health and fitness that is rooted in a place of self-acceptance is bound to have more lasting impact than one initiated out of feelings of inadequacy and shame.

“I am ….”

As I was studying for my personal training exam, I also was working with a friend, Alex, on a church-based exercise program that he designed (“wHoly FiTt” – you can see, he’s got a sense of humor).  He had recently lost a hundred and sixty pounds with the help of a personal trainer.  One of the defining moments for him in the process was when his trainer encouraged him to create a new “I am…” statement – to redefine himself.  At over 300 pounds, Alex made the seemingly unlikely claim “I am a gym rat.”  That statement allowed him to see the gym as a place where he belonged.  From there, he was able to continue redefining himself until he was competing in Ironman Triathalons.  Pretty amazing!

The more Alex and I talked about his experience, the more he became convinced that his trainer, Louise, and I had a lot in common. He introduced me to her; we hit it off, and as luck would have it, as soon as I was certified she asked me to start working in her studio subbing for another trainer on maternity leave.  Louise introduced me to a lot of fabulous resources and workshops, and in the same spirit of redefinition that had helped Alex recreate himself, I started to head down a strength training rabbit hole. I spent hours reading articles on T-nation – that’s short for Testosterone nation. Yeah, me!  A middle-aged mother of four following strength training gurus like Tony Gentlecore, Mark Rippetoe, Artemis Scantaledes, Dan John, and Brett Contraras. Watching youtubes of Olympic lifters and studying form.

Along the way Louise and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about the art of coaching, about habit, and about change.  She has told me that words are like drugs; they are powerful.  She pays attention to how I word what I say, because she believes that words matter. As a result, I am more aware of the way that words help shape our reality by first carving out a verbal space in our imaginations; once envisioned, we can then act to make those words real.  Creating an “I am” statement, no matter how unlikely or tentative that statement may be, helps us to connect the next steps together into a path forward.

I’m frequently impatient (and so is Alex), so when I first heard his retelling of the “I am” phrase, I understood it to be a statement of what we planned to become, rather than a statement allowing us to perceive our present selves as something different or unexpected.  For me, the “I am” statement felt like a bold declaration, something I’m often reluctant to do.  So initially, I began by silently giving myself permission to pursue an interest in something seemingly uncharacteristic.  From there, I began using the wording “I am training to be….”  Somehow, for me, that phrasing created an extra step that slowed me down, took the pressure off of actually reaching the goal, and allowed me to focus more on the process.

Whatever the wording, the intent is similar.  Rewriting our current life script, even in the quietest places of our imagination, allows us to envision ourselves differently – to see a different image, to experience a different vision of our reality.  Once imagined, we can begin to see our next steps forward, to prepare a path for change, and to begin a process of recreation.  “I am …” or “I am training to be …” What would happen if you finished the sentence?