Sport encourages the integration of the whole organism because it is necessary to think as we move and plan ahead. In performing each movement in response to the run of play, we use mechanisms that nature evolved for the purpose of survival in a hostile world. Sport is today's equivalent of the hunting, fighting and avoidance of predators that kept our ancestors alive. The skills developed in our past are essential in today's sport; accuracy, speed, strength and intelligence are all requirements for success.
We have come to believe that the stronger a muscle the better, without a thought to what we actually do with a stronger muscle. I am not advocating we should do nothing, or that all exercise is harmful. The important issue is why we exercise and what is it we hope to achieve? If we want to get fit, ask the question - fit for what? When did you last review your objectives for devoting so much time and effort to its pursuit?
To help achieve optimum performance it is useful to understand the physiology involved so you do not misuse your body. All movement, even of the smallest part, involves the total organism yet many exercise systems fail to recognise the integral nature of human function. Exercises have always been designed to achieve specific improvements for one part of the body in the belief it will benefit the athlete for the particular demands of their sport. My view is that the concentration on individual parts whilst performing these exercises destroys the unity of the organism necessary for good movement.
Getting into shape usually involves a trip to the local gymnasium with its staggering array of equipment. A combination of technology and clever marketing has transformed the dull exercise machine into an essential piece of equipment capable of 'achieving miracles'. Today's machines have made it possible to work individual muscles in isolation - the first-time gym user will often joke they ache in muscles they did not know existed. Unfortunately, in the rush to develop the ultimate range of equipment, I believe a vital factor in human development and movement has been overlooked. That is, no single movement involves either an individual or isolated set of muscles! Machines that work a muscle whilst immobilising or supporting part of the body, encourage 'unnatural' actions never to be repeated outside the gymnasium, sports scientist Dr Mel Siff wrote: -
"?.it is well known in physiology that the body knows of actions, not muscles, so that it is inappropriate to place any intentional stress on individual muscles rather than on the desired motor patterns."
Even the harmless looking treadmill does not replicate natural activity. Running on a moving surface employs a different combination of muscles when compared with road running. Chuck Wolf, the director of sport science and human performance for the U.S.A. Triathlon National Training Center in Florida acknowledges this problem with the exercise machine saying,
"? our love of machines has caused us to lose sight of the way the body functions. Machines are ideal for multiple repetitions of the same movement patterns along a single plane. Unfortunately, that's not how we move."
Too much emphasis is placed on muscle and hence exercises to improve strength at the cost of neglecting the systems that control them. Complex machines are able to analyse the strength of individual muscles in specific movements. However, these machines do not measure the body during natural activity. Problems are then identified with the suspect muscle and exercises prescribed to correct the condition. But what causes the weakness initially? Why is a muscle weak or too tight? A muscle can only do what it is told to do and as we do not have the ability to directly control a muscle we cannot be certain of what we are actually telling it to do. The 'offending' muscle is only performing its function as directed by the controlling mechanisms for which we ultimately carry the responsibility. When the police stop a speeding motorist they prosecute the driver not the car!
This is not to say that gymnasiums are harmful - far from it! It is how we approach the use of a gym's equipment that is vital. They do offer an opportunity to develop body awareness and strength but the temptation is to focus on the specific muscle being exercised whilst ignoring how the whole body can be used. For example, it is common to see people gritting teeth, straining neck muscles and arching their back when using machines to work the biceps. All this unnecessary action is not going to help build the biceps but it will develop poor muscular habits that will affect other activities. If used with the total body in mind these exercises will develop every other muscle appropriately as they are needed to stabilise the frame. So rather than looking to build the abs, biceps and quads separately, be aware of their involvement on every machine.
More recently other gadgets have started to appear on the market that promise to improve balance and proprioception (our ability to sense the position, location and movement of the body and its parts). But do these devices really help to improve performance in your sport? Or do you just acquire a new skill such as balancing on a swiss-ball that may be fun but does nothing to help your game? Bill Hartman, sports scientist and golf coach, writes
"So what can you do to improve your golf-specific balance? Play golf. There is not a gadget or exercise which will improve your golf-specific balance like playing golf. Why? Because nothing can duplicate the demands of playing golf other than playing golf. I know, it sounds silly doesn't it. If you look at other athletes in any sport from martial arts to gymnastics to hockey, you'll find that they simply perform their sporting skills over and over to acquire their amazing balance skills. They don't rely on silly, useless gadgets. If you were a tightrope walker, would you practice on a wooden beam or stand on a stability ball. Of course not, because it would not duplicate the demands of tightrope walking. The rope has its own "feel" and sway that nothing else but a tightrope can duplicate. So if you want to improve your golf-specific balance, play golf."
So perhaps to get the best from the gymnasium we should take our time to use the machines with total awareness of the actions involved (avoiding distractions such as the gym TV or listen to music ). And perhaps ask whether the action encouraged by the machine is a 'natural' one. Will I ever be hanging at an angle where I need to perform a sit-up? It may strengthen the abdominals for that movement, but do I need it? How will it benefit my body as a whole?
For further information visit http://www.artofperformance.co.uk
Roy Palmer is a Teacher of The Alexander Technique, a revolutionary thought and movement system. He works with sports people of all abilities looking to improve performance whilst reducing the risk of injury. He writes articles for internet sports forums and magazines. His first book 'The Performance Paradox':Challengin the conventional methods of sports training and exercise is available from his website http://www.artofperformance.co.uk