Stop Struggling to Get Benefits from Your Workouts and Reduce the Risk of Injury by Paying Attention to Work vs. Force.
What are Your Movement Habits?
Are you able to efficiently maximize the benefits from your exercise program, or do you tend to force your way through, pushing hard to get it done, whatever the exercise might be? When we exercise it’s called a “workout” because there is effort involved in doing the work necessary to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility. But how well are you really working out?
Maybe you’re not sure what the difference between work and force is and how it might be affecting your ability to get the health improvement benefits you want from your efforts. I believe the work vs. force dilemma is something relevant for people at all ability levels on the spectrum of health. If you’re highly fit, strong, and flexible your ability to “push” is greater. Along with this push comes a much higher risk of injury. It can be easier to override signals the brain sends out - be cautious, rest, don't push as hard - because you ARE an athlete. You expect your body to do what you tell it to, when you tell it to, because you are always striving to do more.
At the other end of the spectrum are people like me who, for whatever reason, have chronic health challenges, fatigue, inflammation, and injuries that take longer to heal. These folks may have the tendency to sit back and do nothing, waiting until their body feels better. But this isn’t always the best health improvement strategy either.
Regardless of whether you’re a super-fit athlete, someone who is struggling with chronic health challenges, or somewhere in-between, having a better understanding of work vs. force to connect mind, body, and movements during your workouts can help you harness the energy you need to stay safe, pace yourself appropriately, and ensure that you’re using the right amount of muscle to do the work, without forcing the body past the point of no return leading to injury.
Have you ever done the “push” test with a friend? Find a buddy and stand facing each other. Place your palms together in front of your chest like a push-up. Gradually, one of you starts pushing - when this happens, what does the other person automatically do? Push back, right? The one who pushes the hardest will force the other person off-balance. If there is equal force, you will both just stand there pushing hand to hand, going nowhere. And what if nobody pushes?
When doing a sit-up, do you throw your arms forward to get up and yank on your head with your hands? Or, are you using the muscle work of your abdominals and core to sit up? Do you find your arms and shoulders to doing most of the work? Either way, you’re going to get up. However, the question is which of these options is actually working to improve your technique and get the right muscles working to improve core strength.
Imagine you are doing a standing bicep curl exercise. If you lean back with your body to “swing the bar up,” are you working the bicep muscles, strengthening the arms, or are you using momentum (and your lower back) to do the movement? You’re either working the biceps, or you're forcing a bar up that’s too heavy for you to lift correctly with the right muscles. Which of these is going to maximize health benefits?
Using the correct muscles to work is important as you move. If you aren't able to move using the right muscles, how many of the wrong ones will your body recruit to “force” the body to complete the task? Doing this over and over again, will cause your brain to start to believe “The muscles I’m using right now and the way I’m doing this exercises is the correct way to do it. Always do it this way.” Suddenly you’ve created a habit, or movement pattern, that will have you repeatedly reinforcing bad habits. The body might be able to do it this way for a while, but sooner or later the repetitive wear and tear will take its toll and an injury will occur.
As you work you should actually become more conscious of your movement habits, posture, breathing, body alignment, and how to do the work correctly. This means your workouts become a continuous improvement program. The last rep you do should always be your best one. And if you’re too fatigued to do a good one STOP before you recruit muscles that don’t need to be involved!
A part of why I love Pilates is because the Pilates Method brilliantly helps train the mind-body-movement connection, improves posture and body alignment, can help retrain and rebalance muscle habits, and focuses on low reps so that the last one IS always the best one. I also believe it’s easier to learn how to “work” with the resistance of a spring. And of course, with time, everything you can learn through Pilates can transfer to every other sport, physical activity, and exercise you do.
My husband, Ford, is a cyclist; a consistent work vs. force example. When you ride a bike, you can either mash down on the pedals (forcing them to turn)
or you can “spin” them by using a balance of quads and hamstrings to both push down and pull up on the pedals - creating a work vs. force movement.
When the group of guys my husband rides with meets, they start by deciding as a group what kind of ride they’re going to do that day. Some days it’s long and fast; other days they decide on long and slower; other days shorter; or, because they had a hard ride the day or two before, they might do a “recovery” ride.
If you’re really in-tune with your body, there will be days where you can push harder and do more, and days where you need to coast – keep moving, but do less, do lighter, go slower. This group of cyclists has identified the need to vary their workouts to give themselves the recovery they need to correctly move, or rest, those muscle groups. They understand that you have to put forth effort that is in line with the energy you have to expend rather than forcing the body to do more than it’s capable of that day. Tomorrow, check-in with your body and perhaps it will be refreshed and ready to work harder.
Regardless of the type of workouts you do, keep in mind the thought of work vs. force. Remember the saying, “You can’t force a square peg into a round hole!” Forcing your way through an exercise will not improve your health. Forcing your body to do a long, hard workout, when it needs an easier “recovery” day won’t help either.
Work efficiently, work effectively, and work smart to optimize your efforts for health improvement during all your fitness workouts.