Learning, empathy, and thoughts on training


As I sat down to write this, I wondered to myself, “what do I want to read?” What I want to read influences what I write; writing is how I process my thoughts about movement, psychology, and the world around me. It makes sense, then, that these are also the things I like to read about.

And so it is with training people. What we tend to gravitate towards with regards to teaching people different movement skills is heavily influenced by what we are currently learning and what resonates with us, in our bodies.

Until it’s not, or it can’t be, or despite our best efforts, our 72 year old client doesn’t want to work on the prep work for handstand. When this happens, we are required to teach things that are outside of our comfort zone or to look at a person’s experience through his eyes rather than our own.

This is difficult, and I feel like trainers and coaches choose workshops and continuing education opportunities for two reasons. The first is to better understand themselves, and the second is to get ideas for how to work with these more challenging clients, the ones that don’t want to do what we want to be able to do because let’s face it, most of the people we work with aren’t looking at movement as a hobby. They are looking at it as a way to improve strength, flexibility, and coordination so they can lead more fulfilling lives. Those of us that have made movement our livelihood view it as just that- a way to live our lives, which is a different mindset than the average client.

So how do we learn to experience movement through someone else’s eyes? How can we learn what the person in front of us needs rather than what we think he should want? And how do we rectify this with our personal development in learning movement?

I break training down into two sections: foundations and skill. Before you get huffy and argue that conditioning should be included, in my world, if you are doing skill work you are doing conditioning work.

Think of it like this. In order to perform a heavy deadlift, you need the foundations of a hip hinge, foot to floor engagement, adequate hip mobility, and grip strength/lat engagement. These are components that are worked on separately, to teach the awareness, and then together with very light weight or in a partial pattern to teach the how.

To actually learn to deadlift heavy weight requires deadlifting heavy weight. Practice is parceled out using set/rep schemes and a plan to develop the skill. The conditioning is the practice.

Okay, so because we are living in my world and we are exploring how to develop two things, foundations and skill, where should a trainer or movement specialist begin his journey?

This is super tricky, because most of us get into the movement fields at a relatively young age, for largely selfish reasons (“how can I be better?” “And once I am better, how can I help others be better?”). Until injury is an issue, we generally care more about learning the skills rather than the foundations. We gravitate towards learning opportunities that are going to enhance skill development and are then thoroughly perplexed with how to train the 66 year old desk jockey with intermittent low back pain that can’t get down on the floor.

While learning by necessity definitely happens when you work one on one with people, to make our lives a little bit easier, it would be great if we learned the foundations before the injury happened, or the frustration with clients/students settled in. One way to practically apply this (because skills are important, too), is for every skill workshop you take, read one article on a foundation. This will probably be flipped if you are in an injury cycle, in which case I still encourage you for each foundation workshop you take, read or watch a skill based tutorial because the long term goal is still a general foundation of fitness.

Back to foundations. What are they? Again, this is strictly from my perspective, so here are the foundations I use with every single client at some point or another.

Understand basic breathing mechanics. Check out this video of the diaphragm below and begin to understand how the movement of the diaphragm affects the pelvis floor, the ribs, and the spine. Middle backs will feel less tight by teaching people how to breathe into their mid-back, low back sensation decreases when center of mass is altered by getting the ribs in a more expiratory position, and shoulders feel like they have a little more room because there is apical expansion occurring at the chest wall. Breathing isn’t a cureall, but it’s often an easy place to start. Understanding how the breath works enables you to see when a different strategy would be beneficial and is a way to quickly assess a fundamental habit. It doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective. It does not need to be a two day workshop belaboring the mechanics of breath, but spending two to three hours learning about how breathing works is worth your time.

While you are learning the mechanics of breathing, spend a little bit of time understanding how the breath affects the central nervous system. What happens when the breath shortens and moves into the chest? What does it tell you when someone is scared to fully exhale? When you work with people in an individualized setting, understanding how the physiology and the psychology knit together makes you a more effective teacher.

How do various joints move? What exactly are you looking at when someone lifts his left leg and it looks like Rubik’s cube organizing itself from the right foot up into the shoulder girdle? As a by-product, you will learn muscles when you learn how joints work, but think of it less anatomically (unless you are working towards a degree in anatomy). What action do you want the joint to make? What action does it actually make? And remember, you are looking at this from a movement lens, so when you learn how the joints work, make sure you are considering what they do during physical activity.

Joint mechanics can be a little bit complicated, but understanding how the joints organize to disperse load during movement makes it much easier to clarify what you see. It will let you begin to understand where the person is stuck, either physiologically, because he lacks the strength/mobility to do a specific thing, or neuromuscularly, because he doesn’t have the ability to coordinate the skill.

Movement doesn’t just happen in a forward/back fashion. We are designed to rotate, and the joints reflect that. When you begin learning how joints work, notice what happens to the joints above and below when a joint is unable to rotate. Remember- rotation can happen on a very subtle level. The slight external rotation of the shoulder in a quadruped, for instance, changes how the weight is dispersed in the hand. Changing the position of one bone will alter the entire structure.

If you are struggling with which joints to focus on, I recommend learning the center, what’s in contact with the floor, and then moving up from there. For instance, learn the spine and the foot; once you understand those deeply, learn the pelvis and the ankle. Eventually, you will understand the entire lower limb and how it interacts with the torso. If you teach yoga or work with a lot of arm balancers, you are going to need to learn the hand and wrist mechanics sooner rather than later because it is also a reference point to the floor. Things will unveil themselves with time, so don’t rush the process. Take time to understand on a practical level what you are learning. It will save you hours of frustration later.

How does the body interact with the world? What is the person’s sense of where he is at in space? What elicits more proprioceptive feedback? 

Understanding how proprioception works will begin to help you empathize with the person in front of you. Once you begin to identify how he interacts with the floor and with space, you can formulate a plan to improve overall awareness. Proprioception exercises are great warm-ups and provide a lot of bang for your buck in terms of helping people feel a noticeable change quickly. Improving proprioception also impacts the central nervous system; many of the mechanoreceptors that send information to the brain about a joint’s location are embedded in the joint itself. Proprioception, then, neatly ties together our two previous foundations, breath and joints.

Gait mechanics and transitions:
Understanding what happens when we walk, how the pelvis shifts forward on the swing leg and the shoulder protracts on the opposite arm, how the big toe helps push off the ground while the spine subtly rotates and laterally shifts towards the swing leg, can give you insight to a person’s habits when those things aren’t happening. Walking a specific way doesn’t guarantee any sort of dysfunction, but when there is a lot of visible movement during a person’s walking gait or there isn’t any movement at all, you receive clues to a person’s proprioception, joint mechanics, and breathing.

Transitions tell you how many options a person feels he has. I talked at length about transitions here; however, I felt it worth mentioning one more time because it is, from my perspective, a valuable foundation.

How do you learn the foundations? Through workshops, self study, and patience. Don’t inundate yourself with all of the information at once; pick one thing, take a workshop on it, sit with it, practice on yourself and your family members, and slowly introduce it to your clients. See how it goes. Once you feel comfortable with that building block, move on to the next foundation. I don’t necessarily think any one methodology is better than the other, so pick what resonates with you as long as it deals with one of the four foundations. (And beware, there are sometimes differences in opinions regarding how things work. Don’t get too hung up on conflicting view points or which way is right or wrong. Simply stay in your lane and learn what you are learning with the knowledge there might be another way to accomplish exactly the same thing).

Skill work:
Again, study skills that resonate with you. If you have the foundations, you can break any skill down to a level that is manageable for any body. Remember the 72 year old without any interest in handstands? He still benefits from wrist mobility work, overhead mobility work, and variations of hollow body. He doesn’t have to know it’s handstand work for it be an effective exercise sequence.

Two things you do want to keep in mind are:

  1. People benefit from a bit of external load once in a while, so if you are mostly a bodyweight athlete, learn how to do simple strength moves, like Goblet squats or suitcase deadlifts. Again, keep it simple, and don’t feel the need to learn the entire RKC repertoire- just a couple of key moves you can utilize occasionally are fine.
  2. People need to be able to rotate. Our bodies yearn to move through space dynamically and in a variety of ways. If bodyweight training isn’t your thing, learn one or two games or drills that encourage the body and torso to rotate and incorporate them regularly.

One final note is make sure you have a personal practice. It improves empathy when you experience struggles understanding how to coordinate movement and it prevents boredom because, ideally, if you practice, you are learning and exploring. 

To check out my upcoming workshops, visit http://www.bewellpt.com/events/. I will also be attending the Movement Archery workshop at Athletic Playground February 16-18 as a student.