MAYA, or how the book "Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Success" applies to exercise science

As a student, we expect teachers to challenge us, to push us to the point where things feel a little bit uncomfortable but, since the teachers have faith in our abilities, so do we. This works well unless a teacher pushes us too far or throws something at us we aren’t ready for. When that happens, we either push until we break or we shut down, refusing to move forward.

As teachers and coaches, it can sometimes be difficult to find the balance between too much and not enough. If we are working with clients with injuries, this can be even more challenging. The teacher/student relationship is predicated on open communication; if the student doesn’t vocalize discomfort during or after an exercise and the teacher doesn’t pick up on cues that discomfort is present, continuing to push might not end well. 

Conversely, if we don’t push enough, the student never gains confidence in his strength and abilities. He will remain stuck, plateaued in a place where he doesn’t improve. 

In the book “Hit Makers,” Derek Thompson explores how hits are made (1). He discusses a concept originally coined by artist Raymond Loewy as a way to identify how innovations go mainstream. This idea, MAYA, means “most advanced yet acceptable.” 

The book uses this concept to explain that new products have a higher likelihood of doing well if they are familiar in some way, yet unconventional. “It is not merely the feeling that something is familiar. It is one step beyond that. It is something new, challenging, or surprising that opens a door into a feeling of comfort, meaning, or familiarity.”

There is a trend, both among consumers and fitness professionals, to want to do the glamorous movements. We are drawn to the idea of novelty. Why do a basic push-up when handstand push-ups are so much cooler? Who needs to master bodyweight squats when all you need to do a pistol squat is stand on one leg?

Handstand push-ups and pistol squats are examples of exercises that for most of the population are definitely advanced, but not necessarily acceptable on a physiological (and likely psychological), basis. 

The re-introduction to exercise as an adult:
People, particularly those who aren’t active, tend to associate exercise with injury. Things like running and lifting heavy weights, many people assume, are guaranteed to destroy one’s ligaments. (And yoga, of course, is completely safe, because it’s “low-impact”). 

It turns out, this conception might be misplaced. A study published in 2012 found sedentary adults placed in a moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise group and followed their rate of injury and pain over the course of twelve months (2). Participants were no more likely to get injured than the control group and reported less bodily pain overall. The exercise intervention included walking, jogging, biking, and the rowing machine. 

A preliminary study published in 2010 examined the injury rates from individuals participating in a gravitational wellness weightlifting program. This basically involved small arcs of movements with heavy weights and low volume. Despite the weights being heavy, there were no reported injuries (3). And people with pain reported less pain than prior to undergoing the weightlifting intervention. Researchers speculate the fact the program was supervised may have had something to do with the fact no one reported any injuries. (The researchers also pointed out the study was done retroactively, which can impair people’s memory of what actually happened. It is also possible people that had a negative experience declined to participate in the study).

It is worthwhile to note that the published data isn’t capturing the people who try exercise or a mind/body class for a month and it makes them feel worse, so they stop. They don’t necessarily go to their doctors or let the gym/studio/instructor know. They just stop going. These individuals are lost in the data shuffle and are arguably the ones who could most benefit from an appropriate level of movement intervention. 

The media influence:
People have a particular idea of what exercise looks like. Their internal exercise picture is composed of what they learned in gym class, what’s depicted in the media, and what their social group is doing. This ideology directly influences what exercises or activities people attempt when they decide it’s time to “get in shape.”

Sometimes this works. You hear success stories of people diving headfirst into exercise that is extremely challenging and (realistically) too advanced for their current state turning into exercise prophets. They lose the weight, attain crazy strength, and can’t believe a) they didn’t do it sooner and b) more people aren’t doing it. These individuals are sort of like Logan in the X-Men series- genetically blessed and injury proof.

For most of the general population, however, the narrative is quite different. Anecdotal stories ranging from severe soreness to ruptured tendons have been shared with me at cocktail parties while people are explaining why they “fail” at traditional exercise programs.

How can fitness professionals and the general population change the narrative and find what it really means to be “most advanced, yet acceptable?” And how can fitness professionals find the middle ground, choosing exercises that are a good fit for the person in front of them?

Unfortunately, headlines like: “learn what it means to push before you master the push-up” don’t sell magazines. A quick glance at the leading fitness websites include headlines on developing a bigger, better back (with a T-bar row, close hammer-grip pull-up, and TRX rotational row),* and “5 exercises for a tight, toned, and lifted butt (box jumps, sumo squats, deadlift, step-ups, and deep squats).** None of these are bad exercises, but they definitely aren’t beginner exercises and all have a certain learning curve associated with them. 

This is where the general population gets its information; this might be fine if the general population consisted of people with good body awareness and a general base level of fitness, but statistics tell us otherwise. Less than half of the adult population in the US meets the minimum recommendation for physical activity (150 minutes per week) (2). 

Until the people writing the copy for print and online fitness sources adopt a different strategy for targeting new exercisers, one that illustrates not the importance of the outcome (“3 sets of 10”), but the process, the general public’s view of what exercise and movement is will continue to consist of movements that are not acceptable for every body. Instead of focusing on sets of push-ups, for instance, what if the media focused on how to make the push-up feel smoother and more efficient, making the goal one beautiful push-up? And once a person could do one push-up well, maybe he could do one more well. The narrative needs to change so it’s not about the quantity- it’s about the experience. 

This goes against the nature of most people who want results yesterday and don’t care about the process or the lack of embodiment they experience with movement. 

We all have an internal image of ourself and how we move (4). When we exercise and use our bodies, that internal image is a little bit clearer. If I am asked, for instance, to visualize how I would run up a trail, the image would be extremely clear, from what my feet are experiencing as they navigate the landscape, to how I am carrying my arms. I can envision how I would perform the act of trail running because I have done it with a fair amount of focus for many years. 

If, on the other hand, I was asked to visualize how I would perform an aerial move, I would struggle. I have limited exposure to aerial, and flipping the body upside down alters one’s sense of proprioception. My image would be less clear.

For those who don’t move or for those with chronic pain, even the act of visualizing how they pick up an object might be a challenge (4). A 2015 study found those suffering from chronic low back pain experienced an increase in pain during a virtual re-enactment of everyday activities such as shoveling snow (4). If people think something is going to hurt or they don't feel comfortable with how a movement will feel in their body, it will hurt.

A study performed by Roosink, (5), found military personnel with chronic low back pain tended to overestimate their movements during lifting tasks, suggesting their internal representation of movement differed from how they actually moved. What we perceive and what actually happens during movement aren’t necessarily the same thing. 

In order to maintain a better internal schema of physical selves, perhaps the most advanced yet acceptable stimulus would be to emphasize starting gradually, Expose people to a handful of new movements from which the building blocks of hinging, squatting, pushing, pulling, and rotating could grow. 

Another way this could be implemented is for us as professionals to have a place for new exercisers to go where they wouldn’t feel self conscious about what they can’t do. When I taught more regular yoga classes, I would regularly hear, “I can’t go to yoga because I’m not flexible enough.” While all level 1 yoga classes should be a safe place for beginners, what I frequently saw was the beginner student attending an all levels flow. When modifications were encouraged, the beginners would ignore the modifications and gut through whatever was happening, even if it meant they were holding their breaths and twisting themselves into positions their bodies weren’t necessarily willing to go. Maybe the tagline shouldn’t be, “strong is the new sexy,” but “starting at the beginning and honoring your body with appropriate modifications is the new sexy.” I guess it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 

This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in just trying. And here is the conundrum for many coaches. If you have a brand new exerciser (or even an experienced exerciser), try to do something a few times, a couple of days a week, the person will get better at that thing. If he doesn’t get injured. It’s all about finding the threshold, finding the MAYA. Challenging a client enough so a learning effect happens but not throwing progressive overload out the window can feel like a teeter totter. It can tip either direction given the day. Add in individual issues like sleep, chronic stress, or illness, and the tipping point can feel even more fragile. 

I have a client. I will call her Abby. Abby has had chronic pain since she was in a car accident almost 30 years ago. She has done, in no particular order, yoga, martial arts, strength based exercise, and Pilates. During our meeting, while we were chatting about goals, she expressed frustration over the fact that every time she took a group exercise class, her pain increased. 

When I watched Abby move, I observed a tendency to hyperextend one knee. She kept the hyperextended leg back, anchored to the ground. This was also the side she felt the most discomfort. The other leg was forward, with the foot light on the floor. This was her habit. When I asked her what her experience was of her legs, she replied, “the uninjured leg feels light, like it’s floating. The other leg feels heavy, as though it’s a block of cement.”

We are all asymmetrical and use the two sides of our bodies slightly differently, no matter how hard we try. However, when a person has chronic pain and a habitual way of moving that might be feeding into the pain cycle, the most advanced yet acceptable place to start is by offering alternatives to the habit. I could have tried to have her hip hinge her way to a place of awareness, but as evidenced by her attempts over the years, that hadn’t been very effective.

Bringing awareness to the different ways she chronically uses her legs and offering alternatives, both in terms of awareness and with exercises that utilized different patterns was really challenging, both mentally and physically. 

This is very different from a man I’ll call Andy. Andy saw me a few times while he was vacationing here last year. He was about the same age as Abby and worked out in group classes regularly. He had no aches and pains and wanted a basic workout. I didn’t give him anything too strange, because I wasn’t working with him for very long, so we stuck to the basic patterns, with a bit of increased awareness thrown in, because that’s what I do. He said he enjoyed our time together. 
Two people, who, from an outsider’s perspective, look physically fit, yet both people have different starting points. (As an aside, the last time I worked with Abby she seemed a little uncertain. Her pain levels have decreased and she said to me several times, “but I don’t full understand how these subtle exercise can be making such a difference”). 

About those unusual exercises…
I love moving in a lot of different ways. I find it interesting, and it keeps me returning to my studio in the wee hours of the morning day after day. Someone once said to me, “how lucky are you? Your hobby is your work.” I wholeheartedly agree.

It turns out, not everyone aspires to be able to balance on their hands or do Cossack squats multiple ways. And this is okay. (I have had new clients come in and ask me, “we aren’t going to do what you posted on Instagram this morning, are we?” The answer, of course, is no). It’s not my job to force everyone to have the same enthusiasm for movement that I do, though hopefully, I provide a little bit of inspiration for moving more regularly. My job is to help my clients meet their goals, while throwing in the occasional exercise that addresses movement biases and adds variable strength. This can be as simple as staggering squat stance, changing hand position in a push-up, or bringing awareness to a different area while an exercise is being performed. A movement doesn’t have to look cool to be effective.

But what about the people that come in, looking for the next great Instagram post, even though the exercise they want to do is currently not acceptable because it’s outside their motor control/strength/and flexibility level?

Assuming there aren’t any injuries to work around, this type of programming can be really fun. The first thing I always do is give them an exercise that looks relatively simple but begins to address their weaknesses.

For instance, let’s pretend someone came in wanting to work on his handstand. After assessing his current handstand level and basic motor control issues (can he extend his wrist? Does he know how to keep a connection between his ribs and pelvis? Does he understand how to both push into the floor and upwardly rotate his scapulae?), I would have him work on bear. (Bear is basically a forward moving down dog). I would cue the sense of how his hands support him and bear weight as he moves forward. I would ask him to notice how altering the hand position changes the experience in the shoulders.

After about 60 seconds of this, he would be tired, and I would have successfully taught straight arm strength/endurance, which is what is a major component to holding a handstand. 

The point is, the most advanced yet acceptable exercise isn’t always the final exercise. As long as the person can feel the chosen progression (or regression) is moving him towards what he ultimately wants to accomplish, he is more likely to practice outside the gym. If people want to do movements outside of what daily life requires, they need to be willing to do the work to build the required strength and flexibility. That is the only way to progress. 

We spend a lot of time as coaches and teachers trying to get the person to fit the exercise. What If instead we focus on making the exercise or movement fit the person? 

Spots are filling in the Nature/Movement retreat in Napa Valley. If you are interested in joining us June 2-4 for great food, a beautiful setting, and mindful movement, register here:

*On Men's Fitness website

**On Shape's website

Thompson, D., (2017). Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Penguin Press: New York.
Campbell, K.L., Foster-Schubert, K., Xiao, L., Cadmus Bertram, L.A., Duggan, C., Irwin, M., & McTiernan, A., (2012). Injuries in sedentary individuals enrolled in a 12-month, randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 9(2), 198-207.
Burke, D.T., Bell, R., Al-Adawi, S., Alexandroni, A., Dorvlo, A., & Burke, D.P., (2014). Rate of injury and subjective benefits of gravitational wellness weightlifting. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 5, 215-221.
Vrana, A., Hotz-Boendermaker, S., Stampfli, P., Hanggi, J., Seifritz, E., Humphreys, B.K., & Meier, M., (2015). Differential neural processing during motor imagery of daily activities in chronic low back pain patients. PLoS One, 10(11),
Roosink, M., McFayden, B.J., Hebert, L.J., Jackson, P.L., Bouyer, L.J., & Mercier, C., (2015). Assessing the perception of trunk movements in military personnel with chronic non-specific low back pain using a virtual mirror. PLoS One, 10(3).