Have you ever been working on something that requires your full attention, like a blog post, and, upon finishing, discovered that you’re starving? And the sun has gone down? And you’re kind of cold? And your feet fell asleep and your low back is killing you? It is incredible to be able to have that focus when you’re working on something that’s important to you, but it’s not great to have that lack of physical awareness when you’re walking through the world.
I’ve met many people who can’t feel their bodies. I live in a highly academic area, and many have lived in their own heads for so long that they really can’t feel much of anything. Or perhaps they were born that way — hypermobile folks who can put their legs behind their heads but have no sense of where their bodies are in space. Are you one of them? When you’re huffing and puffing up a hill, can you feel your glutes and quads or do you only feel something when your knees have started to hurt? If you swim or bike or hit a softball, do you know where your power is coming from? If you attempt a goblet squat, can you feel your core connecting your upper and lower body, or do you just drop down as low as possible and then leap back up?
Not being able to feel our bodies at all times is a form of protection--if we were distracted by the air on our skin, we’d never get anything done--but in exercise, it’s a hindrance. It leads to us phoning in our workouts, to using the wrong muscles, to poor form and eventual imbalance. Here are 7 steps to help bring your awareness to your body as you workout.
Breathe. Practice diaphragmatic breathing before every workout to get your core engaged and to help you focus on the workout to come.
Warm up. Use the warm up as a time to check in with your body. Where are you tight? Where are you sore? Do you need to foam roll or do some extra stretching for an especially tight muscle?
Make a playlist. Use a playlist or another cue to let your brain that know it’s time to workout and start paying attention.
*Narrate your first few reps of each exercise. For example, as you perform a Romanian Deadlift, maybe you’re thinking, “I stand tall with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I pull my ribs down to create tension in my abs. I inhale and reach my hips back until I feel some tension in my hamstrings. I exhale and feel my heels and midfoot pressing into the ground as my hips drive forward. I feel my glutes squeeze my hips to their spot under my ribs…” You don’t need to do this for every rep in your workout. Just try it for a few reps or for your first full set, then move on to #5.
Create a mantra. This works for cardio as well as strength movements. As you inhale, mentally rattle off a few words to check in with your body. As you exhale, rattle off some different words. For example, in the Romanian Deadlift described above, you might inhale “Tight Reach” and exhale “Drive Glutes.” Or if you were running, you could inhale “Strong” and check in with your posture and exhale “Loose” and check in with your shoulders and jaw. Find something that works for you.
Make small adjustments. If something doesn’t feel quite right, instead of just giving up or working through it, try adjusting your posture or the angle of your limbs. For example, if you feel your knees in your squat, try placing your feet wider, or narrower, or turn them out more. Try stretching or foam rolling a muscle or muscle group. Experiment. See if this thing here effects that thing there and try to remember that for next time.
Get away from mirrors. Though sometimes looking in a mirror can help you fix your posture or movement form, especially if you’re a visual learner, other times it can be distracting. If you’re admiring your amazing muscles as they ripple in contraction or if you’re obsessing over whether or not anyone else can see your sweaty pits, you’re probably not paying much attention to how your body is moving. Look away from the mirror and see if you can feel what your body is doing — the pull and the push, the contract and the relax, the burning and the relief. Revel in what your body can do.
OK, I’m tapped out. What have you used to bring your awareness to your body during a workout?
*Note: there is such a thing as over-thinking exercise or getting stuck in our own heads. If thinking about perfecting the movement is preventing you from actually moving, relax the reins a bit!