Can mindfulness make you stronger?

In the fitness and wellness industry, I often run into the catch phrase “mind and body.” I really dislike this phrase because it suggests the two can be separated. When this concept is applied to workouts, the result is often mindless exercise. After 10 years in the industry, I am tired of hearing “I don’t want to have to think” or “I just zone out and let my mind wander when I work out.” I have seen group classes full of people flailing about with no concern about their form, merely focused on burning calories. All they seem to care about is getting sweaty and feeling a burn, assuming that as long as those two things happen, they must be having a great workout. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Letting your mind wander when you work out means that you 1) will not get as much out of your workout as you could and 2) will put yourself at serious risk of injury. 

I have always advocated mindful exercise. When beginning a strength training program with someone, the first thing I tell them is “first we will unlock the strength that you already have.” They look at me sideways, kind of like a confused puppy. I go on to explain to them how we will strengthen their neuromuscular connections - that is, the lines of communications between their brain and their muscles. 

Focusing on the neuromuscular system during every aspect of training means erasing the imagined gap between mind and body. Notice that “neuromuscular” is one word, and it begins with the mind. “Neuro,” having to do the nervous system, having to do with the brain, having to do with the mind. When thinking about movement this way, it becomes clear that consciousness and fitness go hand and hand. The question is not whether the mind and body are connected, but how conscious we are of its connectedness.

Every movement (or lack thereof) begins and ends in the brain. The nervous system is constantly reporting to the brain on the positions of our body parts. How detailed and accurate the report is depends on the strength of the neuromuscular connection. An untrained neuromuscular system can spell disaster no matter what your fitness level is. 

When working with my clients, I like to promote “fitness with a conscience.” Being present is a non-negotiable requirement in our gym. Only by being mindful in exercise can we unlock the power that already resides in us, build more strength faster, and accomplish all of the above safely. Now the question becomes, “how exactly do you practice mindful exercise?” The answer to that will come in my next blog, so stay tuned.