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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Fitness


The Best Exercise for Your Body and Brain

John B. Perry

Stephen Covey ( told us to "begin with the end in mind."

Have you ever heard "train with the brain in mind?"

Growing up, I would get the latest issue of Muscle and Fitness and plug away at biceps, triceps and chest routines. What resulted was frustration due to lack of performance enhancement and usually an overuse injury or two.

After becoming a Physical Therapist and gaining the knowledge of how the body operates, it became apparent why I had so much trouble meeting my fitness goals growing up and why I had injuries.

I was confusing my brain.

The brain is our guardian; like a protective mother with lots of kids. The kids in this case are all the bones, joints, muscles, etc.

The mother wants her kids to be successful. It really bothers her to see her kids suffer or doing anything that makes them struggle. In other words, the brain is interested in the body's success.

Now most mothers (brains) have spies to help them. These are neighbors, kids in the neighborhood, teachers at school, etc., that let mothers know if there are problems with the kids. You see, the brain does not like the body or its parts (the kids) to get into any difficulty.

These spies are called proprioceptors. They send information to the brain to let it know such things as how fast a limb is moving, how much tension a muscle is under, if a joint is under too much strain and where a body part is located in space. The brain reacts by making adjustments so the body is successful.

You see, by training the body in the correct way, the right information gets to the brain. When you train the body the wrong way, the spies send bad information to the brain; this results in poor performance and fitness outcomes.

The brain will take in whatever information you feed it, good or bad. It loves you like only a good mother could. It will react based on the information it gets. The brain wants you to be efficient and have glorious results…but can only respond to the information it receives.

The last tidbit of information about the brain and its importance to training is this; the brain recognizes muscle synergies (groups of muscles working together).

This brings me to my point about confusing the brain. If you send it information about muscles working in isolation (biceps curls, triceps press downs, sitting knee extensions), then the brain responds with mixed signals. It wants to make the body efficient by having the muscles work in groups. Based on the feedback it is getting though, it tries to make the body as successful as possible by helping the muscles work individually. This results in poor movement patterns and injury.

Based on this information, I realized my brain needed some help. I needed to stop feeding my brain artificial movement information. I needed to train my muscles and joints as a group and do programs that allowed my body to move as it was designed to move.

Now I realize I just gave you a lot of neuroanatomy and physiology in a few short paragraphs. However, with that knowledge in tow, let me tell you the type of routine that will stimulate your brain!

There are four things you must do:

First, get on your feet. We constantly ask our bodies to perform while squatting, walking and climbing stairs. Our muscles need to be ready to respond when executing these types of activities. If you train the body (and brain) while on your feet, it will respond by making the body more efficient during those occasions.

Second, train movements, not muscles. As mentioned before, the brain recognizes groups (synergies) of muscles, not individual muscles. To make greater fitness gains, don't confuse your brain…train it correctly.

Third, work in multiple planes of motion. There are three planes of motion: sagittal (front and back like a forward lunge or walking straight ahead), frontal (side-to-side like a lateral/side lunge or arm motion during jumping jacks), and transverse (rotation like a drop-step lunge or swinging a bat). All human movements have all three planes involved; however, there is usually one dominant plane. Training in three planes will assist in training muscle synergies and will make your brain happy.

Fourth, get your hips into it! The hip musculature originates and dissipates (controls) body forces; forces like gravity, ground reaction (forces coming up from the ground when taking a step), and external forces (weights, exercise bands, etc.) acting on the system. The hips are the crossroads for many forces working on the body. Proper motion and strength in your hips can help make other parts of your body perform better.

A few sample exercises that incorporate the above principles are:

  • Three position lunges. Lunges to the front, side and drop step (stepping back at a 45 degree angle).

  • Squat to overhead shoulder press with dumbbells.

  • Squat to row - similar to the seated row, only in a standing position. When arms are out, you are in a squat position, when you pull back to row, bring your hips forward and stand up.

I could talk for hours about the benefits of full-body multi-plane exercise routines. Hopefully you understand why it is so important to your movement success and ultimately your fitness success.

Take home points from this article:

  • Train on your feet, in three planes of motion.

  • Work through your hips to train your brain

  • Full body, synergistic routines send the proper information to the brain about successful movement patterns.

Ultimately, this will improve:

  • Movement
  • Weight loss
  • Energy
  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • And help eliminate joint pain and injury possibility.

Good luck, train your brain…your body will thank you.

Copyright © 2006 John Perry

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