This blog post is dedicated to all of you who think you should be exercising more than you do. Or believe you should be enjoying it more than you do, or wish you were getting better results.
All of you are officially off the hook. I’ve been a certified fitness trainer for some twenty years, and I am here to tell you that we’ve all been duped.
Fitness culture, at least here in the US, is largely premised on several fallacies:
To be clear, I’m not saying that this approach doesn’t help people improve their physical wellbeing. If you are relatively sedentary and then pursue a regimen premised on these ideas, you will get stronger. You will feel more energetic. You might even lose weight.
But unless you are among those for whom such a regimen continually sparks joy, I encourage you to keep reading. And then to pursue a fitness regimen premised on an idea of wellness that prioritizes ongoing enjoyment of your own body, based on a model of the human movement system that takes the role of fascia into account.
I began learning about the role fascia plays in movement and fitness out of necessity, when COVID first shut down the country and closed our gyms. My gym had been not only my fitness outlet, but also my fitness lab, so I needed a means of both conditioning my body and furthering my research that I could pursue within the constraints of my tiny New York City apartment. My sister had recently gifted me some of Jill Miller’s self-myofascial release balls, so I began by exploring the techniques she was pioneering. I had been using a foam roller to release tight tissues for years, but the balls offered versatility and reach on a whole other level—I could give myself a whole-body deep tissue massage, whenever I wished. I was astonished by how swiftly range of motion for my shoulders and hips improved, and I was inspired to learn as much as I could about how an understanding of fascia could inform my fitness practice. I attended some excellent online trainings offered by Miller, Tom Myers, and the Fascia Training Academy. By the time the world began to open back up again, my entire concept of the human movement system had been irrevocably changed.
I’ll explain, with the caveat that I have to oversimplify things for the sake of brevity (see the links throughout and at the end of this post if you’d like to do a deeper dive):
The paradigm that nearly every fitness professional studies is that movement happens when muscles contract and release, changing the positions of the bones to which they are attached and thereby operating the joints that connect the bones to one another. The point of exercise is to bring all the muscles in your body into proper length/tension relationships, strengthening the weak muscles and stretching the tight muscles, so that everything is in balance and can function properly. Once that balance is achieved, you continue to condition your musculature to become stronger and better coordinated.
This is best accomplished by adding load to joint movements (as in a dumbbell biceps curl) or groups of joint movements (as in a barbell squat) through the use of tools like free weights, challenging body positions, selectorized machines, etc., and then working the muscles to fatigue so that as they recover they become bigger and stronger.
Exercises that achieve this are characteristically strenuous and can involve significant pain, both during exercise and while the muscles you worked to fatigue build themselves back up.
The paradigm that I now embrace is that our fascial system contains and coordinates all of the structures that facilitate movement—not only our muscles, bones, and joints, but also neural networks that enable us to communicate with and sense all of these structures. The point of exercise is to enhance our ability to communicate with and coordinate all of these structures via improved kinesthetic awareness, in order to increase range of motion (aka flexibility) and force production (aka strength), with a view to helping us function as desired and enjoy our own bodies more.
This is best achieved by
Exercises that achieve this generally feel good. I also find them fun, as does everyone I have shared them with so far.
When you were a little kid, I’ll bet you didn’t think of things like splashing around in the local swimming hole or playing Kick the Can with your friends as “exercise.” That was just play. You were enjoying discovering what your body could feel and do. You were exploring and expanding your movement options. It was only later that you might have discovered how humiliating and/or tense gym class could be, or learned to fear being bullied by your stronger peers, or were advised to care more about whether your body met cultural beauty standards than enjoying your expanding range of physical sensations and functionality.
I find this incredibly tragic. The way most of us inevitably cease to enjoy exploring and developing our own bodies has an enormous impact on our quality of life and overall wellness. But that is a broader concern than the topic under discussion here, which is how our culture’s current exercise paradigm further interferes with our physical functionality and our enjoyment of our own bodies.
Here is how our current fitness paradigm evolved, again with a caveat for oversimplification and generalization:
This is why you hate exercise.
I’m a voice teacher. I became interested in fitness because singers’ bodies are their instruments, and I could see that my students would benefit tremendously if they had the means to optimize their alignment, breathing, and stabilization for peak performance in singing, just as other athletes condition their bodies for peak performance in their sport of choice. So I got into this purely out of the pursuit of elite functionality, not to help people cosplay its outward appearance.
When you pursue the appearance of athleticism, you perform exercises in a way that requires you to hold parts of yourself rigid, to create leverage for the muscles you are pumping up. Exercise machines often help create this rigidity by limiting the direction of the push or pull they facilitate—for example, many chest press machines have a fixed directional line of movement, so all you need to do is load them up with as much weight as you can handle, and repeatedly push the levers until you’re exhausted. That is why you can lift more weight on those machines than you would be able to manage with a pair of dumbbells, or why you might be able to press your own weight on them while still not being able to perform more than a couple of pushups. You’re pumping up your pecs to give them greater mass and definition, without significantly improving how your chest and shoulders function. In fact, you may even be impairing your shoulder function, because there is a good chance that you are throwing the length/tension relationships between your pecs and everything else that attaches to your shoulders out of balance. When you use a rigid procedure to pump up your muscles, the outcome is that you yourself become increasingly rigid. And let me tell you, physical rigidity does not feel good, and it also puts you at increased risk of injury.
Athletic excellence requires integrated movement and flow. The elite athletes for whom these exercise modalities were created have already achieved this ability, and they are surrounded by coaches who make sure that they perform these exercises for the purpose of supporting and enhancing integrated movement and flow, and avoid becoming rigid. But the fitness trainer at your local Equinox just wants to help you get slim and jacked, quite possibly because that’s what you told them you wanted. Eventually, they come to assume that that is what everyone wants. I know, because I worked for Equinox. And New York Sports Clubs. And New York Health & Racquet Club, where my manager admonished me that I wasn’t doing my job if my clients weren’t sweating copiously and felt miserably sore afterwards, because that’s what makes them think they are getting their money’s worth out of our sessions.
Excellence in singing also requires integrated movement and flow. Rigidity is the enemy of free expression in any form, but physical rigidity can significantly limit a singer’s options (on top of it not feeling good, while putting us at increased risk of injury).
This is why the question singers most frequently ask me is, “How can I work out without messing up my voice?”
That’s how deeply our culture associates rigidity and pain with exercise. Singers assume they have to manage some sort of compromise that will enable them to get slim and jacked in order to become more aesthetically marketable, while somehow preventing the requisite rigidity and pain from impacting the way their voices function. They don’t realize that it is not only possible but also highly beneficial to pursue a fitness regimen designed to make their bodies, aka their instruments, as functional as could be desired.
So if you’re a singer who hates or even fears exercise, I get it. But I hope this blog post inspires you to investigate whether you might discover some fitness modalities that would increase your movement options while also increasing your enjoyment of your own physicality.
Your success and enjoyment depend far more on the approach you take than on the particular modality you pursue. Yoga, swimming, dance, and many martial arts are all highly conducive to developing strength, flexibility, and coordination in a way that honors the dominance of our fascia over the human movement system. But even an intense Crossfit session or HIIT class can help you optimize your instrument for peak performance, provided you continually prioritize integrated movement and flow, while refraining from movements and levels of intensity that can cause rigidity.
And should your explorations expose existing areas of chronic rigidity, you can break out those massage balls and use them to cultivate greater suppleness, improve your range of motion, and discover how extraordinarily beautiful integrated movement and flow can be.
Recommended Fascia Fitness Resources:
Jill Miller https://www.tuneupfitness.com
The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body
Tom Myers https://www.anatomytrains.com
Robert Schleip https://www.somatics.de/en/schleip
Fascial Fitness: How to Be Vital, Elastic and Dynamic in Everyday Life and Sport
Fascia Training Academy
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