Thursday, January 06, 2011
Though I've sometimes felt like saying this (most often at the dreaded "wall" of a long race), that's not what I mean by firing your muscles. What I'm talking about is the ability to consciously control which of our muscles moves, when, and how much. Gaining mastery over our muscles is something we typically call "coordination", and people have widely varying abilities to do this.
When I teach swimming skills, I can readily see that some people can easily change the way they move a single body part - a hand, say, or the twist of the abdominal core. And some people can't do that easily at all. I wonder how much it boils down to innate coordination, and how much is learned? How much depends on what kinds of things we did as kids - did we run, jump, play, tunnel, climb? Or were we inside watching a TV or reading a book? I wonder about the current generation of kids, and how much control they'll have over their bodies when they don't use them as much as my generation did.
One thing I do know for sure, you can improve your muscle coordination skills. If it's sport-specific improvement you're looking for, you can do that simply by practicing that sport well and often. Malcolm Gladwell (among others) makes the point that it takes approximately 10,000 hours for a person to master a subject. That includes academic subjects like computer programming, musical endeavors like playing the voilin at a performance level, throwing the perfect karate punch or winning the 100 meter butterfly at a swim meet. So part of it is just time spent doing the particular thing you want to get better at.
I frequently have people come to my Monday Swim Conditioning class hoping to improve their stroke, but they never get in the pool between classes. I'm sorry to say that one hour a week just won't give you much in the way of improvement. Let's see, those 10,000 hours for mastery would take you about 27 years at that rate! In swimming, I'd say it takes a minimum of two swim sessions a week to maintain whatever level you're currently at, and a minimum of 3 - 4 to improve. I can see a real difference in the people who come to my class who also swim a couple more times a week. Frequency is as important for improvement as the total amount of time you spend.
If we're looking to improve our general muscular coordination, and not just sport-specific, we can do this by engaging in a wider variety of activities. Often, we get in a fitness rut, going to the same classes or activities over and over and over. A marathon runner might be quite accomplished in his sport, but if he gets nudged sideways he can hardly hold himself up from falling because his lateral muscle stability is near zero. He's only worked his leg muscles in one particular way, and his arms and upper body not at all.
So what can we do to improve? Take a lesson from the kids and PLAY. Run, jump, roll down a hill, run up a hill, run up a sand dune, play frisbee, catch, badminton, sprint, spring, leap, climb a tree, knit, thumb-wrestle, use a hula-hoop, jump-rope, or pogo stick, do familiar exercises in different ways. I think the more different things you can do, the more likely you can gain mastery over how your body works, and it will respond more quickly to the things you ask of it.
This last Monday, I was teaching my swim class to do the butterfly. We started with the kick. In order to kick the butterfly or dolphin kick, you have to fire the muscles of your abdomen (your rectus abdominus, or "six pack muscles") in series, one after the other in order to create a wave that runs through your whole body, ending at your feet. This is tricky for many people. Some folks can only fire them all together or not at all. When they try to kick butterfly, their whole body bends in half in what I call the "inchworm" approach. No momentum is generated from this motion, and they stay almost in place in the pool. In short, you have to become like a belly dancer to swim butterfly, or someone who can roll a quarter down their abs by contracting them one at a time. By the end of class, everyone is making progress but some people have had a much easier time than others. I would put money on a bet that anyone who could use a hula-hoop as a kid though could do the butterfly kick.
So if you're trying to learn a new skill, or want to improve your overall body coordination and conditioning, remember to go and fire your muscles in new and exciting ways!