I like to imagine that being fit is like growing a plant.
Everyone knows that plants need water and sunlight, but only gardeners know that the big secret to a good garden is taking care of the soil. There's the common knowledge and then there's stuff that is usually overlooked. Luckily it doesn't take much for you to find out what you're overlooking! Look for someone with experience and they’ll tell you what you’re missing.
In being fit, everyone knows they need to be strong (they go to the gym) and to eat well (they go on diets). But everyone overlooks this one thing- neuromotor training!
I know it’s a fancy word- let that be your technical term for today. But in simpler terms, let's call this coordination. That's what it's talking about anyway. Neuro (for the brain) motor (for the movement). It asks,
“How well can you coordinate your mind to your movement?”
A Simple Nueromotor Test
Balance on one foot for a bit. Then lean forward and use your opposite hand to touch your foot on the floor.
Try it again with your eyes closed.
How is this movement for you?
Doing this movement well needs some strength and some flexibility. But you can be very strong and flexible and still find this challenging. Because it also needs good coordination.
Meanwhile, you're more likely in your every day life to bend over and try to pick something up, than you are to bench press 200 pounds.
So why do we train like the bench press is more important?
In my real life, I'm always bending over to pick things up. Or reaching up to get plates from the top cabinet. All while holding my phone in one hand.. That requires some strength for sure, but not the 200 bench press kind. What it really needs is neuromotor ability. Can I coordinate my strength to do these every day kind of movements?
As an added plus, coordination training gives us the most benefit down the line. As we age, many injuries result not from overexertion, but from a lack of coordination and balance. Falling down is dangerous for older adults, and it is the major cause of fractures for that group. Having a stable sense of balance and coordination goes a long way in helping prevent these accidents.
Hint: Try the Multitask test
How can you tell if you're getting neuromotor training?
The good news that every exercise is neuromotor in some way. You have to be coordinated to do a good push up. And you have to have a sense of balance when doing a squat. So it's not like you aren't getting some of that already with your current workouts.
But you also might not be fully engaged, and missing out on some benefits of neuromotor training.
One way I test this for myself is to see if I want to multitask while working out. If I'm doing pull ups, and I'm able to watch Netflix at the same time, that means my mind doesn't really have to focus on what I'm doing.
**If I can multitask during a workout- then there's still room to engage my brain.**
A similar test is a boredom test. If I'm doing a workout, and I find it boring, then it's probably not engaging me enough.
For me, when I use a gym machine and do bicep curls, I find it so boring and unengaging. I just do them mindlessly. I may be gaining strength, but there's no coordination going on. I'm not getting that benefit.
**If I can multitask or if a workout makes me bored- I try to explore ways to engage my brain more**
Tricks to get neuromotor work in
You don't really have to drastically change your woktouts to get nueromotor training in. There are some simple things you can do to make your movements more engaging.
Close your eyes
The quickest and easiest way is to do movements with your eyes closed (like a mentioned above). Closing your eyes will get your brain to check in with the cues in your body, and how you're feeling. Try it yourself and see. It's a simple way to mix things up. And it can be done with any movement.
Challenge your balance
Sometimes, I’ll carry a weight in one hand while I’m doing squats and lunges. I make it imbalanced on purpose so that my body has to react to that. My goals is to be more aware of where my weight is and how I’m shifting with that imbalance.
(Don’t forget to do both sides!)
I'm not saying it's better to train with shoes or without them. I'm not into those debates. What I am saying is that getting your shoes off and feeling your feet on the ground can bring in new sensations and help you be more aware of what you're feeling while moving.
You can do squats barefoot, or walk on different types of surfaces to get your brain engaged during your movements.
Make it awkward
When I get bored with regular pushups, sometimes I’ll twist my wrists a little bit, or I’ll try a different hand position. Nothing drastic, just enough to make it feel a little bit different, and get my mind engaged and feeling again.
Or if I’m on my feet for squats I’ll shift the weight around. Maybe I’ll do the lunges on my toes this time. I make it slightly different and a bit awkward so that I have to pay attention again. I can’t just knock them out mindlessly.
(It’s very important here not to get into painful positions! You can make it awkward, but don’t make it painful)
Training coordination is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you want to develop long term fitness. At some point, being super strong is overkill. You just need to be strong enough. Being super flexible isn't the goal either. You don't need to do splits when you're old. But you will need to have good balance though if you want to stay active and independent.
You can invest in that now by training mindfully. Keeping your brain engaged by surprising your body once in a while when you move.