On Needing Exposure to Imbalance to Increase Balance: The Paradox of Training in the Gym and Life

A few years ago, I was dishing out a workout to a female client of mine in her mid-50’s. It included the six major human movements, and we had reached the lunge section of the workout. The lunge iteration for this session: walking lunges. After demonstrating the movement for her, she went for her first set.

woman-walking-lunge.jpg

Left foot swung forward, both knees descended towards the ground. Her legs shook almost uncontrollably and to stay upright she opened her arms to a T and teetered side to side like an airplane in full flight. Continuing the gait cycle, she swung her right foot forward, and again lowered both knees closer to the ground. Once again, shake, shake, shake…shake, shake, shake…(she) shook her booty. After just two repetitions, she stood up and said in a huff loud and clear: “I don’t have any balance. This is not going to work.”

I could palpably sense her frustration.

“It’s okay, Debbie (pseudonym used for the purpose and intent of maintaining anonymity). You can do this.” I reassured her. I shared these words from a sense of knowing and trust in the client, not merely to prod her forward. I had true confidence in her ability. I had assessed her current fitness level to the task, and here is how she scored:

Coordination? Strong, supporting factor.

Motor control? Medium, supporting factor.

Strength? Enough to try, supporting factor.

Stability? Quite weak, limiting factor.

Mobility? Quite weak, limiting factor.

Then there was her confidence, which, like any person slipping down the totem pole of challenge acquisition, was waning.

“Keep going. You can do this,” I motioned her forwards.

Her front leg wobbled like a coconut and she zoooooomed thru the sky with her arms again. This time she fell over and caught herself with her wrist.

She had nearly had it. Her fuse getting shorter with each passing second.

How to softly but surely coax her into trying again? I silently self-inquired, firm on finding the sweet spot between not letting her give up and giving her a path to success.

Perhaps it is time for a regression of the exercise, I deducted.

Concurring with this consideration, I assessed the options.

I stood in front of her and said “, Take my hands.” She did. “Hold on tighter for more assistance, looser for less assistance,” I instructed. This would decrease the level of motor control, stability, and strength challenges.

She began again, this time with a little less tension in her face and a little more fluidity in her stepping. Two lunges in a row with solid execution. Four. Six. Time to walk back to the starting point. Again, two near perfect lunges. Three. I loosened my grip and she continued lunging, wobbling but with a new look of determination in her eyes and calmness washed over her face.

Second set complete (check).

When it was time to cruise into set number three, however, that initial look of uncertainty and doubt reappeared.

“You’ve got this,” I reassured her.

Youve Got This Meme

She wasn’t having it.

She slapped her quads, simultaneously creating a quad-quake that rumbled her body and a volcanic eruption of frustration whose hot lava filled the room. “Abby, I told you, I don’t have balance. This is just not going to work.”

Not one to argue with clients (or people in general), but definitely one to ruthlessly encourage others, I simply stated the truth and the evidence: “This may sound like an oxymoron,” I began. “But, you need to expose yourself to imbalance in order to attain balance,” I told her. “If you can, embrace the wobble. You did great on the first two sets, it will just take practice in this now wobbly position.”

This may sound like an oxymoron. But you need to expose yourself to imbalance in order to attain balance. This is the true of all pursuits in life.

Unfortunately, her mind was glued shut to the possibility of change and adaptation.

“You can do this,” I repeated.

After three very wobbly steps forwards, she paused again, straightening her legs and dropping her arms. Her level of frustration was through the roof.  “What are we doing next?” she somewhat sassily snapped, conveying clearly that she had resigned from the exercise. “I don’t have balance.” She restated, again, as if that were a static truth and we were working out in an echo chamber.

Tempted to encourage her to continue, some way, some how, I took the cue and we shifted fitness gears. It wasn’t at all imperative that she master the walking lunge today.

I had met her where she was physically and mentally, by regressing the exercise. I had fueled her with knowledge to motivate her movement. I had provided positive encouragement to inspire her movement. What else could I do? [gazes towards the heavens and scratches chin in typical quizzical facial expression]

Debbie had mentally and physically checked out. There were no mixed signals here. Her legs wouldn’t budge, as if stuck in knee-deep mud (ah!). I could see her slide metaphorical ear plugs into her ear canals to block the entry of my voice, even though she had hired me to be her coach and trainer.

MacGyver the various aforementioned elements of fitness that our clients present: coordination, motor control, strength, stability—and flexibility, mobility, reaction speed, and aerobic capacity to name several others; we must work with the unique moods and personalities that the client presents. This turns what is already a very interesting scientific game into an enigmatic art.

I had truly done all that I could, and it was time to move on.

Yet, years away from this experience, I am very compelled to teach a lesson on this platform that was eminent and powerful in this experience: “We must expose ourselves to the opposite of what we wish to attain in order to attain it.” Other ways of putting this: “you must do the think you think you cannot do; you must make yourself uncomfortable in a specific paradoxical way; you must do the uncomfortable thing.”

In the case of this client and this workout session, that meant that Debbie must insert herself in a scenario of imbalance in order to attain balance. Kind of like how each of these little rocks and big rocks below had to trust their fellow solid mineral compositions of different sizes to build their way up towards the sky (The Higher You Go, The Better The Views).

Zen Rocks Imbalance-Balance

This truth does not only apply to lunges. And it does not only operate in the sphere of movement. It is not merely physical. It resonates and provides a principle framework for success in all elements of human optimization.

I am grateful to Debbie for this lesson. While I am technically the “teacher” and the client the “student,” I am a big believer in viewing all interactions as an opportunity to learn from others. In this case, I learned from Debbie how to better program the lunge, and her rigidity inspired me to find a way to fine tune my language to facilitate faster learning and maintain a positive environment, as well as have the exercise better forward-thinking and planning to meet the client where s/he is.

It’s part of the puzzle of my vocation. Some clients will be tougher than others. As it is, teaching the principles of movement is one layer and the personality of the client (and coach) adds another layer. Thus, the multi-dimensional process of coaching–a relationship between teacher and student–is an art and a science.

I actually look forward to these situations now. The easy clients are fun to coach. The ones who just get it and you simply have to hold space after teaching them the technique for them to practice. But those who really challenge you to fine-tune your cueing, make the lesson as simple as possible, and test your emotional and mental equanimity as you test theirs–those are the gems. Those are the people who will help you get significantly better as a coach and human while you help them improve as an athlete, client, and human, as well. Coach Brett Bartholemew talks about these coach-client relationships in his genius book Conscious Coaching. I recommend you check it out if you are in a coaching or teaching profession, or generally interested in being able to work with others better and willing to take a little leap over into a different professional context to illustrate how you can bolster your influence and success in the one you are involved in.

In closing, remember, to attain emotional, mental, social, relational, and physical balance, we must first go beyond the range of the thing we are trying to attain. We must experience imbalance in the particular realm. If you work only within the range of your current balance, you will forever feel imbalanced when placed in situations that surpass your stability. And trust me, unless you stay locked in a flat room with no people, you definitely will.

to attain emotional, mental, social, relational, and physical balance, we must first go beyond the range of the thing we are trying to attain. We must experience imbalance in the particular realm. If you work only within the range of your current balance, you will forever feel imbalanced when placed in situations that surpass your stability.

I’ll finish with this great quote from the man himself, Sir Albert Einstein:

Einstein Pic

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To find your balance, you must keep moving forward.”

 

 

If you are interested in this topic of chasing balance (intended oxymoron) in life, please refer to these articles and videos, which extrapolate in what I find to be a comprehensible, thought-guiding, and eloquent way:

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