We typically visit a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor or some other medical professional because we hurt. We go to be fixed. As part of the diagnostic process, he or she may tell us what’s wrong. Similarly, many personal training assessment protocols have the trainer take clients through some sort of movement assessment and we get to tell our new client where they’re tight, where they’re immobile, and what movement skills they lack. (Often the movements that make up these assessments are highly unusual to most people and they have little resemblance to anything we do in real life. No wonder so many people don’t score well.)
By framing the discussion in terms of “what’s wrong,” we enter into a negative state of mind. We may have walked in feeling fear, hesitation, shame, and pessimism about our inability to get out of pain and get in shape. When we’re labeled as “dysfunctional” then we will only feel worse — yet we came in seeking help! There’s a better way to discuss patent and client health.
Physiotherapist, chiropractor, and strength coach Greg Lehman advocates for being a “movement optimist.” In his seminar Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science, he suggests a better way to help our clients and patients is to start by telling them what they can do rather than what they can’t. People come to health and fitness professionals to feel good, get out of pain, and be strong. Our words matter. We can have a tremendous impact by setting the stage for success.
Lehman’s optimistic outlook mirrors some ideas from physical therapist Gary Gray. He advocates that in working with clients we start where he or she is successful. That means we find a movement with which they’re comfortable. We start where it’s easy. Then we progress gradually toward more challenging or painful movements.
For instance, if someone can’t balance well on one foot, we allow him or her to hold on to something or use their other foot to help with balance while he or she performs a movement task. Or, if someone feels knee pain with a forward lunge, but has no knee pain in a lateral lunge, then we start with lateral lunging and gradually progress to the forward lunge. If we start with success then we build confidence. If we allow the nervous system to move without pain then we help calm fears about pain and we facilitate more pain-free movement.
Research: Positive self-talk works.
Movement optimism isn’t just for clinicians and trainers. Patients, clients, and athletes have the power to help themselves. Research on positive self-talk shows that it has a measurable positive effect on strength and endurance.
“Adding mental training to your current program will likely boost your strength gains and may even decrease markers of physiological stress. Positive self-talk and first-person kinesthetic mental imagery absolutely don’t replace slinging around heavy iron, obviously, but they can help you get larger gains from your training program.”
Positive self-talk also helps endurance athletes. Alex Hutchinson has discussed research on cyclists:
“Take 24 volunteers and have them do a cycling test to exhaustion; give half of them a two-week self-talk intervention; and then do another cycling test to exhaustion and see if they’ve improved relative to controls. In this case, the answer was yes: the self-talk group lasted 18% longer (637 to 750 seconds) while the control group stayed the same. The rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on a 10-point scale also climbed more slowly in the self-talk group; in other words, they were able to convince themselves that the exercise felt easier.”
Hutchinson also discusses the effect of smiling (yes smiling!) while running:
“A new study in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise from Noel Brick and his colleagues at Ulster University explores precisely this question. They had 24 runners complete a series of four six-minute runs and measured their running economy (an efficiency metric based on how much oxygen you consume at a given pace), as well as perceptual outcomes, like effort. During the runs, the volunteers were instructed to smile, frown, relax their hands and upper body (by imagining, for example, that they were carrying potato chips between their thumb and forefingers without breaking them), or just think their usual thoughts.
“The results more or less supported the benefits of smiling. Running economy was a little more than 2 percent better when smiling—an improvement that’s comparable to what you see in studies of weeks or months of plyometrics or heavy weight training.”
(A note to curmudgeons: Your act is tired and childish. It’s a cry for attention that helps no one. Enough with the nonsense! Try something new! Do something that works. Or don’t…)
The brain is central to everything I’ve discussed. Pain science tells us that we are less apt to hurt if we feel relaxed, confident, and safe. In contrast, we’re more likely to feel pain if we’re stressed, anxious, and fearful. Clinicians and coaches have a huge opportunity to help people if we communicate in a positive way. Patients, clients, and athletes have the same opportunity when they communicate with themselves.