When we think of muscles, we think of flexing. In fact, the first muscle we learn about is the bicep, even before we know its name. "Show me your muscles!" This is a common request when you're a kid. We have 3 different types of muscles: skeletal, cardiac, and smooth. Skeletal helps us move, cardiac keeps us alive (the heart), and smooth vary in size and tasks, such as helping us swallow (larynx), and are wrapped around capillaries and organs.
We learn at a young age how to use our muscles by learning to crawl, walk, talk, and then more complex movements like riding a bike, and throwing and kicking a ball. Some of these tasks are second nature now as adults. We don't need to think about our movements before walking, talking, or typing. There are some movements we may have to think about before doing, especially when they are new. If you’re lifting for the first time, or trying a new fitness style like kickboxing, barre, or yoga, you’ll realize quickly just how disconnected your mind is from your body. A large part of learning something new and “getting it” is the connection, regardless of your fitness style. You may even realize that you have trouble distinguishing your left from your right. Don’t worry – the more you practice, the quicker it will become 2nd nature again! There are so many skeletal muscles in our body - over 600 - and we want to use and define them. But how? Here are 5 steps to getting started.
1. Breathing & Meditation. There are various exercises for breathing and meditation. Dr. Weil highlights 3 breathing exercises here. For starters, simple recognition is best. Sit up tall with your hands on your thighs. For heightened sense, close your eyes. Don’t force your breathing, but simply notice it. Feel how air enters your body as you inhale, and feel it through to the exhale.
Meditation can help us cope with stressors and everyday life as well as making us more aware of our bodies. Body scan is a way to meditate. Scans help connect our mind to our muscles, bringing attention to your body, relieving stress and tension. Start lying down totally relaxed, focusing on your breath. You can begin at your feet and work your way up or vice versa (I prefer beginning at my feet). Take a long, deep breath in, flex your feet, then completely relax your feet as you exhale. Repeat as you work up. It’s best to try a guided scan first. I love the Calm app. It offers a new guided meditation daily, as well as various options for anxiety, happiness, stress management, sleep, and even stories for children! They also have great background sounds and visuals.
2. Learn about your body. You won't necessarily know how to use a particular muscle if you don't know where it is. Use this diagram to help you "find" your muscles. Look in the mirror and literally find them on your body. Another way to learn about your body is to buy a coloring book. Check out Amazon for the latest.
3. Be Present: Slow Down and Connect. As stated in #1, a body scan is a great way to connect with your body but how do we activate these muscles while exercises? The key is to slow down. Part of doing the exercise properly is proper engagement. Sometimes we “go through the motions” and aren’t mindful and present in our workouts. If you want to use a certain muscle, you may need to work harder to send the message from your brain to the muscle. I come across a lot of people who have a tough time activating their glutes and core muscles. Try activating (or flexing) these muscles right now. Now do a squat, lunge or plank. Now do a squat, a lunge or a plank while activating either one or both muscles. Do you feel a difference?
4. Core control. Our core is essential to performing many exercises correctly, and of course, our posture in general. As a society, we are sitting most of the day, and when we sit, we slouch. Taking 15 minutes every 60 to focus on sitting up tall and engaging our core muscles, can make a big difference. To activate your core, you need to pull in your muscles towards your spine, and make the distinction between breathing and core engagement.
5. Try new things! Trying new ways to exercise, different ways to lift, and just different movements in general will help you to be more aware of your muscles and how they work.