If your goal is to run faster, lift heavier weights, or even have larger calf muscles, the path to achieving results is pretty clear. But sometimes our fitness goals are more holistic and elusive and that is exactly when I think you should focus on your weaknesses.
I spend a surprising amount of time as a coach, writer and podcaster defining and redefining the word “fitness” because far too often people get it confused or conflated with either being skinny or being muscle-bound. But it is both more simple and more important than either of those ideals.
My vision of being fit can be boiled down to being able to move through this world with as few limitations as possible. To achieve that goal, we often need to focus on our weakest parts rather than our strongest.
I get at least one email per week asking me “I want to get fit but I don’t know where to start,” or “I used to be a runner in college but that was 20 years ago and now don’t know how to get back in shape,” or some other variation on that theme.
I feel for these folks. I really do! With the crazy amount of information floating around out there about fitness, exercise, and the “perfect” workouts, it is hard to know where to start. So what is my answer to this question? Well, that’s simple.
Pinpoint Your Fitness Weakness
You know the old saying “use it or lose it,” right? It’s true, but humans have a tendency to do the opposite of that. When we start to lose the ability to do something (like bend down to get something off the floor) we often simply stop trying to do it or we find an alternate way to achieve the same end. And in a vicious circle, because we are ignoring that particular movement even more than we were before, we get even worse and worse at it. And so on and so on.
We often blame these deficiencies on age, too. I cringe when I hear people say things like “Well, you’re 50 now, so of course, you can’t do that anymore,” or “What do you expect, you’re not a spring chicken after all.” Not only is this defeatist attitude depressing, it’s also untrue.
Let’s take a quick detour for a second…
Exercise and Aging
A study called Age-Related Rates of Decline in Performance among Elite Senior Athletes gave us convincing evidence that what we consider to be “typical” loss of muscle that starts around the time that we blow out candles on our fortieth birthday cake has more to do with lack of use than aging.
In the study, 40 recreational masters athletes (usually defined as an athlete who is 35 years old or older) between the ages of 40 and 81 performed a series of fitness and strength tests. Their upper legs had MRI scans to measure muscle and fat content. These athletes trained four to five times a week for running, swimming, or cycling races—so yeah, they were in pretty darn good shape and it showed. Neither the size of the muscles in their legs nor the strength of those muscles had declined significantly with age among the subjects. The researchers concluded that engaging in regular movement training had in effect staved off the muscle-wasting effects of aging.
Driving this point home, the MRI samples showed virtually identical quadricep muscles in a 40-year-old triathlete when compared to a 70-year-old triathlete. In sad contrast, the quadriceps muscles of a 74-year-old sedentary man were obviously encased in fat and noticeably shrivelled.
I know what you are thinking: yes, previous studies have indeed shown there is an undeniable decline of muscle with age, but these studies have generally been done on a more average, sedentary group of study subjects to conclude these effects of aging. So what is “normal” here is not “inevitable.”
Ok, back to our plan…
Where to start
So, when it comes to getting fit, if we don’t want to end up like the 74-year-old sedentary man from the study (with the fat and shrivelled muscles) I would suggest looking for your weakest attributes and start focusing on those.
- If you can run just fine but you lack upper body strength, let’s get those muscles moving.
- If you can’t touch your shins, let alone your toes, then perhaps it is time to get a stretching routine in place.
- If you have never even attempted a pull-up let alone completed one, let’s get working on those pulling muscles!
You get the idea.
I have heard it described like this: even if your car has a flat tire, you can still drive it pretty fast, but that flat tire is using up a lot of extra gas (energy) and will eventually wreck the overall alignment of your car.
Diagnosing the Weakness
When a client starts working with me as their coach, I often have them do what is called a Functional Movement Screen (FMS). This is a screening tool designed to identify movement patterns that may indicate weakness, increased risk of injury, or simply some inefficient movement patterns that may cause a reduction in performance.
The FMS consists of seven movement patterns involving mobility and stability. The seven-movement patterns are:
- Deep Squat
- Hurdle Step
- In-line Lunge
- Active Straight-leg Raise
- Trunk Stability Push-up
- Rotary Stability
- Shoulder Mobility
This can be a useful series of movements to run ourselves through BUT HONESTLY, most of us don’t need a test to determine where our deficiencies are. We are likely very (perhaps even painfully) aware of our movement weaknesses.
So, like a weak link in a chain that could allow a thief to make off with your bike, let’s begin our fitness adventure by shoring up our defences. And like the masters athletes in the study, let’s start ourselves on the road to being indistinguishable in an MRI from a whippersnapper who is 30 years our junior.