The Easy Way To Build Strength, In 3 Mindful Steps

Photo: Christine Love Hewitt

Physical strength can mean many different things. Depending upon whom you ask, to be physically strong might mean you can do a onehanded handstand, or maybe it means you can deadlift 1.5 times your bodyweight, or maybe it simply means you can get up off of the floor without using your hands. Like all aspects of fitness, what it means to be accomplished lies in the eyes of the person attempting the skill.

But what if strength is defined as moving well with a sense of ease?

Often, our workouts become a time to zone out, to do what the teacher says without a lot of thought about refinement. It’s less of a physical practice and more of a checkmark on our to-do list. But what if you changed your approach to your workout and made it more of a practice? When you practice, you slow things down. You figure out ways to make the movements look pretty. Even when you are lifting weights, it becomes less about the struggle to move the load and more about "How can I do this in a way that is efficient and smooth?"

When you change your perspective toward a more practice-based mindset, there will still be a sense of challenge that comes along with gaining strength and mobility. It doesn’t make things easy, but it does help you get more in touch with how you are doing a specific movement or skill and changes your focus to being more about the experience than the outcome.

Below are three tips to shift your perspective toward your physical practice. As you move through your exercise program, whether it’s a yoga class or weight lifting, occasionally reflect on one or two of these principles and see if it changes your relationship toward movement.

Make it look smooth and effortless.

Whatever movement you are performing, see how you can make it look smoother and like it requires less effort. This doesn’t always make the skill easier (sometimes, in fact, it makes it harder), but by taking the time to focus on how the skill feels, you can explore doing the skill in a more thoughtful way. Try taping yourself on camera to study your movement patterns.

The goal isn’t to criticize yourself negatively, but to notice your habits. We all have them (I love to do a little stutter step before I do something that is challenging, like deadlift a heavy load or vertical jump, and for a while I was looking down every time I did a challenging hip movement). Watching yourself and asking, "Does that look like it feels" makes you more embodied and will improve your overall body awareness.

Work on doing a move or skill slowly.

If it’s a weightlifting move that requires external load, use less weight than you normally use and move through the skill at a much slower pace. Can you feel all of the different aspects of the movement? Are there spots you want to rush through? It’s normal to have places that feel less fluid; slowing things down gives you an opportunity to see if you can find a way to even the motion out. After you have done a few slowly, go back to your normal speed. Do things feel different?

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Focus on being deliberate with your movement.

If it’s a skill you are comfortable with, like a squat, maybe you stagger your feet a little bit. Maybe you change your foot position or shift the weight in the bottom position or mimic squatting under a fence. What does this feel like? One of the ways people become experts is through deliberate practice; part of deliberate practice is introducing repetition with variation. From a physical skill perspective, the shape of the movement is still recognizable, but the way it’s approached is varied.

If you participate in any sort of physical exercise program, chances are high you have different goals than I do, and I have different goals than the person standing next to me at the gym. Don’t let go of your goals, but see if changing your relationship to your physical practice shifts your mindset and, perhaps, your approach to life.

How else can you bring mindfulness to your workout? Here's how to stretch mindfully.

And are you ready to learn more about how brain health and your diet are intimately connected? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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