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I just spent a little time with my mother-in-law, a vibrant septuagenarian at her local health club in Sacramento. She asked me to come over to review her workouts and to maybe give her a few other suggestions to help her make the most out of the time she spent exercising. When we first got there I asked her to lead me through her normal routine. After bringing me to the treadmill we went to the weight room and she proceeded to guide me through her strength routine. Her exercise selection consisted of the seated chest press machine, seated horizontal row machine and the seated shoulder press machine. She also showed me the seated cable exercise she had been performing with two cable handles.

After understanding her routine a little bit I asked her what her goals or objectives were. She told me she wanted to have better balance and be stronger for all the activities in her daily life. I asked her what those activities included so I could get a better sense of how she used her body. She told me she spends a lot of time on the floor with her six-year-old granddaughter and she likes to spend time in her garden.

After hearing this I explained to her that the exercises that she had been performing were not necessarily going to get her closer to her objectives, in fact they may take her further away. At no point in her day did she sit on a comfortable pad with either her chest or back braced while she pushed or pulled. No time during her day did she have her legs relaxed while her upper body did all of the work. The machines did not encourage better balance either. We then discussed the types of movements which she needed to have better balance and be stronger for and not so much which particular muscles she needed to get stronger. The truth was that she needed to get her entire body stronger to accommodate the movements that she found herself doing on a daily basis. It would be unfair to target only one muscle and say “we have to get you stronger” and disregard the hundreds of other muscles that cooperate when the whole body moves. So herein lies the point of this blog: rather than thinking about specific muscles we should instead considers human motion and how to make its integrative action stronger, better balanced, and more efficient.

I considered what it really was my mother-in-law needed in how she described her daily life. She needs to be familiar with getting up and down off the floor, how to squat efficiently and how to maintain balance when she takes a step. She needs to be stronger to do so with the least amount of assistance including her own hands. We also need to find out how she does get up and down from the ground. So we went over to a floor pad and I asked her to simply get to the floor. I didn’t tell her how. I didn’t explain which muscles to use. I didn’t tell her which limb to start with. I just wanted to be an observer and her body unconsciously found the most efficient way and safest way she could achieve that task. Next, we started to play around with that action. As she was getting up and down I noticed that she would always lower down onto her right knee. So I started to challenge her by asking her to try and do the same but lowering her left knee first. She found it very demanding at first but before too long her body began to organize a pattern of movement which made it possible for her to get up-and-down without the use of her arms. I asked her that she try and alternate which knee she lowers onto in her future workouts. That’s exercise #1.

Next, I asked her to squat down like she was picking up a garden pot. It bothered her knees a little so we adjusted her feet and leg position which made it much better. I handed her a 5lb. weight and had her hold onto it as if it were the bottom of a pot. That’s exercise number 2!

Exercise #3 and #4 involved the cable station she was familiar with. I asked her to grab the handle in one hand and walk away from the pulley. I then asked her to take a step forward and allow the weight to pull her body forward even farther. When she got to her end range she was to step back to her starting position.  At first. she was quite wobbly (which was great because it meant her body was being challenged and had to figure out how to coordinate the movement and slow down her forward motion) but in just a few repetitions the wobbles diminished. For the next movement, I asked her to turn around while still holding the handle. She was to take a step away from the machine while reaching forward and then return to the starting position. This caused her to not only drive her body forward against resistance but also to control her body as it was pulled backward. Do you think these movements might help her with balance, coordination, and full body strength while she chases a six-year old around her garden.  I certainly do.

Remember our bodies utilize over 400 muscles for movement. Spending your time in a gym trying to strengthen only a dozen of them is not fair to you. Invite all the instruments to the symphony. You’ll make beautiful music together.