Have you ever tried to help someone, only to be met by what feels like a brick wall as the person stubbornly digs their heels in and, without actually saying it, resists your words of wisdom? Or maybe the person just can’t seem to do what you ask and you aren’t sure why.
Or maybe you have been the person who ignores suggestions on how to improve upon something because you don’t have time, or you simply don’t want to spend your time doing what was suggested, or maybe you just don’t know how to do what is being asked?
I teach movement for a living. I have witnessed first-hand the benefits of moving consistently. People get stronger. They feel better. And, because movement creates more movement, they move more in other areas of their lives.
I have also witnessed resistance to specific exercises or specific suggestions for seemingly no reason, except when you look a little deeper, you realize there is always a reason.
There is a sweet spot in terms of how much movement will create optimal results in the general population. People who strength training 2-3 times per week tend to move in a more cohesive way than people who don’t. People who move in some way daily tend to be more flexible and have better endurance than people who don’t. People who are open to trying new movements tend to be more adaptable to moving in their everyday lives.
But what about the people who see me twice a month? What happens if they don’t do anything else in between, even if I suggest it because I can see it would be beneficial? Or what about the person who has a movement hobby (they are an endurance athlete or they practice yoga or they practice circus arts), and they don’t have any interest in doing something that isn’t associated with their hobby?
Or what about the person who just can’t seem to open their mind to moving differently? They seem to hear your suggestions, but nothing changes in how they approach the way they move.
RESISTANCE, IN A NUTSHELL:
Resistance is defined as “the refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.” To resist, then, is to fight against an action.
Make a fist with your left hand. Place your right palm directly in front of your left hand. Try to punch your left hand forward, but use your right hand to prevent the left fist from moving.
Your right hand is resisting the forward movement of your left fist. You are preventing the action.
What do you feel throughout the right arm as you resist the forward motion of the left fist? I feel tension, all of the way up into my shoulder as I attempt to prevent the left arm from moving forward. I also feel tension throughout the left arm as it tries to overcome the resistance.
Resistance comes in many forms. Examples include:
Resisting a situation that feels unsafe.
Let’s break these down a bit further. What does it mean if you are working with someone who is resistant to change?
It means they are comfortable with the way things are. They don’t necessarily think changing things will be beneficial in any way.
As a coach or teacher, where does this leave you? How do you offer an alternative to the status quo that is currently working for the individual?
Instead of trying to change a person’s mind, acknowledge that the current situation is working.
“But Jenn, that isn’t what the person hired me to do! They hired me because they want to get stronger/more fit/more flexible!”
While this may be true, if someone is digging their heels in and not doing anything extra outside of their time with you, there is likely a part of them that doesn’t see how changing how they currently lead their life is beneficial. And let’s be realistic—any time you ask someone to do something, it’s at the expense of something else. That means the reward from the new thing needs to be better than the reward they are currently getting from their current behavior.
How do you create an opportunity for a person to experience reward? Through learning.
Learning is different than someone telling you a specific thing is true. If I tell a client that doing slow, focused shoulder circles twice a day for 2 minutes each arm will fix their limited range of motion in their shoulder, do you think the person will do it?
If the person likes doing shoulder circles and doesn’t mind taking advice, the person might do them and may even get amazing results.
But if the person really doesn’t like doing shoulder circles and finds them tedious with limited immediate benefit, chances are slim they are going to do shoulder circles regularly outside of their time with me. This leads to frustration from the client, who wonders why they aren’t improving as quickly as they would like, and frustration from me, because I can clearly see the client would benefit from moving their arm around more.
What if I did things differently? For example, let’s say I ask this imaginary client how their shoulders feel right now. “The right one feels stiff,” imaginary client responds.
“Interesting! Why do you think that is?”
“It’s always stiff. I wonder if I have arthritis in there.”
“Is there anything that makes it feel less stiff?”
“Nope. I don’t think it can be any less stiff.”
“Can you do everything you want to do?”
“Yes. It’s just achy and sometimes I have to move slowly to reach things.”
“Great. Your shoulder is working perfectly for you the way it is.”
Fifteen minutes later after some thoracic mobility work, xiphoid process directed work, scapula work, reaching work, and a few other things, I notice the imaginary client is using their right arm in a much more fluid way.
“How is everything feeling?” I ask.
“Great! I can’t believe how loose my right shoulder feels!”
“Is that different than normal?”
“Yes! What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. I just stood here.”
“You must have done something. I don’t get it.”
“Nope. It was all you. Do you want a couple of ideas for things you can do at home? You can try them out and see if it helps between now and our next session.”
“Yes! That would be great.”
How are these two scenarios different? In the first hypothetical situation I am telling the client shoulder circles will fix their shoulder. I am not inviting the client to explore movement, and I am not giving the client space to experience any sort of cause and effect. The result is there is no opportunity for the client to learn something and connect an action with a change in experience.
Learning is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the acquisition of novel information, behaviors, or abilities after practice, observation, or other experiences, as evidenced by change in behavior, knowledge, or brain function,” (https://dictionary.apa.org/learning). In the second scenario, imaginary client received novel input through unconventional, simple movement that resulted in the observation that their shoulder felt less stiff.
This entire situation was rewarding for the client. The client had space to try things that I didn’t guarantee were going to help their shoulder (because how could I possibly know)? Upon reflection, the client was able to discern a change. Change is interesting. If the change is positive, it stimulates curiosity, and curiosity is what drives learning.
This is empowering and gives the client a sense of autonomy. The client has permission to try things and see what works, decreasing dependence on a teacher or coach, which is immensely powerful. On top of all of this, learning results in a cascade of hormones being released, including dopamine, a hormone that is involved in lots of things, including motivation and reward.
Resistance training is a term frequently used synonymously with strength training. Resistance, remember, means to prevent an action. Resistance training, then, is to attempt to prevent a movement or action in one direction.
How does this feel? When you pick up a heavy weight or barbell, the barbell prevents you from moving fast. You pull one way, the barbell resists, remaining on the ground until you overcome it. This creates a sense of tension, which is often equated with a sense of strength, and will build strength, over time (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.00645/full).
Overcoming the resistance can be a metaphor for many things in life, but what happens when the resistance is removed? Do you continue to use tension to perform the same act of picking up an object or can you adjust, dialing back the tension until it’s just enough to perform the task at hand?
Movement exists on a continuum. Pairing resistance training with training that doesn’t use external resistance can create contrast. The more a client can detect subtle contrast, the more options the client will have, knowing when resistance is needed, and when it isn’t.
RESISTING AN UNSAFE SITUATION:
When you ask someone to perform an exercise, skill, or movement that is new, the first thing that happens is they determine how they are going to do what is being asked. If what is being asked is outside of their comfort zone or they think it might be potentially dangerous, how do they respond?
They tense before they begin the movement in order to keep themselves safe.
There are times when this tension is helpful. When you ask someone to pick up a heavy object, the tension they generate enables them to not buckle under the load and they can more effectively use their body as a lever to move the object. But if you are asking someone to lower down to the floor, or load one hand and then the other while doing an acrobatics move, or squat on one leg, or flip upside down, the tension generated may actually make the skill more challenging. The internal resistance towards the action actually increases the likelihood the skill will not be performed successfully.
Internal resistance that arises in a situation that seems unsafe is a way to reduce threat. It’s a smart system, one that loudly lets you know when something isn’t a good idea. It causes you to stop before you do something potentially injurious.
But what if the internal resistance is preventing an action like getting down on the floor? Or it’s stopping someone from accomplishing a skill they want to achieve?
Let’s take two separate scenarios. Andy is a runner. He’s 45, fast, and regularly injured. He is looking for a mobility and strength program to make him feel less stiff.
When you ask Andy to get down on the floor, he does it unceremoniously. When you ask him how many other ways he can get down to the floor, he looks at you like you just asked him to solve a calculus equation.
Yes, Andy is relatively young and arguably fit, but he isn’t comfortable navigating level changes. You can see his body tensing as he lowers, bracing for the impact as his body meets the ground.
Andy needs slow, gradual exposure to different options for getting down. This might involve different squatting options or lunging options or kneeling options with an emphasis on not crashing down. As Andy begins to realize the floor doesn’t guarantee impeding injury, he will navigate level changes more readily, without tensing as he lowers. His resistance will decrease, which means his sense of ease in moving will increase.
Now consider Megan, a 38 year old who has recently taken up pole dancing. She wants to be able to invert (flip upside down), but she doesn’t trust her arms to hold her.
Megan needs to gain confidence in her arms and in the transition from upright to upside down. She can do this a lot of ways. She could practice knee raises on the pole or on a horizontal bar. She could practice backward shoulder rolls on the floor to get used to what the transition feels like going up and back. She can practice getting more horizontal on the pole rather than vertical as she learns to get the legs up and over. She can do one leg at a time.
The options to create the sense of safety for Megan are endless, but they require changing the head orientation in space (this is unnerving and doesn’t feel safe when you aren’t accustomed to it), and knowing she has the strength to support herself. Once the pieces are in place, her resistance to inverting will diminish because she will trust that she is safe.
As you can see, resistance can show up in a movement setting in many ways. If you can identify whether the source of the resistance is coming from the client not feeling autonomous, not having a frame of reference for moving without resistance, or not feeling safe, you will have choice regarding how you work with the resistance. And choice creates opportunity to move forward.
*This article was inspired by an NICABM course on resistance (https://www.nicabm.com).