Last week one of my clients asked me: ”Just how many exercises do you know, have you ever counted them?”
This got me thinking and the longer I thought about it the more I realised what a difficult question this is. My immediate responds was that I don't really think of what I do as exercise anymore.
In my short time as a personal trainer and fitness instructor I understood my role as someone who teaches exercise. It was straight forward and easily understandable. –I helped people get fit and stronger. Then I realised that what I did had as much positive results as it had negative results, because it takes more than just “good form” to prevent wear and tear and injury when you put physical demands on your body.
When I became a pilates teacher there was a classical repertoire of “exercises”. The mat repertoire is described by Joseph Pilates in detail in his book “Return to Life through Contrology” with very ridged instructions of how to perform the moves. Unlike contemporary pilates teachers Jo Pilates did not offer variations to his exercises to progress clients gradually. I draw from the classical as well as modern repertoire, but I won’t hesitate to make changes to the “exercises” to tailor them to a client and their needs. This is not unusual. Most pilates teacher courses have manuals listing both classical as well as modern Pilates exercises with a range of variations to suit different goals and ability levels. This alone makes it hard to count them.
But apart from that, when is an exercise an exercise? Nowadays we are all into functional movement or functional exercise, which means performing movements that are similar to those we do in everyday life. For example a shoulder press with a bar bell or a leg extension on the gym machine are not very natural movements. They are very isolated, mechanical and regimented. Bending down to pick up a medicine ball and turning to throw it behind you is a functional exercise. Or is it? What makes it an exercise I wonder? When we grab the kid’s toy off the ground and turn to put it on the shelf we don’t call it an exercise. We might call it tidying up or an effort or simply picking something up and putting it away. We are describing a movement we do and perhaps the purpose of it, which is “tidying”. Is that why in the gym environment movement becomes “an exercise”? The purpose of the movement is some sort of learning or practice experience.
We don’t think twice about calling what we do in the gym or in a class an exercise. In the Feldenkrais method they do not call the movements they practice exercises, they call them lessons. As far as I am aware the purpose of this is to make clear that it is more than just a repetitive practice of a movement alone. In Feldenkrais one performs a certain movement on one side several times and then rests to feel the impact that this movement has had and compare it to the other side.
Personally I do not like the term “lesson” either.
To me both words “exercise” and “lesson” sound very school related and since I did not like school I am not a fan of those words. I don’t want to prescribe exercises and I do not want to teach people a lesson. I do not feel that my relationship with my clients is or should be a teacher/trainer-student relationship. I feel that my clients should be in charge of themselves and their progress. They need to take responsibility for themselves and they need to generate the drive and determination to create change because I cannot do that for them. I can offer suggestions, I can give advice. I can try to enable passion and change. I cannot prescribe it and ultimately that is what will help them change, -not an exercise alone. Going through some exercises within a session with me will not make a change to your life. You taking what happened in the session on board and applying it to everyday life will. I can’t make you change the way you live your life, you can.
To me, the “exercises” I may use are just movements. Many of them do not have a name because I made them up to tailor them to the client and their needs. I am not really interested in the question of how much I can alter an exercise before it becomes its own exercise as supposed to a variation. Who has the time and what would be the point? Of course there hopefully is a practice or learning experience in performing these movements but the main thing they are to me is movements. They may be an exercise to you or a lesson or something else. That is up to you. And that is my point.
To me they are movements. I love movement and I love what movement can do for me and for my clients. But I am not going to dictate or imply what they should be to you. Today I am a therapist using movement based on anatomical knowledge and manual skills to enable change. It is important to me that what you experience in our sessions is an open space for exploration without judgement. How often do clients say “Sorry I can’t do this very well.” or “Sorry, you are the teacher, you know best.” Clients should not feel apologetic about performing a movement with more difficulty or less beautifully as someone else. It’s not about making an exercise look good on the outside to please someone else. It’s about using the movement to archive something for oneself that will be very subjective to each client. And I refuse to be “the teacher who knows best.” I ask that my clients are their own teachers if they feel they even need one. Why teach? Why learn? Why not just experience and see how the experience affects you over time? That is non-institutionalised, functional and natural learning and progression.
Maybe exercises should be called experiences? –And it would be impossible for me to count the magical experiences I have had through movement.