When ‘try harder’ is Bad Advice

If you have ever found it necessary to change a car tyre you will have realized that to loosen the nuts that release the tyre you must turn them in an anti-clockwise direction. If you are turning them in the wrong direction, they will never loosen, no matter how much effort you employ, and you will never get the tyre off.

And yet how often do we stop to consider the direction we are engaging the energy in our body when carrying out a simple action, such as lifting an object, standing, sitting, walking, running, etc? Like the wheel mechanism of the car, our muscular system is designed to function in a certain way; the functioning of each muscle being integrated with the muscles of the rest of the body. Similarly, each part of the body has a particular working relationship with the rest of the body (what I call postural integrity), and when that working relationship is understood and respected there is balance, strength, and ease of movement. However, when we unknowingly interfere with that postural integrity, the opposite results.

I have worked with several clients undergoing rehabilitation who have, prior to coming to me, been instructed by well-meaning medical or exercise professionals that they need to ‘try harder’ when carrying out a movement or exercise, to achieve the desired result. This is usually because to the physician or instructor it would appear that the client is not able to do the exercise properly because they are not ‘trying hard enough’.  And yet, in each case the client reported that they already felt themselves to be trying as hard as possible but were still unable to carry out the movement being called for. Moreover, they harder they tried, the less likely they were able to attain the desired result. This led to a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, and a belief that there was something wrong with them for not being able to do what was being asked of them.

In my experience the problem, however, is rarely one of ‘laziness’ on the part of the client, but rather one of misunderstanding. What appears to be an inability or weakness is often simply a matter of misuse, which is to say that the effort is being engaged in a way which is contrary to the natural manner of functioning of the muscular mechanisms. Like the nuts of the car tyre, when we attempt to move our body in ways that are contrary to its natural manner of functioning, it becomes impossible to carry out those movements satisfactorily, if at all. Because the postural integrity is compromised, muscles are activated that would not (and should not) be called into play to carry out the action, and conversely the muscles which should be working are deactivated. Thus, it takes significantly more effort to accomplish the action. Worse still, continuing to carry out the action with such faulty mechanics will in time lead to a weakening of the muscles concerned and the body as a whole.

If, on the other hand, the action is carried out in such a way that the postural integrity is maintained, only a minimal amount of effort will be required, and the same movement becomes easy to execute. With time this results in a strengthening of the muscles concerned and the body in general. So, it is of paramount importance that the person first learns to maintain the postural integrity of all the related parts, before attempting to carry out any movement, otherwise any attempts at rehabilitation could prove counterproductive.