Four Weeks, Two Languages, Practice, and Progress.

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This week we feature an article by EFL coach Blaine Brignell.


In the month of July, a good friend of a current client visited our gym from Guadalajara, Mexico. I had the pleasure of training him, and was faced with an interesting situation: He is a 76 year-old man who spoke minimal English (and my grasp of Spanish is tenuous at best) and had spent the past few decades as a math teacher. In the course of four weeks he had asked to develop improved movement and function, as well as learn enough that he could continue his training until finding a suitable facility and trainer. The following month was a practice in success; Oscar responded excellently to our training, learned kinesthetically as well as intellectually the purpose of the movements used, and left Portland confident in his ability to continue his practice and select a good trainer in Guadalajara.

This was accomplished not in spite of, but in part because of the language barrier. Our communication was necessarily simple; demonstration and hands on/touch coaching played a large role in supplementing the simple instruction used. This simple instruction allowed Oscar the freedom to experience and learn the movement without unnecessary mental distraction, smoothing the learning process.


Oscar, like most who have spent many years at a desk, had succumbed to gravity. Forward shoulders and head, inflexible hips, and a stiff back had taken a toll on his mobility. Like many, he had little trust in the balance or strength of his legs and midsection. He noticed shallowness in his breathing that once was deep. However he had a background of diverse physical activity, and no significant injuries. He simply found that neglecting his body over the years had brought him rather suddenly to a place where that which was once easy was now hard.

The Work.

Our primary goal was to restore mobility and function. For Oscar, “functional” meant that he ought be able to lift, carry, and move objects with strength and confidence, have the endurance to be active for long durations, and with less physical restriction. The work itself was very simple: Steady improvement of mobility through daily practice, bracing the midsection, learning to use his legs and hips more effectively, developing strength in the muscles of the trunk and shoulders, breathing (a big one!), and posture. We quantified the challenges according to what needed the most attention through use of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and Oscar’s stated goal. (For those who use the FMS, his score improved from an 8 to 14)

The important part of this is that the work was very simple. There was nothing revolutionary about it – just adherence to fundamental principles of mobility, stability, strength, and endurance. We did not run Oscar into the ground with intervals or excessive intensity. We trained to develop his movement ability by improving range of motion and stability where needed, learning to express strength with better joint alignment, and tying together endurance and strength with good breathing habits. He trained these skills in the gym, and was tasked with practicing them wherever appropriate and integrating the patterns into his daily life

The Lesson.

The unusual part of training, and the one that yielded a good lesson, was the means of communicating these concepts through a relatively broad language barrier. To explain to someone how to breathe deeply or lift properly in another language is a process of simplification. Minimal, efficient instruction and ample practice of the postures and movements put Oscar in an environment where he was unburdened by unnecessary thoughts and was able to focus completely on his body. This trend was true for all of his training.

Oscar listened to cues well, and relied less on language than feeling how these techniques improved his ability, created mobility where there was stiffness, and developed use of the body as a single unit. This was at first rather surprising to me. However, I reflected on time spent at my martial arts dojo. There, instruction is very much the same: few words, ample demonstration, and physical correction of alignment/technique by the teacher. This creates an environment where the student is taught not about the muscles involved in a movement, or knowing intellectually “how” to do something, but rather by learning to self correct and “feel” what efficient, quality movement truly is.

Training Oscar through the barrier of our language forced me to mold the practice such that Oscar rapidly learn to evaluate his own body by feeling. I showed the direction, drew his attention to mistakes, and enabled him use his own intelligence and awareness to learn what felt strong, what felt efficient. Teaching someone to “self-correct” a movement calls upon a different awareness than teaching them “why” or “how” a movement is accomplished. It is a kinesthetic (or body) awareness rather than an intellectual awareness. The lesson is that developing kinesthetic awareness is not something explained by words, but must be practiced intentionally. With intentional practice, the practitioner learns “exercises” as methods of movement rather than specific exercises (for example, a dead lift is not just a dead lift; it’s a very effective way of picking things up).  With that awareness, what began as an exercise in the gym becomes awareness and movement ability that can be adapted as needed. The practitioner learns to express the skills and fitness developed in the gym in the rest of their lives

It’s relevant to all of us.

Whether or not you see yourself in Oscar, or have seen this trend in those around you, the lesson is important. As Oscar learned, his own awareness and focus created tremendous benefit in his movement and function. When you exercise, when you move, no matter your current physical state, think of it as practice.  Having a coach put expert eyes on you can be invaluable, but then practice on your own as often as possible, and learn to feel what good movement is. An exercise is an exercise, but how you practice directly influences your ability to express ability in that exercise elsewhere. Being healthy, strong, and confident in your body is a state of being available to all of us. Your occupation, athletic background, age, current physical state, etc. are not relevant to creating improvement. Those all must be considered in selecting the appropriate type of activity to engage in, but have little bearing on how you engage that activity.



About the Author:

Owner of Elemental Fitness Lab in Portland, OR. Our approach to training is to integrate research (I'm an NSCA CSCS, certified Functional Movement Screen, and Precision Nutrition) with practical experience. I've studied martial arts in Japan and the U.S. for many years, and have put in my time in the gym, in the water, on the snow, on the rock wall, and on the bike.
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