Can Intuitive Lifting Lead Us Towards a More Inclusive Lifting Space?

There’s lots of folks out there who want to be stronger and build muscle.

Only a small percentage of them can commit to 4-5 training sessions a week, an hour more at a time, doing the most effective, optimal exercises year in and year out.

Barriers include, but are not limited to:

  • Limited time due to other priorities (babies, jobs, aging parents, long commutes, other commitments that bring meaning and joy to their lives)
  • Limited abilities due to medical or mental health challenges, physical disability, natural variation in body shapes, sizes, symmetries/asymmetries
  • Limited access to equipment, limited resources to join a gym or buy equipment, limited space for equipment and movement, unsafe or inhospitable outdoor spaces for movement
  • Limited knowledge and skill to do the work, build an effective training program, and to maintain it over time
  • Cultural and societal bullshit that makes workout spaces less friendly and welcoming to folks not perceived as part of the “in” crowd

So, here’s a person, they want to get stronger and build some muscle, but they have some mix of the above challenges. How can the lifting world create space for them to meet their goals and accommodate their needs? (Because let’s get real, right now, we’re pretty shitty at it. These are the folks that walk away or never get started in the first place.)

We need to let go of some assumptions about what “counts” in lifting.

Enter “Intuitive Lifting.”

I admit, I had a moment of hope that I was creating something new here, but after doing about 5 minutes of Googling, it looks like this idea had some steam about 5 years ago in the blogosphere. The form it took back then looked like taking a traditional, “structured” program and altering the number of sets and reps to meet the needs of the moment.

However, I want to go a bit more extreme than that–giving ourselves permission to even reduce how many exercises we’re doing in a session. I want to take away all the unnecessary details to the absolute minimum. This is about what is essential to get the benefits of lifting without any of the excess baggage aimed at “optimizing.” I acknowledge this is an uncommon example of me allowing myself to swing to an extreme, reacting in response to the alternate extreme, but it serves a purpose–to illustrate the essential fact that we can get many of the benefits of lifting with very minimal training.

Here’s my thinking–we teach folk some basics. I mean, super-basics like the main movement patterns (however you define that, keep it to a half dozen or less), and then encourage them to rotate through them throughout their workouts. To my thinking, the main movements as squat/lunge, hinge (deadlifts variations), vertical push and pull, and horizontal push and pull. That’s 6 movement patterns. I don’t care if they do them in 2 workouts or 6. I don’t care if they hit them all every three days or every 7. For that matter, I don’t care if it takes 2 weeks to rotate through them. I don’t care if this week they squat and next week they do step-back lunges.

The goal of this kind of lifting is to create a safe space to learn the patterns, to build the routine of lifting, and to stay attuned to one’s needs. This extremely limited focus gives folks with more barriers to doing the work as much flexibility as possible to minimize the impact of those barriers on their ability to move forward. Is it going to optimize how much strength they build as quickly as possible? No. But is it going to give them increased physical strength and confidence to do the work? Yes, I think so. And will it improve bone density, improve insulin sensitivity, help them with stress, anxiety and sleep? I hope so.

Over time, someone can build a menu of options for each lift, if they have access to the space, time, mental energy and equipment to build that knowledge. This would be a great way to redefine the work of a personal trainer away from potentially problematic goals like increasing maximal strength or building maximal lean body mass. Trainers can teach a variety of ways to do the lifts and meanwhile help their clients develop a more flexible attitude about lifting. to make it something they can adapt to their current circumstances.

Because circumstances always change.

Lifting this way creates a flexible template that can be scaled up when someone can really dial in on their training and scaled back when life’s challenges become more disruptive. It helps us avoid the all-or-nothing, perfectionism trap. It also reduces the emphasis on goals we actually can’t control–those outcome goals of maximal strength or hypertrophy. It emphasizes what we can control–how we’re doing the work, how often, and how consistently (with consistency measured as always doing something, not always doing it perfectly every day).

And this is where the intuitive part comes in–once someone has these basic skills, they can learn to listen to their body and do their workouts in a way that is attuned to their needs of the moment. That means if they need to back off a while, they can just do one or two movements that day and know they’ll balance it out the next time they do the work. I see so many people trapped in the belief that they have to do it all every time. I think traditional programming, with predetermined sets and reps planned for weeks going forward sends the message that somehow that’s what has to happen. But if we can let go of that belief and attune to our bodies, I suspect most of us will find we enjoy just enough challenge. Most of us will naturally gravitate towards pushing ourselves more sometimes and pulling back others, creating a natural ebb and flow to our training. And then maybe fewer people would walk away from training entirely.

I expect some pushback on this from folks who think that without arbitrary programming that pushes them beyond their comfort zone each time, they’d never get anywhere with their lifting, and maybe they think they’d stop altogether. To those folks, I would like to ask–why do you lift? Are your goals reasonable for the life you have right now? If they are, then go ahead and keep doing what you’re doing. But if they’re not–and the clues will be in your body and the rest of your life–then consider if what you’re doing is actually sustainable. If you’re losing sleep, constantly stressed or injured, or it impacts the health of your relationships, you’re not actually lifting in a health-promoting way. There’s more to our health than muscular strength.

I also anticipate that folks will say that this sort of lifting plan won’t sell and isn’t sexy. I’ve heard trainers talk this way before when talking about weight loss goals. “Everyone comes in because they want to lose weight. How do we disconnect training from weight loss when society is telling people that’s the reason to do it?” It’s a gentle process of meeting people where they’re at and slowly connecting to a deeper, more meaningful goal. Why do they want to lose weight? Is it about something they really value or is it about what they think they’re supposed to do? What if they can get better health, more comfort in their bodies and more confidence without reaching some goal weight? Over time, thoughtful conversations can lead people towards what’s really important to them. I believe in bodily autonomy and I don’t care if somebody has weight loss goals, however I don’t want them to do it for harmful reasons. I want them to do it from a place of love and not self-punishment.

Likewise, lifting weights in an intuitive fashion may require letting go of certain outcomes at least for now. Therefore, as a trainer is working with someone and asking them about their goals over time, those conversations can help steer a person to understanding where they’re at right now and what would be necessary to achieve their desired outcome. Those gentle conversations may lead them to decide that they’re not currently able or willing to do the work necessary to reach their original goal. But it may allow them to connect their lifting to a more meaningful outcome such as feeling better in their body, experiencing less chronic pain, or noticing that they move more freely.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve had to get a lot more flexible with my workouts this last year, and it has resulted in reduced strength and muscle mass for now. Is it my favorite thing ever to feel less strong than a year or two ago? No. But would I rather keep doing something than giving up entirely? Absolutely. The benefits to my life to keep lifting somehow far outstrip the downsides of a slightly bruised ego. And I’m learning to reframe that, too. I’m proud of myself for continuing to do the work under circumstances that I know would lead to many other people to stop entirely. I also know that what I do now gives me a strong foundation for the future, should a time arise when I can push myself harder again. I’d rather have a solid base of skills and strength than to have to completely start anew. For me, the hardest part has always been in just keeping my routine. If I can keep it on my radar, keep in on my schedule, keep in the habit of pushing myself a little bit, then it’s not so hard to push myself harder or more often when my life allows for it.

I think this sort of approach to programming could be one piece to building the more compassionate lifting community that I want to see in the world. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can create more flexible, intuitive programming that meets people where they’re at, regardless of the barriers to training they’re facing in the moment. I welcome your thoughts below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: