How Well Can Your Body Multitask?

Working on several things at once might be the new norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Juggling so many different responsibilities can be downright challenging. Keeping track of all those tasks is taxing your brain and focus. Not only do you need to remember what needs to get done and when, but you also have to switch between tasks efficiently. Multitasking might seem like a simple skill at first glance, but it’s much more complex than most people think. How well can your body multitask?

For any fitness professional, other than seeing your clients’ lives change for the better, program design is the profession’s most enjoyable and creative part.

2 Ways You Can Train Your Body to Multitask Better

There are a couple of ways you can train your body to multitask better. The first of these is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps you identify and change negative thought patterns that lead to unhelpful behaviors and habits. In CBT, you’ll also learn to take a non-judgmental approach to your thoughts. This is important because, often, when you’re multitasking, you’re engaging in what researchers call “selective attention.” This means that you’re focusing on the most important task at that time and letting the others slip out of your mind. But if you’re not careful, you could forget those other tasks and leave them to collect dust.

Why Does Your Body Struggle With Multitasking?

As we’ve discussed, multitasking isn’t as easy as it might seem. It requires a lot of mental energy as well as physical energy. Instead of trying to do a bunch of things at once, try to focus on one task at a time. Once you’ve completed that task, move on to the next. This will help you maximize productivity while also allowing you to get everything done promptly.

For many people, multitasking is a way of life. But if you’re struggling to complete tasks or feel like you’re not as efficient as you used to be, there might be a reason for this. When you handle multiple tasks at once, your brain has to work harder, which can have a tangible impact on your body. Studies show that multitasking uses more energy than completing a task in its entirety. Furthermore, it can contribute to stress, anxiety, and increased stroke risk.

Creating routines that can change someone’s body reminds me of the power of movement. Playing with movement combinations and sequencing is like mixing potions in a Hogwarts class—just the ingredients and BAM! You get magic and a potent mixture that can transform weak, flabby bodies into solid and functional physiques. The key to a perfect routine is matching the clients’ goals, imbalances, build, and skills. Once that is determined, the initial exercise routine can and should be gradually developed in a planned and systematic way to produce desired results.

You can do this in many different ways:

  1. Increase the resistance
  2. Increase the volume (more sets and reps)
  3. Decrease rest time
  4. Increase the complexity of movement

While the first three variables have been discussed and studied extensively to understand their effects better, the last variable has not.

In recent years, such complex movements as kettlebell, CrossFit, MMA, and boot camp–style training has become increasingly popular. Many clients have quickly gone from traditional straight line, single plane, and bodybuilding-style movements (e.g., DB curls, squats, bench press, and shoulder press) to this more complex multiplane, acceleration / plyometric whole-body exercises. Some people went from a purely sedentary lifestyle to these complex movements).

While the benefits of more complex movements include increased caloric use, the increased risk of immediate and chronic long-term injury is a significant drawback.

Let’s examine how this happens and how to avoid it.

The primary goal of the fitness professional is to identify clients’ imbalances and skill levels and then design an exercise routine that challenges their muscular system to build / tone muscles, their energy system to burn calories and thus fat, and their nervous system to improve joint stability and quality of movement.

When using complex multijoint and multiplane exercises to accomplish all three goals, you first have to ensure your clients have the coordination level needed to control those movements. Bad things happen if they can only hold three joints at once and you do a plank rotation that involves five main joints. You’ll see they can’t synchronize their spine with their pelvis (typically upon takeoff and landing from the rotation).

As a result, their spine, subjected to 800+ pounds of pressure in a forward plank, is now twisting and compressing the discs and facet joints. And with every set and every rep, this negative movement pattern is reinforced and embedded as a habit, which has a direct, long-term impact on their spinal health. Similar consequences occur with any exercise where the way of movement is not ideal and not in a planned sequence.

How can you avoid potential long-term damage to your clients’ joints?

Three steps must be taken:

  1. Understand the perfect technique and strive for it with every movement (luckily, most trainers do this already)
  2. Determine the proper starting point (i.e., how well your clients can exercise)
  3. Properly pace the motor control difficulty of the program

First, you need to determine how skilled your clients are at exercising.

Have them perform some single plane 1–2 joint exercises and assess their ability to control their bodies without shaking or a breakdown in posture.

Then it would help if you progressed to exercises with more joint movement or planes of motion. Such an approach will enable you to assess a client’s ability, e.g., “client A can control five joints in two planes of motion, while client B can only control two joints at once and only in one plane of motion.”

Therefore, client A can perform exercises in diagonal movement patterns involving the whole body (e.g., plank rotation, squats with medicine ball presses, and side lunges with shoulder presses). In contrast, client B can only do simple single-plane movements (e.g., DB curls, DB front raises, and squats).

Changing your client’s body is similar to getting from point A to point B on a map.

Having a system in place that can identify a client’s skill is like determining the location of point A. If you don’t have such a plan, you won’t be able to give exact directions on how to get to point B. With a starting point identified, you can determine what types of exercises clients A and B can do. Client A would start training with traditional bodybuilding-style movements involving one plane of motion and isolation-type activities. While these are not the most effective at burning calories, they are the safest for the client. During the workouts, your goal is to develop client A’s skill level by challenging them with multijoint exercises or multiplane movements.

After a few weeks, you can retest and see if they are ready to progress to a more “neuromuscular” workout. With this approach, their nervous system has time to adapt to more demanding exercises.

The Central Nervous System (CNS) can multitask more effectively and simultaneously control multiple joints and muscles. Trying to give client A an exercise early on that only client B can be impossible. No matter how much you spot them, correct them, and demonstrate the practice, their nervous system is not ready to handle a complex exercise.

This approach can transform your training business. Your clients will feel better and get great workouts that don’t harm their bodies. They become focused on the movement skill, and exercise then becomes something they want to master instead of merely a way to burn calories. This shift in psychology helps your clients to want to continue exercising and helps you become their trainer for life. You might even save a few copays and medical bills for your clients, and they’ll love you for it.

Dr. Steve Young, DPT, CSCS

Dr. Young is currently the owner of Body Solutions, a business in Voorhees, NJ, which integrates personal training, physical therapy, massage therapy, and martial arts. He received his BS in kinesiology from PSU and his master’s and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Hahnemann University (now Drexel). He has lectured nationally to fitness professionals regarding proper training approaches. His latest project is changing how fitness training is done through a patent-pending skill assessment process, and program implementation called the Body Readiness Ranking System.

Thank you to Steve for sharing.

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