“Breathe,” a man’s voice coos behind me. I’m lying on a massage table, on my right side, facing a group of 50-plus coaches and personal trainers, as strength coach and exercise physiologist Dean Somerset attempts to troubleshoot my pitiful side-butt engagement. If you’ve never done a clamshell, crotch to crowd, while a gentle Canadian man in a cat-print T-shirt pokes a finger into your gluteus medius, you haven’t lived.
“Breathe,” Somerset cues again, and this time I hear the smile in his voice. “You can add a resistance band to this if you want,” he says, addressing the audience. Yes, he’s gentle, but in this moment I wonder if Somerset — who presented this two-day Complete Hip and Shoulder Workshop with Tony Gentilcore — is also a bit sadistic.
I try to do what he says: Initiating from my hips and keeping my feet together, I press my bottom knee into the table and raise my top knee into the air. Miraculously, I feel my glutes contract and a sticky spot in my right hip pop. Then I breathe, and lose the little bit of engagement I’d achieved.
“Don’t stop,” he says. “Work harder. Breathe. Work harder. Breathe.” Poke. Poke. Poke. I can’t manage my breath, but my glutes are quivering. “Nice job,” he says as I roll off the table, sweaty, giggling, and certain my butt will be sore the next day.
One of the perks of my job as EL’s fitness editor is the opportunity to attend workshops like this one. This event was a combination of lecture, hands-on practicum, and Drake jokes (the pop star’s moves in his “Hotline Bling” video epitomize good hip mobility, Somerset quipped). On top of the continuing education opportunity, workshops and conferences are a chance to exchange ideas with industry professionals (Somerset and Gentilcore are among the cream of the crop) as well as to challenge my personal fitness story.
The clamshell experience was no exception.
“I can’t breathe and engage at the same time,” I later complained huffily to my friend Mark Schneider, a brilliant coach and manager of the Minneapolis facility that hosted the hip and shoulder workshop.
He looked at me in the typical “Mark” way that his friends and clients know all too well, and I knew what was coming: a reframe. I resisted before he said a word.
“I can’t do it,” I insisted. “Every time I tried to take a breath, my muscles relaxed. I can only do one thing at a time. I can’t do both. I can’t do it.” He still hadn’t said anything; I quieted.
“You can—” he began finally.
“—I can’t!” I interrupted, starting the argument anew now that he was going to participate.
“You can,” he said again, patiently. “You just don’t know how.”
UGH. I rolled my eyes. Not at him — because he was right — but at myself. The entire weekend (and frankly, the bulk of my fitness training over the years) revolved around the idea that most things can be broken down into a skill. Improving mobility, improving stability, coordinating multiple moving parts — all skills you can learn. Breathing-while-bracing just happens to be a skill I haven’t mastered, yet.
“Fine,” I said. “I know. OK. Fine.”
Seven words — You can, you just don’t know how — diffused my frustration. Suddenly my failure under Somerset’s guidance wasn’t a failure of me as a person. It simply clued me into something I could work on, if I wanted to. (And I do want to.) Over and over again, in almost every area of my life, I’m reminded that reframing something as a skill waiting to be learned is a huge relief.
As I write this, less than 24 hours since the end of the workshop, my mind is swirling with ideas for future issues of the magazine. But, for now, I want to throw a question out to EL readers:
Where in fitness — and life in general — are you saying “I can’t”? What would happen if you reframed the situation as “I don’t know how”?
Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor. Connect with her via Instagram and Twitter @maggiefazeli.