By Teresa Swartz Roberts
Blog post 3. Copyright 2016
The university fitness center in the small Maine town I called home for 18 years offered classes, and over those years, I took several of them: adult swimming lessons, Total Body Cycling, Zumba, Aqua Zumba, Shake It Out. The first one I took was called WOW, which stood for Women on Weights. It was designed for women who were new to the weight room, and I came away with a weightlifting program and a little chart to check off my reps and sets a couple of times a week. I also came away with a new concept for the word negative. When I do a single rep of a weightlifting movement, say a bicep hammer curl with a hand weight, the negative is the downward motion, what happens after I’ve done the curl. I can finish the upward curl and then relax my arm quickly, dropping the hand with the weight down to a starting position. But if I am mindful, I can extend my arm more slowly and use the negative space of the exercise to double-dip on the benefits, to get more out of both the exercise and the rest that takes place between reps and sets.
Each morning when I roll over in bed and do my leg lifts, bridges, and a whole list of exercises for which I’ve made up names (belly-buttons and flop-overs, for example), I pay attention to the negative spaces that occur with each movement, tension, or stretch. My physical therapist helped me discover that the negative spaces were places I could get control of my Parkinson’s Disease tremors. If I’m having a heavy tremor day, you’ll see me moving and tensing intentionally because, when I flex a foot and release it, I experience a reduction in the clenching of my toes and the shaking of my leg. There is joy in movement. There is joy in the absence of movement. There is joy in the negative spaces.
I was explaining this philosophy of negative movement and rest to a friend the other day. My son was in the other room but, in our home, walls are practically nonexistent between the kitchen and living room, so he heard most of the conversation. He came in to say that he had something to add to the metaphor I was building: Eccentric movement, the contracting of a muscle while lengthening it, is often the part of an exercise that makes muscles sore after a workout. Eccentric movement is also often the part of an exercise that provides the most benefit. I did a quick Google search to learn more. Because contracting and lengthening at the same time causes more damage to the muscle, negative reps cause more muscle growth. Tearing down builds up.
It’s clear that the negative spaces in our lives are what tear down our spirits. If Nietzsche was right, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I don’t always agree with Nietzsche. I believe I have been made weaker by some of the events in my life. Maybe those were the times when the weight was just too damn heavy, and I had to drop my arm before I received any benefit from the negative. That said, I am the kind of person who looks for value in even negative experiences. At this point, I’m mindful of how nearly everything feels and how I respond to it. Parkinson’s is partly responsible for that because I have a sense of my mortality and of the mortality of my able-ness. I make use of the negative spaces that occur in daily life, and I am making use of this negative stage of my life overall. I have reached my peak movement, so it’s all downhill from here. I’m still not ready to drop the weight. I am squeezing that muscle while I am lengthening it. I am preparing to contract it and repeat that upward motion and lift the weight for as long as I can.
There’s a step between. There is rest. When I was taking WOW, I learned that it’s not a good idea to work the same muscles in exactly the same way every day. It’s better to let them rest to give the damaged muscle time to rebuild and, ultimately, make the body stronger. When my neurologist explained what I could expect from Parkinson’s while my meds are working well, he said I am basically rolling a boulder uphill every day. I’m Sisyphus. I can do it. But while I’m sleeping, the boulder will roll back down into the valley. I can’t just stay awake standing at the pinnacle holding the boulder in place, and I can’t start it rolling uphill again without rest.
I rest between every repetition of the exercises I do in order to gain the most from the exercise. The letting go, the relaxing of a limb, gives my body a chance to experience a tiny moment of peace. I need that. I’m not the only one. God rested on the seventh day. The Fourth Commandment says we should remember the Sabbath, and there is a clear direction to rest. The Gospels are sprinkled with stories that show Jesus needed to rest. Not only did Jesus need to rest, he did. It is not a sin to rest. You will need it for the next weight you have to lift. You will need it for the negative spaces.