Taiji Day 356: Don’t Bounce

Don’t Bounce.

Did your gym teacher ever give you that advice while you were doing calisthenics or stretching exercises? I probably heard the phrase in fourth or fifth grade. And I’ve probably heard it in every single gym class or P.E. class I’ve ever had (Remember when gymnasium class became Physical Education? That was sometime in the late 70s to early 80s, I think. It was still gym class.) And I think the idea was that when you were doing toe touches, that you weren’t to just touch your toes and immediately rise back up to standing posture.  Except that us fat kids, we always bounced, because the gym teacher always wanted us to go fast.  We’d touch our toes and almost immediately retract a little from where we’d touch our toes.  Why?

We were using our weight to pull our upper bodies down, instead of musculature.  And then our lower back muscles would contract, causing the bounce, because our weigh was out of alignment.  We were using the weight of our arms to hang over, instead of using our core muscles (our abdominals, primarily, to gently lower our fingertips to the floor).

The gym teacher didn’t bother to explain.  It’s entirely possible the gym teachers I had didn’t know.  Or maybe they did, but thought it was self-evident.

I’m here to tell you, after doing 32 toe-touches in two different qi gong forms daily, for almost a year — it’s not self-evident at all.

The human body is an amazing thing, but it’s also lazy.  If touching the toes can be accomplished by letting weight sag out of the column of the body, out of the center of gravity, and lower the hands to the ground in a jerky,bouncy way, it will.  But it’s a completely different activity when the lower abdominal muscles are engaged to do that toe-touching as a muscular exercises for the core.

And the difference is not letting the fingertips touch the toes and then immediately retract.  The difference is not bouncing.  If you’re touching your toes, and then your lower back is spasming to bring your fingertips up, and then down again, that’s a bounce.  And the bounce means that you’re letting the weight do the work — not making the muscles do the work.

There’s a qualitative difference between the two exercises — bouncy toe-touches, and muscular toe-touches.  Try it now, feel the difference between the two exercises.  In the first, you just sort of flop over.  In the second, the abdominal and flank muscles engage to lower your hands to the floor.

Fat kids have to be taught the technique, because it doesn’t come naturally.  Engaging muscles that don’t really want to engage anyway is hard; it’s taken me more than eleven months, almost twelve, to really understand this.  That means that a good many people need to go slow until it becomes an ingrained response.  Skinny kids do it naturally, so they don’t have to slow down. Their bodies lack the weight in the right places to provide a shortcut for the toe-touch.  Does this mean that they’re going to do toe-touches faster, correctly?  Yes?  Are they going to be critiqued by the teacher as frequently?

It’s sometimes horrifying when a whole system of exercise and training comes into view so splendidly and so thoroughly: the clarity with which I see this particular exercise within the qi gong forms makes so much sense now — and I can likewise see generations of gym students, some swift and some slow, locked into the same awkward and heart-rending patterns of social villainy and indignity.

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  1. […] I found this with toe touches just a few days ago — it’s easier to perform toe touches when you’re using your belly muscles and you get more of a workout.  But you have to be performing them regularly to see that and feel that, or you have to have some tai chi master or really enlightened gym teacher shouting “don’t bounce. Use your stomach muscles to pull your hands toward the floor, touch the floor, and then use your back muscles to right yourself again!”   (But gym teachers don’t say that. They say, “Don’t bounce” as if that were normal). […]

  2. Another story I heard about not bouncing (in any stretch), is that it’s likely to tear muscles instead of stretching them. Of course the whole stretching thing is a bit of a myth, anyhow (http://saveyourself.ca/articles/stretching.php). The same yoga teacher who told me to hold a pose until it teaches me something, said, a muscle should be able to contract when necessary, and relax when necessary—as he demoed the first pose of the class, Heron (http://www.herbalcureindia.com/yoga-journal/krounchasana.html). No warm up, no preliminary hamstring stretches. Just do Heron. And following his advice, I did it, better than in any prior yoga class, with some awkwardness on the way as I figured out how to gently relax the hamstrings instead of just yank on my leg.

    This has proven to be a key part of my yoga and Feldenkrais training. So much of our culture teaches us to push, push, work, work, that our baseline muscle tonus keeps us locked in inflexibility and we fight against it. Lowering the baseline takes attention and patience, and even love for your poor confused nervous system. The payoff is wonderful, though.

    This isn’t quite what your point was, but still relevant to the topic.

  3. I don’t fault gym teachers for not explaining why the right form is the right form but I do fault those who emphasized speed, that’s bound to lead to kids doing it wrong. You’re totally right about the body’s laziness but I think you’re exaggerating the difference between fat and skinny kids; I think almost all have sufficient mass to bounce. I was an average-sized kid (the fat came later) and definitely would bounce unless I paid attention to what I was doing.

    BTW, kudos on the headline, it made me hear and visualize one of my gym teachers. That phase is so locked into my brain (we would do impressions of him saying it), I think it would have worked even without the exercise and movement context set by “Taiji.”

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