Rolfing, Chinese weightlifters, and what I didn’t know I didn’t know

It's pretty easy to figure out that this doesn't feel good.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what’s causing pain here.

When I first became a Rolfer and subsequently started studying with Egoscue University, it was because I had a certain dream in mind. I thought that with the right training, I could learn the arcana that could help me become what I had always been searching for. I wanted to be able to see what was causing a person’s pain. With several years of chronic pain under my belt, I had been constantly searching for someone who would be able to take one look at me and say “that’s wrong, that’s wrong, and that’s wrong. These three things are why you are in so much pain.”

That turned out to not be how things work — or I apparently haven’t found the right teachers and books yet. I asked Rolfers with decades of experience to help me understand various issues and help me understand what I could do to make certain parts of my body feel right. I would stand in front of a teacher for an assessment and wait for golden tablets of wisdom to help me bring my body back into balance. After any session with a Rolfer, I’d usually feel better, but I eventually started noticing diminishing returns. It was like others couldn’t see what was going on with my body…

I’ve been working with people with pain and posture issues for about six years now and in that time have picked up on something Chinese olympic weightlifting coaches have apparently known for a while already…Watching the way someone moves and having them do different assessments is very helpful in attempting to figure out how someone may feel, but it is by no means a 100% accurate predictor. The consequence is something a lot of my Rolfing and PACT clients notice pretty early on.

I believe what the client feels is the primary concern.

As I started working with people professionally, I had a few experiences that made me question how accurately I could see and/or feel potential issues with a person’s body. I noticed that even in times when I was 100% certain that there was a whole heck of a lot of tension in a part of the body, the client could still feel like absolutely nothing was wrong. I noticed that when very experienced massage therapists or bodyworkers worked on my body, they might feel like there was something tense and wrong, and I would feel perfectly comfortable and relaxed there (until they pushed really, really hard…).

Even in moments where a guy’s body appears to be screaming out for help (like when spinal erectors on one side are hugely overbuilt versus the other side), the way it feels for him can be wildly different from the way it felt for the guy who was in just 15 minutes prior with the same kind of asymmetry. One guy may feel like his upper back hurts, the other like he can’t rotate on his stance leg in his golf swing. They may look the same initially, but individual differences can make a huge difference internally.

That barbell weighs more than your family.

This uncertainly about how something feels is why I tend to ask clients so many damn questions about how exercises feel. And I’m not the only one who approaches it this way, either. The Chinese Olympic Weightlifting coaches are big on the same approach as well!

Here’s a great quote from a guy who writes about the differences between western approaches to weightlifting (with an emphasis on charts, predictions, and the cold, hard numbers handed down from the coach) and the Chinese approach to elite level weightlifting:

Athletes have as much input to training as do the coaches. After about 5 years, athletes start making their own training templates as they understand themselves better. This is the best, because a coach can only see, not feel what the athletes are feeling.

Now I’m obviously not training anyone to be an Olympic weightlifter — I’d probably be better off trying to teach people underwater basket-weaving — but this is a lesson I think anyone at any level of fitness can use.

Making a movement feel good to you is just as important, if not more important, than making it look good to the outside observer. A coach helps you find the right technique, helps you identify your weaknesses, and helps you move forward. But ultimately, even at and especially at the highest levels of performance, you still have to focus on your internal feelings to keep making progress.


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.