“The air is up here! Put your hands over your head and stand up straight.”
Coaches across the country yell the same phrase to tired athletes every day. In this instance, it was to a group of pre-teen soccer players who had just completed running sprints up and down the field. Players who ignored the initial command were treated with a second more foreboding one “You are showing weakness! Stand up, hands over your head. Don’t let them see that you’re tired!” The pre-teen boys complied as best they could, occasionally dropping their hands when the coach wasn’t looking.
Fatigue is a signal. It is a message that relays information about our deep internal status to our conscious self. It often starts as a whimper—a mere reminder that what we are doing is abnormal, that we’re pushing too hard—before escalating to a scream. A demand from our inner self that danger is ahead, that we are approaching our physical limits. If you’ve ever pushed your body to the brink of exhaustion in any athletic endeavor, you’re familiar with this pattern: from mild annoyance to a blaring siren demanding we stop. If we continue to ignore these signals, or press onwards past them, our body will even shut us down. Muscles cease to function, and we might even collapse to the ground. Most of us never get to that point. But we all experience the step before shut down, the near-automatic bending over at the waist after the completion of an exhausting run, spin on the bike, or lift.
Hands go down to your knees, you gasp for air. Despite what PE teachers and coaches have been barking at everyone, from elementary school children to professional athletes, for decades, the air is not “up there.” Yes, after exhausting exercise the body needs to get rid of Carbon Dioxide, and take in oxygen and pump it all through your cardiovascular system that connects muscles, heart, and lungs. That isn’t in question. That we shouldn’t bend over is.
Research shows that putting your hands on your knees improves recovery immediately after an exhausting workout. When we bend over, not only are we able to intake more air and move more carbon dioxide, but our heart rate also returns to normal at a faster rate. Currently, there are two theories to explain this phenomenon. First, putting your hands on your knees puts the muscles you utilize to breathe in a better position to do what it does best. Your rib cage is in a better position to expand and your diaphragm is able to relax and utilize more of its total capacity. The second theory is that by lowering your upper body and putting on a level plane with your heart, the heart doesn’t have to do as much work against gravity. This would also explain why some athletes even fall to the ground post-exercise, completely minimizing gravity’s difficulties, allowing the heart to pump on an even playing field.
Regardless of the exact mechanism, putting your hands on your knees isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s the right choice. Our body is smarter than we give it credit for. Ignore the pain. Suppress the feelings of hurt, despair, or anxiety. Far too often, we are told to bat away inner signals that may be relaying a message. We frame them as enemies to dispose of, to resist. Instead, we need to learn when to listen to what our body is saying. To recognize when our deep and physical inner self knows far more than our storytelling and rationalizing brain.