“Go on – put your back into it!”
If you’ve not encountered this phrase before, it’s a slightly old-fashioned way of telling someone to make more physical effort – to push, pull, twist or lift harder. You might have your own version. Where I come from it was ‘Give it some elbow-grease!’
Let’s be very clear at the start. Some jobs need a great deal of physical effort. Digging up tree roots. Moving heavy furniture. Dragging large and reluctant dogs. Running a marathon.
No myths so far.
But these colourful and entertaining phrases have led to a huge myth about the need for strenuous exertion, ie. If something is strenuous, you MUST (with large, capital letters in gothic typeface) turn on every muscle in your body. As hard as possible.
The myth pops up from time to time in lessons. Take, for example, one student whose job involved mopping a very large and grubby floor on a regular basis. He was adamant that the only way to do this job was to put his back into it. So he did put his back into it. Hard. Methodically, thoroughly and with great strain. Guess what problem brought him to Alexander lessons? Back pain.
When we reasoned out what was actually required to get a clean floor, it boiled down to ‘push down harder when you scrub’. Looking at ‘scrub’ calmly and logically, it turned out that most of the movement came from the arms and shoulders. The back had a supporting role, no more.
‘Scrub harder’ = effort from the arms and shoulders.
My student tried this out and it was, indeed, easier to do and less painful on his back.
Maybe, rather than hurtling along with the overall, undirected ‘strenuous’ that lurks behind these phrases, we could stop and consider the activity in Alexander terms. Replace ‘strenuous’ with ‘force’. Think about the direction of that force and which particular body part creates it. Then stop adding unnecessary stress and pain into our necks and backs.
And leave vague ‘strenuous exertion’ for the dictionary.