I find great joy when I can take a physical training principle and apply it in other areas of my life.

I recently learned about the three different types of muscle action in my NASM Course:

  •    Concurrent Force: The force caused by muscle flexion
  •    Isometric Force: When a muscle is activated but not moving
  •    Eccentric Force: The force caused by muscle extension.

To visualize these different forces, think of a bicep curl. The concurrent force brings the weight in your hand up to your shoulder. The Isometric force holds the weight in place when you reach your shoulder. The eccentric force brings the weight back to the starting position. The three types of force work in unison to create smooth, controlled movement.

The force applied by muscles draws interesting parallels to a way of thinking I increasingly use: thinking in paradox.

A paradox is a concept with two seemingly opposing ideas, yet both are true at the same time.

Picture of a red and blue pin-back buttons.
Image Credit: brett jordan/Flickr CC BY 2.0

People often mistake paradoxes for problems. A familiar paradox people mistake for a problem is the paradox of work/life balance. Sometimes, people recognize they have a problem related to work/life balance – usually it means they work too much and neglect loved ones or activities. They try and “solve” the problem and cut back on work, but then their job performance might start to suffer. When treated as a problem, work/life balance too often resembles a car swerving from ditch-to-ditch, narrowly avoiding disaster.

But work/life balance isn’t a problem; it’s a paradox. It can’t be solved but must instead be managed and negotiated. When you treat work/life balance as a paradox, you can recognize the pros and cons of each, potential warning signs of over-emphasis on either side, and implement swift corrective measures to maintain a healthy balance.

It is a learned skill to recognize paradoxes, as well as actively manage them. In fact, I’ve found thinking in paradox extremely helpful as I balance them in my daily life – at work, at the gym, and in my social, spiritual and emotional life.

For example, I’ve always struggled with self-acceptance. I am my worst critic and see my many flaws in glaring relief. I’ve learned to channel that energy into managing the paradox of self-image. I have to remind myself that, on the one hand, I am perfect and acceptable exactly as I am today, and have inherent worth and dignity. And, on the other hand, I constantly strive for improvement, perfection, and growth. I feel restless and dissatisfied with my current state because I have a vision of who I could become.

Both views exist as true, yet I can lean to one side or the other depending on what I’m facing.

Similarly, lifting weights is a paradox. When I flex or extend a joint, I concurrently or eccentrically use muscle force. When I exert both forces equally, I achieve a perfect balance: isometric force. Both the weight and the muscle are perfectly still, yet the muscle is fully engaged, straining to maintain equilibrium.

To illustrate the three types of force and their correlation to paradox, let’s examine the pull-up. Many people (encouraged by Crossfit) will huck themselves up to the bar, fall back down, and repeat as fast as possible. In muscular terms, they produce a short burst of concurrent force, followed by no isometric force at the top, and no eccentric force to lower back down. The ‘hucksters’, as I call them, are missing out on 66% of the potential workout they could get from this exercise. They see a pull-up as a problem to solve: get to the top as fast as possible and repeat.

A pull-up should be a slow, controlled paradox. A mindful exercise. Use concurrent force to smoothly bring your chin above the bar, use isometric force to hold for a few breaths, and then use eccentric force to slowly, and fully lower yourself down. Every motion is controlled, smooth, calm, and balanced. The goal is not just to get your chin above the bar and fall back down, but to have all the involved muscles engaged in each type of force equally throughout the exercise.

Gay pull ups

Managing a paradox is the same way. To avoid acting like a ‘huckster,’ managing paradox takes the controlled use of concurrent, isometric, and eccentric force. One must be able to gauge when to flex, extend, or maintain equilibrium. It takes thought, intention, discipline, self-awareness and patience.

Maybe that’s why F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Just as isometric force is the perfect balance of two opposing forces, so is a perfectly managed paradox. It’s a beautiful manifestation of two opposites coming together in exquisite balance.

What paradoxes do you face? Do you find yourself like the huckster, swerving from one polarity to the other?