As far as I know, before last week the term "costume jewelry workout" did not exist. I credit my client Amanda with the phrase's genesis. (It was particularly impressive since she came up with the phrase at 6:15 a.m. I am barely awake at that hour.)
Amanda first used the phrase when I was walking her through how to recruit her bum muscles. (Important side note -- most people have a hard time engaging their glutes -- their bums. A lot of us have developed "glute amnesia" from all the sitting we do. Our glutes just don't want to work.) Anyway, superficially Amanda looked like she was doing the exercise, but I could tell she was substituting other muscles for her bum. The exercise just looked too easy. I gave Amanda a few cues to help her engage her bum, including placing her hand on the bum cheek she was supposed to be using. Placing your hand on the muscle you want to work is a great tactile cue for the brain. It helps the brain pinpoint the muscle you want to use.
When Amanda started to do the exercise correctly she said, "when you do this right, it is really hard. Before I was doing the 'costume jewelry' version, now I am doing the '18 carat gold' version of the exercise."
Many people just go through the motions when they work out because they don't realize how important it is to be conscious of the muscles they are recruiting, but as Amanda discovered, when you concentrate and become mindful of your movements, the quality of the exercise you are doing improves. Lack of awareness means you simply strengthen muscles and reinforce neural pathways that are already strong.
Don't get me wrong, not every workout, and not every repetition can, or should be "18 Carat Gold" calibre.
If you are new to exercise, anything that will motivate you to exercise, including zoning out in front of the TV, is OK. Even exercise enthusiasts sometimes need a "costume jewelry workout." Just doing something is better than skipping it altogether. When I need extra incentive to bike indoors on my trainer, I have been known to watch DVD on my laptop. I don't get frustrated at myself for not 'giving the workout my undivided attention' because I know I would have skipped the workout if I didn't allow myself the pleasure of watching Grey's Anatomy or ER.
In fact, I have always been secretly annoyed by runners who say that 'real runners' don't listen to music because they want to focus 100 per cent on their training. I love my iPod. Some days it is the only thing that will get me through my run. Doing something will always make me feel better than doing nothing. If I am in a crummy mood I will often do a relaxed 'costume jewelry' run, where I am just going through the motions. The run gets my blood flowing, makes me feel productive and ensures I sleep well.
The trick is you need to have enough awareness to know when you are doing the 'costume jewelry' version versus the real thing, as well as when it is imperative for your workout to be the '18 carat gold' variety.
When I do a relaxed run, I know I am going through the motions. On that day, that is exactly what I need, but I don't kid myself. Those workouts will not help get me personal best, improve my fitness or help me recruit underused muscles. When I do squats I am very conscious of being mindful of my motions. I aim for an '18 carat workout' because my left bum muscle doesn't work well. I need to consciously think through my motion to retrain my muscles.
So, if you are recovering from an injury, or attempting to retrain movement patterns (for example changing your running gait or your squat pattern), it is important to make sure you always strive for '18 carat gold' calibre workouts. If you don't concentrate on what you are doing you will simply reproduce your current muscle recruitment patterns.
One final note, learning how to activate 'sleepy' muscles takes time. The process can be incredibly frustrating. It might take you a few months to be able to do the "18 carat gold" version of an exercise. Don't be discouraged, in the long run becoming more aware of your movements will be worth it. Take the time to become mindful of how your body is moving.