Fitness is a concern of human effectiveness and efficiency rather than aesthetic and performance. I know the barrage of Facebook ads and Instagram posts contradicts this idea, and I’m not ignoring the benefit of aesthetic or performance goals, indeed extrinsic motivation is necessary for success. I simply want to change the dominant motivation for exercise from aesthetic to self-mastery. This article begins that dialog with an exploration into general human movement theory. We learn to master ourselves by learning to master our bodies.
Understanding Movement Efficiency
If you can move your body with greater ease you’ll naturally be able to complete more work in less time. This means you’ll burn more calories, lift heavier loads, and effectively get fitter. Everything should be in alignment, of course: nutrition, recovery, and movement with the intention of increasing vitality and efficiency.
Movement – is change, any change. Which can happen due to forces, influences, and reasons both internal and external.
Human movement is made possible through four main forces:
- Gravity – the force that attracts a mass towards the earth, or indeed any two masses toward one another
- Muscle elasticity – the ability of muscle to regain its resting length after being stretched (e.g. jumping again after landing a jump)
- Ground reaction force – the force exerted back upon a body after that body has come in contact with the ground
- Muscular action – occurs when a muscle shortens and causes movement (i.e. lifting your water to your mouth)
The first three forces happen naturally. You don’t need to exert effort to make gravity pull you to the ground or return a muscle to resting length after it’s been stretched. You don’t exert the force back on yourself after coming in contact with the ground.
Understanding the role these forces play in movement as well as training ourselves to take advantage of them enables us to establish movement efficiency. We become able to achieve maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort.
Muscular action is the only force in your control. Muscle elasticity can be trained and made more efficient, but you don’t actively use it once the muscle has been stretched. What we must do is develop our ability to use these four forces optimally. This first requires an ability to properly perceive the effects of each force. In order to APPLY the force efficiently we need to FEEL the result we aim to SEE.
The first step is to DO:
Train the fascial system, train the muscular system, train the endocrine system, train the cardiovascular system, etc. When we train the physical body to function more efficiently we are making work (i.e. movement) easier. At the same time as you train yourself to DO, entertain moments to FEEL. Bring awareness to sensation. Simply ask yourself what you’re feeling in your body, your emotions, your mind. Don’t worry so much about what it means, just take the sensations at face value. Occasionally answers, understanding, and further questions will emerge.
Elements of Technique
It is possible to perform a movement pattern (exercise, run, dance, etc.) without being particularly graceful or efficient. Simply put, you can do something but be horrible at it. You might get hurt, but you’re still moving. You’re effective. But in some instances, you might not even be able to do what your brain is telling you. In this case, you’re ineffective and one of three components is missing:
- Balance – even distribution of mass over a base of support
- Control – the power to direct movement while restricting excess activity
- Rhythm – a confident, routine pattern of movement
As you analyze your movement, look through a lens built upon the components of those three elements.
Balance (a combination of breathing, posture, position, and space)
Our ability to balance relies on an awareness of ourselves in space (posture), knowing where you are relative to the surface on which you are positioned. It requires integrated breathing, proper posture relative to your position whether that is standing, sitting, crawling, hanging or otherwise, and awareness of your surroundings, mental state, and objectives.
In most of what we do there is a “right” way to breathe, but the beauty in breath is that it is passive. Indeed, efficiency occurs when there is ease and an almost unconscious pattern happening. But our trouble is that most of our breathing is disordered. So before we can efficiently execute, we must first bring awareness to what is.
Practice Breathing. Sit or lay still.
- Do that again. Slower.
- Where do you notice the breath entering your body?
- Your nose? Throat? Stomach, chest, feet?
- Explore your breath. Ask as many questions as you can and see if an answer comes to you. “Why is my breath so shallow? Do I breathe like this all the time? Should my breath be different? Why can’t I get a full breath?…”
Natural, resting breath.
- Should enter your body to lift your belly and side body first. Then the chest should rise. Don’t just think about the front and the sides, allow the breath to expand into the entire torso, including the back of the body. Allow the inhale to expand your torso, stretching the muscles between the ribs, the central and upper back.
- Recognize that the torso expands because the lungs fill with air. Breathe deeply into them. Don’t simply try to puff out the torso. Allow its expansion to be a result from a truly full breath into the lungs.
- When you exhale, first allow the upper chest to drop then let the rest to drop in sequence. Practice that rhythm:
- Belly lifts — chest lifts — chest falls — belly falls.
Resistance Training breath.
- Generally we want to breathe out through the “sticking point”, when working against gravity, during concentric action, usually the “up” phase. But occasionally we want clients to breathe out when the limbs move away from the body such as when lifting arms up overhead in a press. When the arms move away from the body this allows the chest to open making more space for a deeper inhale.
- It is helpful to note that for some individuals, inhaling through the “sticking point” causes the “core” to disconnect. Be mindful here. Keep the ribs connected with the hips: “core”.
Nasal breath vs. mouth breathing.
- Nasal breathing is likely to calm the nervous system, ideal for a cool down or when you need to bring greater mindfulness to your movement such as when training the skill of balance.
- Mouth breathing is likely to excite the nervous system but it also allows for deeper breaths such as is needed for endurance training and kettlebell conditioning.
- Rather than “right” vs. “wrong” think about purpose.
Imagine that expanding out from your center in every direction is energy. This energy pulls with it your entire being to the point where you are simultaneously floating up, outward, and downward. Grounding down and expanding outward in all directions. Simultaneously. This allows your tissues to be suspended as if in a liquid solution to move freely.
- Consider your posture right now.
- Are you seated?
- Imagine this concept of posture and try to establish its essence. Then breathe into all the same directions.
- Set a timer for one minute to try this.
- Remark on how you feel.
Distinct from Posture, position requires a task for the body to manage. Every movement pattern requires its own position. The establishment of such positions produces safety, efficiency, and in some cases mere effectiveness.
- Consider your sitting position. Slide back into your chair, resting back.
- Ensure that your feet are placed directly under your knees, perpendicular to the ground, with knees at 90-degrees if possible.
- Keeping your trunk upright, stand.
- Are you successful? Was it easy or hard? Did you fall back onto your chair?
- Now, slide to the edge of your chair.
- Bring your feet back so knees are directly over your toes.
- Lean forward until your wrists graze your knees. From here, without changing your position, stand.
- Was it easier or harder than the first position?
It is imperative to have a sense of awareness, understanding what is happening around and to you. Develop a sense of where you are in space, able to tap into all your senses for feedback. This takes focus and practice.
- Come to standing.
- Take in the room around you. Get a sense for exactly where you are.
- Now, with your eyes closed, take in the room around you.
- Has anything changed?
- Are you more aware of the sounds around you? Do you feel safe? Could you sense someone approaching?
- Now, spin as quickly as you safely can in one direction. Do not count your revolutions but simply spin for about 10 rotations. Stop suddenly and without opening your eyes see if you can tell which direction you are facing.
- Open your eyes. Were you right?
Control (combination of balance, tension, and relaxation)
Establishing the appropriate amount of tension is necessary to accomplish movement. If a body is too relaxed, stability is a problem. Imagine gumby, a true clay figure trying to support a heavy object. Without tension from muscles and fascia we are unable to support the bones in our body much less an external load we are trying to displace.
When there is excess tension in the body, movement becomes much more difficult. In addition to the force of gravity over which muscles must exert there is now the added tension from the muscles in opposition. Muscles work in synergy, when one contracts, the other relaxes. If the muscles are tense and reluctant to relax, the dominant muscles must work that much harder to contract.
There must be an appropriate balance between tension and relaxation. We can’t just expect pure and constant tension without relaxation or vice versa. Appropriate resistance training develops this.
Rhythm (combination of balance, control, timing, and sequence)
Timing is a matter of executing an act at a precise moment. For example, throwing a football toward a player who is running and timing your throw to land where the running player is going to be able to catch it. Or, when jumping, extending your arms forward to stop at the same moment your feet land.
Understanding sequence means knowing the correct order in which events need to occur. For example, when jumping forward: first you sit back and bring your arms backward; next you propel your arms forward while jumping from the ground; while in the air, you drive your arms backward while extending your hips forward; your arms spring forward to catch yourself in the landing as your feet hit the target. This is the sequence of forward jumping.
- Try jumping out of sequence.
- Come to standing, then sit back and bring your arms overhead.
- Drive your arms backward while extending your hips forward.
- Sit back and bring your arms forward
- Jump from the ground.
You might still get off the ground, but your movement will not be nearly as efficient. In fact, in some cases you will not even be able to accomplish the movement pattern attempted. You won’t be effective.
*Note: If all the elements are present and the technique is still not successful, the weakest link is strength. Strength needs to be increased before the technique will be possible.
Train yourself to understand how the structures of your body come to work together to create movement. As you create a mental “map” of how your own body moves, you will start to SEE where your strengths and where your limitations lie.
“Motion is created by the destruction of balance, that is, of equality of weight, for nothing can move by itself, which does not leave its state of balance and that thing moves most rapidly, which is farthest from its balance”
– Leonardo da Vinci¹
Provide yourself with opportunities to come out of balance physically as well as emotionally. Support and empower yourself with the tools you need to re-balance efficiently by establishing strong movement techniques.
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