Here’s a great way to think about what better movement means. Movement can be thought of as a language, and good healthy movers can be thought of as fluent in the language of movement. Who is fluent in movement? Most children are fluent, at least before they ‘learn’ to become stiff, inflexibly, poorly co-ordinated and deskbound. They can twist, turn, fall down, get up, squat, lunge, jump, run, climb trees, all with safety, ease and grace. They can get from point A to point B in 400 different way. As adults, most people have lost their movement fluency – they can get from point A to B in maybe five ways instead of five hundred, or maybe they can’t get from A to B at all. Their movement has fallen into a narrow groove from which it cannot escape. Or to use the language analogy, they now have only a survival vocabulary of movement. If you live in a country where people don’t speak English, you can survive with maybe a couple hundred words.
You can get by and accomplish your everyday needs or even have a job. But you are not fluent, and you’re not going to have as many opportunities as someone that is. And, you also might get into trouble if life requires a little more language skill.
Movement is the same way. With a survival vocabulary of movement, you can walk around, sit on the couch, maybe hike or bike a little, maybe play a sport at half speed, or go to the gym and move your limbs through the predetermined paths provided by machines. But when something unexpected happens like a push on the football field, a fall skiing or an extra long run with a friend, your movement vocabulary is exceeded and pain and injury is the result.
If you have movement fluency, you have the buffer zone to meet unexpected physical challenges. You can also seek out new challenges, by trying new sports or activities without fear.
What this means to you is that fluent movement allows you to move without pain, with freedom to do anything you choose, attain the highest level performance with maximum efficiency! Most natural athletes maintain this fluency, think of Micheal Jordan or Roger Federa.
Lets take the analogy further. Sentences are composed of words, which are composed of letters. We can look at movement the same way. All of the possible individual isolated movements at joints (like elbow flexion) are the letters. Simple compound movements like the squat, push, pull or twist involve multiple coordinated joint movements and are therefore the words. A series of simple compound moves like hitting a tennis forehand or getting shopping bags out of the car, is like a sentence. The import of this analogy is that you can’t write a very good sentence without many words, and you can’t make many words (without misspellings) if you don’t know all the letters. Let’s look at how this plays out in the example of gardening.
Gardening often requires you to squat down to the ground and then make reaching, twisting and pulling movements. The key word in the sentence here is the squat. The squat requires the following letters – full ankle flexion, full knee flexion and full hip flexion as well as some trunk extension and stabilization.
Although the squat is one of the simplest and most functional movements, it is actually composed of many separate joint movements or letters, and if one is missing the whole thing might fall apart. For example, if you don’t have the “letter” of full ankle flexion, you can’t get all the way to the ground without lifting your heels, which will reduce stability and place increased demands on your knees and low back. Ever have sore knees and low back after gardening?
So how can we use this tedious analogy to move better? First, we make sure we know all the letters. Recovering better movement should start with systematically making sure that you can move all your joints through all available ranges of motion at different speeds in a controlled and coordinated fashion. As you go through this process you will discover a wide variety of movements that are outside your normal narrow “groove” – movements that you are completely physically capable of performing but which require serious concentration because you simply haven’t done them in years.
After performing such a movement and recovering a new “letter”, your vocabulary will immediately expand because you will also recover all the related words which depended on that letter. For example, recovering small subtle movements in the feet can have a hugely beneficial effect on the safe and healthy movement of the knees, hips and back.
After making sure you have recovered all your letters, you can then proceed to practice with more intensity the key “words” that you use most often in life. For most people, there are eight or nine fundamental or primal words that come up over and over – squats, lunges, deadlifts, pushing, pulling, twisting, running, walking.
Interestingly, most “functional” training programs emphasize these “primal movements” as the basis for any good rehabilitative or “sport specific” or general physical preparation training program. While it is certainly true that these movements are essential to movement fluency, such programs often don’t respect the complexity of the moves – they are words not letters. So, if you attempt to do some vigorous squatting or running without full mobility at the foot and ankle, you will necessarily have some “mispellings” (just to beat this language analogy to death) , or compensations that lead to inefficiency, stress and ultimately injury. Many of these compensations occur at the a very subtle level that is hard to detect without an experienced coach watching directly over you.
So, to perform your best, to be able to safely work harder, without pain … to be able to have real movement fluency. Start with the alphabet.
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