3 Tiers of Movement, Part 2

Movement Capacity:

This post, we look at the second tier of the pyramid – movement. How well can you move, how many movement options do you have available, how relaxed are you when moving, and are you moving in the appropriate way in which the body is designed? 

Someone with good range of motion AND control in all joints will have access to a great level of fitness by virtue of that. But, just like when we explored the first tier of being human, most people are far off the mark in this category also. Why?

The body adapts to any posture you adopt regularly to make it easier. The body always looks for ways to conserve energy, and we become distorted over time due to our unnatural lifestyles, eg: sitting all the time for work and relaxation.

We blunt our movement ability early on. We put babies into footwear as soon as possible, shutting down proper foot function, which then prevents the glutes from learning to work properly. We rush them to walk, not realizing that important movement and stabilization patterns that remain for life are being developed by crawling. We sit way too much, even at an early age. Kids play physically and outside way less and do not develop the same body control or joint strength that all humans prior to us have. We rarely do manual labor growing up. Finally, most of us do very little organic movement, instead moving right into doing a few basic movements to the exclusion everything else.

Due to little crawling and physical play, and later to never developing any work capacity in daily life, few of us know how to control or stabilize our core, shoulder, or foot. As a result, our nervous systems restrict our range of motion, making us stiff and uncoordinated. If we decide to lift weights, it’s big uphill battle and many folks without a good coach get injured. Our body functions like a collection of parts, instead of a coordinated team. Making an unstable body strong is a recipe for eventual injury, or at very best limited gains. 

Hand in hand with this, and helped by the chronic stress in our lives, comes breathing disfunction. Breathing and movement are very closely connected. We get stuck in a state of inhalation, unable to exhale fully and therefore end up taking short, shallow breaths which stresses the body and tightens the muscles. We use our shoulders and neck to do the work that should be done by the diaphragm. We lose mobility and quickly can become injured if we try to exercise or do some task we are unaccustomed to. These rapid, shallow breaths change our internal pH, or acid/alkaline balance; this contributes to dysfunctions in the first tier (hormones, etc). No special diet will reverse this. 

We gravitate to simple and isolation movements when we do try to exercise. Or, we become a specialist in a certain sport. As a result, we get good at very simplistic movement patterns, but then we slowly become less able to perform any other movement and have little ability to adapt to new movements. Think stiff bodybuilder – he may do all his exercises with great technique, but have little capacity to move well outside of that.

Thankfully, in the last 5 years or so, there has been a trend in the fitness community toward addressing our mobility issues. While this is great, much of this popular mobility training is done without any actual movement. There is a time and place for the bands/foam roller/balls/etc, but if you wish to have the range of motion available and useful to you, you must incorporate it into a variety of movement patterns. Tissue remodeling at the cellular level is what will make lasting, useful movement and range of motion. The cells must experience the need to produce and redirect  force for this to happen. Relaxing or rolling will not do this for you.

We have popularly been told that the more fatigue we can create, the better our “gains” will be. Whether it’s reps to failure, all out circuits, HIIT, etc, the fatigue engages survival mechanisms where the body prioritizes getting the work done at all costs. As a result, poor movement patterns get called upon even in experienced athletes. In my earlier years as a coach, I didn’t fully grasp as to why this was, but I’d see it pretty often. Someone would demonstrate proper technique in warmups or heavy sets, then in a metcon they’d look fine at first. Suddenly, after fatigue had set in, they couldn’t hold position anymore, even if taking more rest or reducing the load drastically. The heavy use of the anaerobic lactic system basically pulls the fire alarm and dumps stress hormones. Your body is programmed to see this as a major life-threatening situation so it tells you to do two things: keep going and finish at all costs, and use whatever movement patterns needed to get the job done. This is great for survival if you need it, but not so good for training. This ends up reinforcing compensated patterns of movement and essentially trains you to use crappy form under fatigue.

As you can see, Tier 1 issues crop up and contribute to movement dysfunction, but issues in movement contribute back to hormonal and nervous system dysfunction too. We know our capacity to move even improves our ability to learn and form memories!

The one way to tell someone’s age from afar is by watching how they move. If you are regularly engaging in activities that reduce your movement ability, you are effectively aging yourself. The reverse is also true however! Moving better makes you effectively younger and fitter, as a mobile, stable body has access to it’s full natural fitness:

Balance – issues with balance are more often actually problems with stability. Balancing on one leg with poor core control or hip stability is difficult. For the stronger folks reading this – have you ever worked up to a heavy set of a split squat or similar single leg exercise? If so, I bet as you neared your max weight, you suddenly found it was hard to balance. What gives? You were fine before. What happened is your load reached a threshold where you couldn’t stabilize a certain joint anymore, so your nervous system no longer got the right inputs to keep you balanced. Many people need no loading to reach this point.

Reaction time – a tense, rigid musculoskeletal system is not giving great feedback to the brain and spinal cord. As a result, reactions are slower and less accurate. Think of it like having a lot of static in the line. What was that you said? 

At 50 years old, I now can react at what feels like instantaneous speed. I know I never could moved like that when I was younger; it’s almost shocking. Working on your movement really can pay off.

Endurance – a body that moves smoothly, as it’s designed, is by definition an efficient body. You are not wasting energy fighting against yourself. The more efficient, the more enduring you are. And, if you apply some endurance training, you’ll reap the full benefit.

Strength – with joints that move and stabilize as they should, you’ll have full access to your present strength potential. And, as with endurance, you’ll benefit much more from actual strength training.

Speed – anyone that is actually fast has good movement patterns, period. More than any activity, true sprinting is a recipe for disaster if you have poor movement.

Coordination/motor learning – ability to move well gives much more and better inputs to the nervous system, as a result your coordination and ability to learn is increased. The more competence you have in a variety of positions and movements means faster adaption to tasks that may be similar.

So, what do you do if you want to move? Work on it as seriously as any other fitness quality like strength. Ten minutes in your warmup or after you are tired from your workout isn’t going to cut it unfortunately.

Balance the foundation – read last week’s article and start there if you haven’t. You’ll be fighting an uphill battle otherwise.

Move the joints, get back full function. Make a simple morning routine where you take each joint thru it’s full range of motion for 2-3 reps. This should only take a few minutes. Use this to check in on how you are functioning for the day, plus you will move better all day if you do this. Dedicate other sessions to develop this further.

Train to stabilize your core, foot, and shoulder. This should come before adding other external loads!

Learn to breathe correctly. Practice supine belly breathing at a cadence of 4 sec inhalation and 6 sec exhalation. This increases relaxation, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and relaxes the muscles. Also, work on exhalation training – learning to expel all your air. This will help you move better, as the joints center better when you are not stuck in a state of inflation and extension.

Perform compensatory work – to prevent any activity we repeat often from becoming part of the problem, we must also spend some time working the functional opposite.   A simplistic example that most will recognize is that if you train your biceps, it’d be foolish not to train your triceps also. This helps to keep the body balanced, but also helps you get closer to your potential. Even if you only cared about how much you could curl, at some point, you could curl all you want, but you wouldn’t get any stronger as your body won’t let you get too far out of balance. But, when we think of movements, the same is true as well and it isn’t as obvious. An example of this that few recognize is if you spend a lot of time training to keep your torso rigid under heavy loads, you must also dedicate some time to keeping it mobile in all directions. This is why most strength athletes’ spines appear fixed and immobile, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

So, I hope I have given you more food for thought. In the next post, we’ll look at the final tier that should be icing on the cake. Unfortunately, it’s instead where most begin and end!