Moving Beyond the Movement System
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
The quote is from Albert Einstein. He’s got something like 10 million likes.
To me, the quote above has traditionally signified the need to step back and look at things from a distance. However, distance often signifies detachment. It’s important to recognize when a solution exists in the distance, it’s not always because it’s a separate entity. Sometimes it’s a higher version of the same thing.
A recent workshop with Jiri Cumpelik of the Prague School made the concept of a higher version or purpose abundantly clear to me. He is someone who has clinical training, experience working with the entire continuum of patients and what seems to be a very high level of yoga practice. If there was one message that he seemed to espouse over all others, it was to look behind movement and toward its higher purpose.
I’ll be honest, if someone else were writing about a higher purpose to movement, I would be concerned that things would start to get a little airy-fairy. Don’t worry, I’m talking about concrete stuff.
Instead of saying that movement has a higher purpose, I’ll just say that movement has a goal that exists beyond the confines of movement itself. In other words, we cannot solve a movement problem with movement alone. We need a different level of thinking. In Chinese martial arts, the word is “yi” and it means intent. It is the difference between a fluid series of attacks and parries and someone who is simply flapping their arms around. Intent is everything.
A baby might reach for a shiny toy. At no point, however, will the baby think about planking for time. In the same way, an athlete will not enter a 100 meter race to activate their gluteal muscles or maximize flexion at their metatarsal phalangeal joint.
Outside of the worlds of exercise and therapy, human beings move because something drives them to do so. There’s an emotional component and a tangible result. These components are so frequently missing from training methodologies that I wanted to spend some time talking about it to help you (and me) get things back.
Let’s take a specific example.
I interviewed a a bright, young coach recently. This guy is already a step ahead of the game. However, when we started to talk about exercises and movement, the components I described above became conspicuous in their absence. The discussion was the split squat. The missing piece was why? Here were some of his answers:
* It’s a lunge pattern * It’s a compound joint movement * It’s a partially de-loaded unilateral movement * It’s closed-chain * Um … we go up and down. With a lean?
None of these are incorrect. Yet, none of them (alone or combined) is enough to create a powerful, effective movement. This forces us to ask the question of what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re training. Is it a specific training effect? Is it a particular movement skill? For me, the answer is typically yes to both. However, it is never for the purpose of checking a box that says “single-leg, quad-dominant (or was that hip-dominant?) movement”. There has to be something more.
To make a detailed list of qualities I would like to see in a split squat, I would need several pages. Suffice it to say that there’s a requisite amount of tension required through the musculature of the core; there’s a requisite amount of stability required through the lead foot and upward to the knee; there’s a need for dynamic mobility via the trailing foot. The hips should move a certain way, the trunk should tilt a certain way, the eyes should look at a certain point and onward and onward and onward. We haven’t even begun talking about the musculature used or the sequencing of activation.
Are you really going to cue each one of these things? Really?
I’ve seen personal trainers try to do this. Sometimes because they’re well-inentioned and sometimes because they simply have to fill up an hour and don’t want to talk about Game of Thrones. I’ve made the mistake (countless times) of over-cueing myself. Even if this worked, however, it would be unbelievably inefficient. There are simply too many moving parts. Yet …
If we treat the split squat as a transition to from a ½ kneeling pattern, things begin to make sense. A transition to what? That is the question. It could be an assisted pattern to transition to standing, it could also be an unassisted pattern to transition to running. Intent is everything. So much so that setting the proper starting position and effectively communicating the purpose of the movement may be all that is required.
The level of intra-abdominal pressure, the angle of lean, the distribution of weight … all of these things suddenly make sense because they conform to an existing motor engram. If someone has a fully-functioning set of respiratory muscles, do they really need to be told to contract their core musculature in a certain way? Or will that happen automatically when a legitimate need presents itself?
If we are not successful with the above approach, we have to begin thinking about why. Do we actually have a motor control issue or simply a lack of clarity as to what to do? The answer is probably messy.
Somewhere within that mixture, though, you can break out your toolkit and eliminate barriers to fluidly manifesting intent. This often means regressing the pattern. If you’re an exercise professional, you know all about regressing. You know how to remove weight or stability demands. Yet you may not know how to maintain the integrity of a pattern — the very objective — while reducing the number of things going on.
How do you do that? Well, I’m not going to give you all of the answers. Not that I have all of them anyway. You’re going to have to look to your own approach to figure things out. However, the first place you should look is toward the higher purpose — the objective that exists beyond the level of the movement itself.