Whatever you do, from high end computer programming to gardening and everything else, quality matters.
Movement is no exception.
As Dutch sports performance and motor learning expert Joep Joosten says:
Movement is an emergent creation of the dynamic interaction between the environment, task and organism. pic.twitter.com/99DbNtmvTq
— Joep Joosten (@Joep3187) September 14, 2016
Movement quality is hard to measure objectively, due to inherent differences between human anatomy, physiology and psychology, that the best we can do is quantify, and compare to norms.
However, if you ask any lay person watching anything involving human movement, from artistic dance to fast running, they will be able to tell you what looks “better”, or more easily, what’s not good.
My colleague, top sports physiotherapist Greg Dea, has this to say on movement quality:
Does it look “clean and easy” or “dirty and difficult”? – @GregDea
— Nick Efthimiou (@NickEfthimiou) September 11, 2016
There are certain things that leaders in the area of human movement agree on, and one of which, is that certain movements are fundamental to humans. These include:
We also intuitively understand that our movement quality can be compromised over time (1), be it due to factors out of our control like ageing, disease or injury.
But we also need to realise that our movement quality is very much affected by factors that are within our control, such as our environment, occupation, hobbies and our physical activity, to name a few.
Whatever you do, it is always a good option to try and move with more quality. Why? Movement is both an action and a stimulus. Each time you move, you are stimulating your brain. The better your movement, the better the stimulus, and thus the better the learning experience for your brain. (2)
So how do you move with more quality?
Make It Easier
This stems out of a training quote “sometimes you have to regress to progress”, but it applies across all forms of movement in life.
Sometimes, what you are doing, or attempting to do, is simply beyond your current capabilities.
If this is the case, you are performing at, or near, your “threshold”. Around this threshold we see survival strategies kick in, which impair movement quality.
To borrow from Greg again:
“It’s at the limit of stability you will see neuromuscular deficits.” – @GregDea
— Nick Efthimiou (@NickEfthimiou) September 10, 2016
Survival strategies are great in times when survival is threatened.
They produce extra stability and rigidity, which in turn allows the expression of more power, strength and endurance than you normally would be able to produce otherwise.
In the short term, this is perfect. If a bear is chasing you down, you want to be able to run or climb to safety, it’s not so great if you are in the gym or on the tennis court, trying to enjoy yourself and be the best you can be, because then you can potentially do more than your body can safely adapt to, which is termed an injury.
If that is the case, making the movement easier by “regressing” it can allow your brain turn off the survival mechanisms, and you can execute movement more effectively.
Regressing can be done in few different ways:
- Making the task easier
- Doing less of the task
- Breaking the task up into smaller chunks, and taking longer breaks between chunks
The cool thing about our bodies, is that they adapt to stimuli, so over time, you will get better and be able to do more anyway,
This is universally applicable, from sports to housework.
Stimulate Your Senses
Movement is an output of the brain. Once again, Greg puts it simply (maybe this should be an ode to Greg):
Outputs = inputs + processing. – Greg Dea
Most of the time, when someone wants to improve their movement quality, they focus on executing the output more, and perhaps changing the processing by thinking about certain cues (think stand tall, arch your back, lift your knees etc).
Very few people focus on the inputs aspect intuitively, but this is one of the biggest areas where you can have success in improving your movement quality.
— Nick Efthimiou (@NickEfthimiou) October 23, 2016
Pictured above, osteopath Phillip Beach is discussing the sensory homonculus, which is the representation of the physical body within the brain. You can see how certain areas are quite big – these areas have the richest sensory nerve supply and are ripe for stimulation.
Now, obviously, when it comes to movement, we are probably not going to worry about stimulating our face or genitals, but how many times have you paid attention to how your hands and feet interact with your environment?
By stimulating your senses to a higher level, you drive increased brain activation, which facilitates better movement.
An obvious place to start, is with the feet. Encased in shoes for most of the day, by performing movements without shoes, you automatically get a richer sensory stimulus. This isn’t always practical, so a good rule of thumb is to spend as much time at home, both indoors and out, barefoot, and when you are exercising, try and perform your warm ups, or at least part of them, barefoot as well.
When it comes to your hands, whether your in the gym, gardening or riding a bike, you need to weigh up the benefits of protection to the costs of decreased sensory stimulation when wearing gloves.
The other aspect of increasing sensory stimulation is in relation to sensory input from within the body. If function at a joint is compromised, then the sensory input of that joint to the CNS is also compromised. However, compromised sensory input also impacts function. It’s a negative vicious cycle.
We can use osteopathic techniques, stretching and other self-mobilisation techniques to change the function at a joint, in order to improve it’s sensory input. Remember the equation Input + Processing = Output?
Change Your Environment
By modifying your environment, you can almost immediately change your movement.
What do I mean by your environment?
Almost everything. From the physical environment, all the way through to the social environment.
Let’s say you are a recreational runner, and your best 5 km time is 30 minutes. If you started running with 23-25 minute 5 km runners regularly (a change to your social environment), do you think you would get faster over time?
If you are a district level cricket player, and you get the chance to play a match at the MCG, do you think you would be more focused or less? Would you perform to a higher level or lower?
There’s not a clear answer to either question.
Some people rise to the occasion and others are crushed by the pressure. Either way, there is a change in their performance.
To improve your movement quality, you need to experiment with your environment to find the conditions that let you be at your best.
Improving your movement quality isn’t all about performing specific exercises or using a certain technique.
By understanding that movement is a complex brain output, that is based on many contextual factors, you can aim to change your movement by changing the contextual factors.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.