If you have not yet read Part One, please start there.
In Part One of My Preference for Old Stuff, I discussed insights shared by Dr. Edward Thomas on precision, progression and variety of activity. These were central tenants of old-school training as observed by Dr. Thomas, but the definition of old-school training can reach even further than organized physical education. The recent fascination with the hunter/gatherer Paleolithic man seems to be more focused on his diet than his activity. This means that adherence to “paleo-diet” rules alongside modern impractical —exercises, weight machines and soft running shoes may not really yield the most authentic results.
Early man also needed to possess a fundamental movement competency. Chances are he rested every chance he could, but when he moved it was efficient and focused. His quality of movement competency allowed him to be adaptable instead of highly specialized. Modern culture prizes specialization, and respect should be shown for a high school regional track championship, an Olympic gold medal or a Super Bowl ring. Specific goals should drive us, but not at the expense of our long-term adaptability. When specialists pursue elite status, they knowingly relinquish some adaptability, but most natural athletes and intuitively fit people reclaim physical balance and adaptability once the specific event or special interest has passed. Physical adaptability is the game of life, and to age gracefully is to be physically, mentally and emotionally adaptable.
The subtle message of adaptability is the reason I included a section on self-limiting exercise in the Movement book. These are simply activities that naturally restrict progression without some degree of physical adaptation. The human system has the ability to adapt in two unique ways. The capacity to improve its hardware—physical structure—or software; motor control, coordination and pattern refinement are interwoven and complementary natural forces. At some point in our history, the basic struggle against natural forces was a dominant teacher. Physical labor turned blisters into calluses and refined movement patterns in the process. Speed without control caused unnecessary falls and therefore speed and surefootedness were developed as one. Strength without balance caused unnecessary injuries and the lifting of heavy things became more about efficiency and safety than brute force. These things can occur naturally if we are patient, listen to our limits, and study our surroundings.
Our relationship to our environment is unique. Historically, the environment forced us to adapt since our ability to modify our surroundings was limited. Today we seem to resist natural and practical adaptation at every turn, while we modify every part of the environment that touches us. We have also taken great strides to modify our most common activities to make every aspect of being active totally comfortable and convenient with a minimal learning curve. Unfortunately, comfort does not seem to foster or stimulate adaptation. Stress is a teacher, but we seem to want our stress meal to be served in bite-sized, sugarcoated portions. We want tension on our leg muscles, but we hate all the technical precision required to squat so we invented the leg press. We seemed to forget that the ability to produce tension without the ability to control our posture and balance has no practical advantage in nature.
Call self-limiting exercise and activity an opportunity for stress multitasking. Just pick the appropriate dosage and do the move until you own it! A difficult Turkish getup uses less weight than a difficult shoulder press using a weight machine. This is because the shoulder machine manages all the stress but the downward pushing resistance that follows a predetermined one-size-fits-all movement. Since the responsibility for changing postures, instantaneous balance reactions and sensory awareness is removed, the weight can be increased because other responsibilities have been removed. When exercise complexity is reduced, the loop between movement perception and movement behavior is reduced. Work is done and calories are burned, but learning and adaptability are not a primary stress.
Multiple stressors create the need for constant modification based on perception and behavior. Self-limiting activities require the subconscious and conscious movement systems to work together to reach a desired outcome. This indicates we should invite the stress provided by self-limiting exercises, because at every turn one system is disadvantaged and receives a get-better stimulus. Any dummy can create a difficult activity, but great coaches, teachers and trainers create challenging activities that require the trainee to rely on preparation, energy management and movement efficiency.
This is not to say we must endure chaos or create pain to foster adaption. Pain is not the same as discomfort or the feeling of unsteadiness. Unless you are injured, pain is usually the signal that follows unmodified discomfort. If you intelligently listen to training discomfort and make the necessary adjustments, you will most likely avoid unnecessary training pain. Consider pain to be a red light and discomfort and unsteadiness to be a yellow light. A red light indicates danger, the need to stop and observe your surroundings and only proceed or push in the most extreme of circumstances. A yellow light simply means proceed with caution. Be aware of your surroundings and your movement. Physical and mental adjustments may be necessary, beneficial and actually make the discomfort and unsteadiness manageable or absent altogether.
Barefoot running is not initially comfortable, but it does seem to have some merit when it comes to over-striding and undeserved excessive mileage. It embodies the essence of self-limiting activity. Instead of immediately modifying the activity, maybe we should listen to what our feet have to say, and be patient and adapt. If foot sensitivity and discomfort is the weakest link in the running chain, it must have something very important to say. Maybe it’s not saying shoes are good or bad. Maybe it’s simply saying—
Let me help you refine the most authentic stride for your current limits and abilities.
I have lots of nerve endings that provide information about how and when to use all the right muscles most efficient sequences to create a low-impact efficient stride customized to your unique qualities.
I can actually do most of my teaching automatically, so you will not need to memorize anything —you’ll know when you are doing it wrong… trust me.
Just listen to me every now and then, and if you choose to opt for the extra protection of shoes that’s cool. Just revisit me every now and then so we can stay connected and I can give you some feedback
In the Movement book, I spent over 400 pages building the case that perception drives behavior. Poor fundamental movement patterns should not primarily be managed with verbal critique or visual demonstration. Corrections should target movement input (not just visual and verbal) to change output. This simply suggests if your movement perceptions are not good, how can your movement behaviors ever be great? They are intimately linked and one represents the quality of the other. We don’t just move… sometimes we think, feel and move, and sometimes we just feel and move. Both our conscious and subconscious mind relies on our perception to refine our movement behavior. Our movement behavior creates more opportunity for perception. The more we modify our environment and activities, the more we limit our perception opportunities. We once thought the benefits of the squat could be effectively substituted by equal activity on a leg press machine. We now know the leg press only addresses the prime movers of the squat pattern and fails to require continual balance adjustments and timing required when performing an authentic squat with respectable weight.
Our contact with the natural environment once shaped who we were. The limitations of the Paleolithic diet shaped our energy systems even though we were able to adapt to agrarian Neolithic diet, but now we push our adaptive capacity to extreme and eat in a way we were not designed to eat. We wonder why we are obese and sick, and think we can fix it by exercise and counting calories. Wrong! For more information on this subject look at Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It by Gary Taubes. For even more practical advice, get acquainted with Robb Wolf and his book, The Paleo Solution.
We were created with the gift of adaptability, and that quality above all other qualities probably has more to do with our success on this planet than our intelligence. Maybe it’s a deeper, subconscious form of unique intelligence, intuition and internal drive, or even a sixth sense. The ability to adapt is a gift and a unique trait, but we have systematically distorted the gift in the name of comfort and convenience. No worries—we can fix it and actually make it fun. Let me present three ways we have skewed this most prized survival ability of our humanity, which will also shed light on a path to the remedy.
- Physical detachment—we limit our perception experience.
- Insistence on over-modification—constant tinkering with supplementary exercise.
- Intentional focus on extended specialization—more is better… RIGHT!?
Erwan Le Corre, the visionary behind the MovNat physical education system and MovNat.com, and I recently shared a phone conversation of undetermined length (my way of saying I never once looked at my watch). He eloquently articulated his insight on both functional activity and practical activity, a perspective and observation I share. He stated that the ability to do a pullup, a box jump and a squat are functional, but the ability to climb and adapt to different climbing situations is practical.
Both the squatting pattern and pulling pattern are used in climbing, but simply doing pullups and squatting fall short of creating a great climber. However, a variety of practical climbing activities do a fine job of maintaining a respectable pullup and a functional squat. This example demonstrates that functional activities are responsible ways to prepare and maintain the body, but practical activities go one step further and in fact, create meaning.
Practical activities employ functional patterns, but always offer a variety of daily twists that produce adaptability by offering a wide array of perception. Simple climbing adds meaning to the functional abilities to perform movements, and our brains are hard-wired to cling to meaningful things. Therefore, it can be said that functional training is good, but practical application creates meaning and locks the functional attributes into the system with real experience and not simply the detached rehearsal movement. Functional movements provide an efficient base for the exploration of practical movement opportunities, and that is what actually makes us adaptable.
Erwan also pointed out that more practical activity would likely reduce the need for functional supplementation and I agreed. I compared it to a holistic and complete diet requiring less dietary aids and supplements. However, all individuals do not absorb nutrients at the same rate, and the same could be said for acquisition or reacquisition of movement abilities. Don’t expect practical activities to automatically correct significant movement dysfunction without being scaled. Scaling practical activities is a science, and Erwan is at the forefront of that thinking and technology.
The other solution for going from movement dysfunction to practical activity with minimal risk is to follow the functional movement screening technology. Use corrective exercise to restore dysfunctional movement patterns to the level of competency. Then maintain these and reinforce them with the addition of practical activity. The complete trainer and coach should always strive to reduce corrective activities as soon as they are successful, and replace them with meaningful activities that foster reinforcement and conditioning. My professional recommendations are very simple:
- Always keep some self-limiting activity in the mix.
- Don’t ever assume the superiority of any program will guarantee an outcome. Be a professional and use a tool to measure an objective movement competency baseline. Always check your work— I use the FMS.
As Erwan and I talked, it was evident we both realized that a scalable sensory experience with responsible supervision allows students to engage in a rich perceptive experience—at their own pace. That experience helps drive better practical movement behaviors over time. Now consider that statement for a minute and then apply some of the things we actually do. Yes, I was once guilty as charged. As a young physical therapist and strength coach, I tried to talk my patients and athletes into better movement and I was not satisfied with the results. I needed a tangible way to gauge my influence on movement dysfunction and improved motor control.
With more questions than answers, my co-workers and I embarked on a journey that produced the Functional Movement Screen. Our collective opinion was that we talked more movement than we actually taught. We loved the sounds of our authoritative coaching voices. We produced exciting exercise sessions, but did not seem to influence movement fundamentals at a level that impressed us. So in 1996 we decided to change things in our own heads first, and then take it into our own backyard. Since then, this simple idea has reached around the globe, mostly on its simple merit and our enthusiasm. Movement screening speaks to the intuitive intelligence that expert trainers, coaches and rehabilitators possess. It does not limit their individual creativity; it simply provides more objective feedback.
We all know functional movement patterns are happening long before verbal expression or comprehension. Of course, certain higher skill activities require verbal instruction, but rolling over, getting up and balancing on one foot should be natural and not require total concentration. If these are lost, they can be easily acquired through scalable exploration and minimal verbal instruction. The point is that we should set up the experience consistent with the abilities of the participant and let the perceiving, behaving system do what it was designed to do: become efficient. The better the pattern identification and set-up, the less verbal instruction is needed.
We can apply these timeless lessons to any exercise or activity, but let’s just pick one and let it serve as a template. I challenge you to pick at least three additional topics and apply the same scrutiny—consider these your mental sets and reps for the week.
EXAMPLE TOPIC: BAREFOOT RUNNING
- Physical detachment—over-padded footwear allows increased mileage without natural limits or refinements to technique. Perceptive opportunity is reduced.
- Insistence of modification—an unbalanced focus on quantity over quality. We modify our terrain and exchange technical routes requiring a variety of running skills for easy, long flat runs. Invite diversity and scaled variety.
- Intentional focus on extended specialization—other forms of locomotion can actually enhance the physical development of a runner. Things like cycling, hiking, trail running, minimalist running, sprints, intervals, climbing, swimming and paddle sports can provide a moving experience and maintain adaptability.
Prior to one of my favorite books of all time, Born to Run, I was already experimenting with minimalist footwear and I was naturally barefoot for all backyard experiences with my children and even during most of my kettlebell sessions. It just felt right. With the popularity of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and the availability of Vibram’s well-designed FiveFinger minimalist shoe, America started embracing barefoot running. The minimalist shoe removes unnecessary cushioning the body could easily provide if it was simply asked to move and behave differently against impact. The lack of containment and compression over the toes allows a greater sensory experience in the forefoot. Also look at the New Balance Minimalist if the Vibrams are just too much for your sense of style.
This is all good because the foot is not just a mechanical end of the leg—it is a sensory receptor for our environment. It helps us to gauge our core stability and hip movements, as well as adjust and adapt to changing surfaces while maintaining balance, appropriate alignment and upright posture. We are hardwired to rely on the feedback from the foot. However, this does not suggest a knee-jerk reaction to throw away your conventional training shoes. It does not even suggest short barefoot runs or minimalist shoe runs. I am aware of hundreds of people who were inspired by the barefoot movement and never once attempted to walk in their backyard or on a sidewalk barefoot. Brave and inspired souls immediately came out of a shoe and resumed their normal running pace and mileage while barefoot, in Vibram’s FiveFingers or comparable minimalist shoes, but this was an irresponsible oversimplification even though it was a step in a naturally correct direction. Nature says crawl, walk, and then run. Skipping steps to save time increases the chance of set-backs in the long run.
The sensitivity and limitations of both our hands and feet should give us self-limiting guidelines. Obviously, gloves and shoes are designed to protect our hands and feet, but a blister on the hand or ultra-sensitive foot may mean maximized activity for the upper or lower body for that day. The foot or hand is the squeaky wheel, but each may also be a barometer of low-quality movement in the rest of the chain as well. I may be dating myself, but I recall gym rats using wrist wraps to extend their exercise with lat pull-downs long after their grip strength was gone, not realizing the integrity of the grip and the integrity of the shoulder stability created a delicate balance between perception and movement. Likewise, the foot is made for the ground, and the feedback collected by the foot helps all of the reactions that occur above in the joints that align and propel the body.
I embrace the minimalist approach and applaud Erwan Le Corre in his natural perspective because he emphasizes scalability and enhanced perception opportunities at each level of learning. In the book Movement, I eluded to this natural state of physical development as authentic movement—movement that is created by listening to the body as it responds and moves through a natural environment. Erwan calls this ability natural movement, and I believe we are saying the same thing.
The perspective often overlooked when people explore Erwan’s work or look at my perspectives in Movement is that it is ultimately important to both of us that the activities we introduce are scalable. Scalability means the activity can be somewhat restricted to give the individual time to create physical and mental adaptations. We have the ability to modify nearly all activities, but as we do, we sometimes lose the good stuff. Don’t confuse scaling with modification. Modification is usually a static alteration, while scaling is usually linear with a built-in tendency for progression.
Therefore, if we modify the activity too much, we restrict the adaptive capability of the human movement system. Likewise, if we do not responsibly scale the activity, it is likely to cause injury or compensation before natural adaptation occurs.
Scalability simply means lowering the dosage, not changing the activity. It improves safety and still offers enough perception and stress for growth and learning. This should not be confused with modification where high-end activities are merely imitated. The end goal of scalability is adaptability, but the end result of modification is usually just impractical hyper-specialization.
The bench press is a modification of a natural pushing activity. The postural and balance responsibilities are removed, therefore moving from good bench presses to great bench presses mean only that, and no other abilities can be assumed. It does not imply better striking, grappling or pushing ability. It just implies improvement in a specialized situation, just as better squatting ability can usually transfer to better leg pressing, but the same does not work in reverse. Scale, don’t modify—it is usually an unnecessary step unless you are dealing with disease or disability.
Western culture has influenced our fitness model more than our authentic or natural movement model has influenced Western culture. We want what we want and we want it now, if not a little sooner. That, in many situations, has produced irresponsible physical education. The systematic approach I talked about in Part One discussed the wisdom of physical educators more than a century before us. The scalability of natural sensory experiences goes back thousands and even millions of years. Our ancestors knew we had the ability to modify our environment, and they also knew we had the natural capacity to adapt.
They entertained that delicate balance between physical adaptability and the modification of the environment. They seemed to intuitively know that things made too easy would not yield the most robust physical results, and that things made too difficult would simply create unnecessary risk. We should learn from them and aim our sights at natural and authentic challenges.
We should take what we learn from our historical natural development and also look at the wisdom on display a mere century ago. With that information in hand, we should realize the gap between ignorance and intelligence is far less than the gap between intelligence and action. Anybody ready for some intelligent action?
Author’s note: My family and I will be joining Erwan and his team for a MovNat Experience. I told my girls it’s sort of like Survivor, but Dad has immunity and cannot be voted out—Erwan said so!!!
The following observations and comments are attributed to Dr. Carol Frey, Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Manhattan Beach, California
“We don’t need shoes for proper foot development. Walking is a collaborative effort requiring constant communication between the brain and feet. Nerve endings on the bottom of the feet sense the ground beneath and send signals to the brain that help it determine how and where weight should be distributed with each new step. Shoes alter that feedback to the brain. The thicker the sole, the more muffled the message.
“Shoes are not necessary for support or development of the arch, they only protect the feet from the environment. Babies and crawlers need only wear socks or booties to keep their feet warm. Early walkers, too, should be allowed to go sans shoes whenever they are in a safe, protected environment. Going barefoot helps children develop stronger and more coordinated foot muscles.”