How much energy do you waste in your movement? Meaning, how much more effort are you expending than what you need, and what parts of the body do not need to get involved for the desired outcome?
The Cause of Inefficiency in Movement
There are many reasons for compensatory mechanisms in movement, but the main causes are deconditioning of the appropriate structures, or habitual patterns resulting from the recovery process of overcoming a past injury. If the appropriate mechanism for a movement is weak, surrounding muscles and structures will support the weakness, which is stressful to muscles and structures that are not meant for the role. If you have sustained an injury in the past, it is likely that your body has developed compensations to support the healing process that were never disengaged after healing.
What causes the deconditioning of structures of the body? Mainly misuse and disuse, and in modern society, the conveniences we live with, such as the lack of a need to get up and down from the ground every day, and having everything set right in front of us encourage misuse and disuse. This causes us to recruit inappropriate parts of the body and use more energy than needed to perform movement.
The Vital Importance of Efficiency of Movement
Efficiency is very important for all movement, but life or death situations make great examples to help understand how vital this principle is.
In rock climbing, movement efficiency is vital. If you waste too much energy, you won’t be able to continue climbing or even hold on. Making sure you’re expending the minimum amount of energy to get the result you want is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Swordsmanship is another example that illustrates a different perspective. A sharp sword cuts well with very little force behind it. The angle, and control of the sword’s trajectory is what will determine a strong cut. Putting too much strength behind a swing will slow down the movement. Trying to control the blade too much and recruiting muscles that don’t need to be involved will augment the trajectory. Precision in the way the body is used is key, and any excess spoils the technique.
How To Train Movement Efficiency
So how do we train movement efficiency? First we need the underlying strength, stability, and mobility to make the movement happen, then we need to remove what is unnecessary.
We can take a lesson from the great artist, Michelangelo, who is famous for his approach to art. He would look at a boulder, and see in it the sculpture that he would like to create, The whole sculpture is already there, all he has to do is chip away all the excess. The result is the smooth, perfectly formed statue of David. The slab of marble he used was of particularly poor quality with holes and pores all over it. Michelangelo did not try to fill the holes, or leave acne scars all over David’s face, he chiseled away the porous bits, seeing the form of his sculpture in what was left. Michelangelo did not add anything to the original marble from which the sculpture was chiseled. Applied to movement efficiency, we are not trying to “add efficiency”, we simply need to remove inefficiency.
This is the mindset we see when it comes to training martial art techniques. Training martial arts is not about getting bigger and stronger to punch harder. That’s not art. Training martial arts is about refining the form, and appearing faster, less predictable, and more impactful by removing unnecessary elements of your movement. Conditioning is still important, but absolutely not the main focus. Martial arts practice is an example of skill-centric training. It’s not about developing attributes as much as it’s about refining a skillset. This approach can also be applied to training movement for daily life and health.
The Cost of Compensatory Movement
If we lack the prerequisite strength, stabilization, or mobility to perform a movement, we will recruit other muscles and structures in an attempt to compensate. These compensations are utilizing the muscles that are trying to help in a way that those muscles are not meant to function. For example, if you cannot bend forward freely at the hips, your lower back will flex and round itself to support the action of bending forward. The result of this is stress, excessive tension, and misalignment in our posture. When you request these compensations often enough, the body begins to turn those compensations into long-term habits, and that’s where tension becomes pain, and misalignment becomes deformation.
When we have hardwired our compensations into permanent habitual patterns, the structures that are meant to make the action happen become weak, stiff, and incapable of performing their roles correctly. The structures and muscles that are contributing toward this compensation will also become stiff and weak as a result of performing actions for which they are only meant to support minimally.
If you spend hours every week sitting in a car, sitting at a desk, sitting in a reclining chair, even sitting to do your exercises on machines at the gym, Your hips flexion is likely weak and restricted, and your lower back is tense or overstretched to compensate. If you can’t move your hip freely, and it is stressed just to maintain a neutral position, you have a big problem that will affect everything you do. You might feel a bit of lower back pain or tension as a result of this, or nothing, but if left unchecked, this will absolutely become a bigger and deeper problem that will greatly affect your quality of life in the years to come, as well as your capacity to perform any physical movement with grace and power.
I use this example, because the stress we incur to our pelvic alignment, stability and range of motion is unavoidable in our society, and being at our center of gravity, alignment of the pelvis affects every other joint of the body. No matter what issues you may have, whether it’s back pain, shoulder pain, frequent migraines, knee problems, etcetera, without resolving this imbalance your problems will keep coming back.
If every activity you do involves holding your arms out in front of you, such as driving, using your devices, playing games, writing, or reading, your shoulders are probably developing a specific adaptation to those activities at the cost of mobility in other positions, specifically overhead arm extension. Overtime, the space between your scapula, humerus, and clavicle bones will become more restricted, and problems in the muscles, nerves and circulation will result.
The Critical Focal Points for Structural Alignment
The movement of the hips and shoulders are critical focal points that we need to put deliberate effort into maintaining if we are to counteract the physical stresses imposed by simply living within the convenience of modern society. Whether you have pain or not in your body, unless you’ve been living in an indigenous community that still lives as their ancestors do (and if you’re reading this, that’s probably not you), you need a daily movement practice that addresses these issues. These are things everybody needs to focus on at one level or another. There are more specific issues unique to each individual that should probably be addressed as well, but in those cases, hip and shoulder mobility and alignment are also contributing factors, so that is where we start.
Often when people think of the hips they think of the joint between the lower back and hips, but it is more accurately the joint between the hips and femur, that ball and socket joint called the acetabulum. This joint is where your trunk branches off into two pillars, your legs. The hip is where your center of gravity lies. This is also the core of your body. The core is the source of all movement. Every movement you do stems from the core. Even the motion of walking comes from the hips, not the legs. The legs are like marionettes controlled by the hips. So any imbalances in the body will affect the hips and vice versa.
The alignment of the spine relies on the hips, and the position of the pelvis. If anything is off in the hips, the spine, shoulders, and head will augment their positions to maintain a counter-balance. This creates dysfunction. If the hips are off, the whole body is off, and if anything in the body is off, the hips are going to play a role in that dysfunction.
The shoulder girdle is a belt of bones that surrounds our upper torso. The collar bones and sternum connect the front of the chest to the humerus and shoulder blades, which wraps around the back of the body. Strong muscles connect the shoulder blades to the thoracic spine, and ligaments hold that girdle of bones together, especially between the collar bones, humerus, and shoulder blades. This is another place where the singular pillar of the torso splits into the two arms.
These parts of the body where the extremities branch off from the torso are major bottlenecks for tension and hot spots engaged in pretty well all the movements we can possibly make, so freeing up these regions goes a long way, and ignoring them when addressing issues of pain, tension, or weakness in the body will hold back progress in a big way.
In reality, there is no such thing as an isolated movement of a body part, and we must recognize these major intersections to address the big picture of whatever is going on in the body.
Tonify the Deficiencies First, then Sedate the Excesses
There is a fundamental concept in the treatment protocol of Traditional Japanese Medicine called Kyo Jitsu. Kyo is deficiency, and Jitsu is excess. In illness, there is always an element of deficiency and excess. Excess must be dispersed, and deficiency must be tonified, or built up.
The relationship between excess and deficiency are two sides of the same coin. The excess is often the result of filling the vacuum caused by the deficiency. The excess is obvious in that this is where symptoms are felt. The deficiency is hidden, and requires skill and knowledge to identify and treat. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing the symptoms and ignoring the source of the deficiency. However, if we disperse the excess without first tonifying the deficiency, we’re not doing anything to address the vacuum created by the deficiency, and the excess will gradually return.
If you’ve ever gotten a massage and felt great for a few hours after, but then your pain and tension return shortly after, that’s the effect of a treatment that focuses solely on the symptoms, and not the deeper source of the imbalance. A good treatment should create a lasting result for at least a few days and involves working on areas that may not be experiencing obvious symptoms, as well as addressing the symptoms. Frequent treatments should have a cumulative effect, gradually improving the imbalance as the deficiency is built up. Once the deficiency is resolved, the excess stops returning. If the person does some daily self-treatment as advised by the therapist, the results of each treatment will be longer lasting, and the long-term tonification of the deficiency will be resolved more quickly.
When it comes to movement training, addressing the alignment and functional integrity of the hips and shoulder girdle, restoring the effortless strength to maintain an upright position is effectively tonifying the deficiencies, and removing the excessive compensations that make up for the lack of mobility in these structures is sedating the excess. These excesses are holding everything together, and without building up the weakness first, these compensations are relied upon and cannot be released.
Bringing this back to the Michelangelo metaphor, just chiseling away inefficiencies when the foundation is weak is not going to work. As long as the compensations are making up for a fundamental weakness and are required to hold everything together, the body will not allow you to release them. You must first strengthen the weak structures that are being compensated for. You have to have the right chunk of marble, removing the porous bits before sculpting the fine details.
As mentioned before, addressing these issues first involves bringing awareness to the compensations and to the structures that are being compensated for. Then strengthening and mobilizing the structures being compensated for. This process begins to relieve the demand on the compensators. Once freedom of movement is restored in the structure, then we have a nice solid chunk of marble, and the focus can shift toward chiseling away the excess, or eliminating the compensations altogether. But we must strengthen the weaknesses before removing the support.
Once there is a strong foundation and the body can move freely, we can start looking at what is not needed for each movement. Many of these habitual compensations will fall away once the correct function of the appropriate structures are restored, and the compensation is no longer needed. When they are no longer needed for support, it’s easier to break these habitual patterns.
Alignment First, then Performance
Once these patterns are broken and movement is correct, we can focus on getting more out of less output. For example, you may be good at throwing a ball, but you may be swinging your arm harder than you need to for the desired effect. Maybe only some of that energy goes into projecting the ball, and the rest is just unnecessary excess. If you can remove the excess without affecting the effect it has on the ball, you can throw the same distance without wasting excessive energy. This can save your joints from a lot of undue stress, and save on energy expenditure. Maybe conservation of energy isn’t really a priority for a casual game of catch, but if you were playing 9 innings of a baseball game, that can make the difference between being burnt out by the second half of the game, and feeling fresh all the way through.
Trying to refine performance before correcting issues of poor alignment and basic function is like building a house on an unstable foundation. Even a half-built house on a strong foundation holds up better than a fully built house on a poor foundation. Even at a base level of movement efficiency, corrections actually do come from improving performance, in that, addressing functional patterns like walking or running are part of stabilizing and mobilizing our joints in the manner that is evolutionary appropriate and most relevant to natural movement. However, performance in the sense of increasing attributes like speed, power, agility, and so on, is something that should only become a focal point once good alignment and form is internalized.
Movement efficiency training is about creating a strong foundation and building a practical useful and adaptable skill set that increases movement potential, physical competence, and practical performance in daily life as well as any physical activities and hobbies.