Practical Science on Movement and Pain
Practical Science on Movement and Pain
In the previous post I talked about coordination, which I defined as the harmonious interaction of multiple joints to produce a useful movement. To briefly summarize, I stated that coordination implies that: the joints work together as a team; that the team involves as many joints as possible; and that there is a division of labor such that the stronger team members (in the middle of the body) do the work of creating power while the smaller team members (on the periphery of the body) channel that power to an appropriate target. This post discusses another essential aspect of coordination which is efficiency.
In my opinion, efficiency is an excellent measure of how coordinated any action is. In other words, the higher the efficiency, the more coordinated the action is and vice versa. In fact, I would argue that the optimal way to do anything, whether it is breathing, walking, standing or playing sports, is the way that maximizes efficiency. This remains true whether your goals are oriented towards performance, reduction of pain or just feeling at home in your body. Conversely, inefficient movement will always compromise performance and create the potential for pain and injury. Here’s my explanation of how to define efficiency, why it’s important, what it looks like, and how to develop it.
As applied to the body, efficiency means the ratio of useful work performed compared to the energy expended to do the work. Put another way, efficiency determines how much of the energy you expend by muscular contraction creates a successful movement, such as running, kicking, throwing, standing, walking or breathing. For example, if two people who weigh the same run the same distance in the same time, but one burns 1000 calories while the other only 500, the second runner is twice as efficient as the first. To use an example from everyday life, one person might be able to sit comfortably at a computer for hours with a minimum of muscular work, while another may get exhausted from trying to “hold” good posture after just a few minutes. The first person has a more efficient posture, and wastes little energy in maintaining it.
If you think about it, there are really only two ways to get better at any physical task – increase your capacity to create energy (by becoming more “fit”), or increase your ability to transform the energy you create into useful work, by becoming more efficient and coordinated. It is my observation that most people spend most of their training time trying to increase their work capacity while ignoring efficiency altogether. I think that’s a big mistake. To paraphrase Eric Cobb, inefficient movement is like driving your car with the parking brake on. You won’t go anywhere very fast and you’ll rip it up in the process. Unfortunately, most people train in a way that is analogous to putting a bigger engine in their car to overcome the resistance of the parking brake. The solution is to just take the brake off by becoming more efficient.
For example, consider the two runners from the previous example where one was using twice the energy to do the same amount of work. Where does all that extra energy go? It goes into making ugly movements that are irrelevant to or directly contrary to the forward movement of your body. And, a great deal of the energy won’t translate into any movement at all, it will just stay in your body in the form of creating friction, heat, and tissue damage. I’ll say that again – if you create energy that doesn’t turn into useful movement, that energy is basically just used to rip your body up. It’s like driving with the parking brake on.
These principles apply to everyday life as well, where we are not doing anything particularly strenuous, but we are doing it all day every day. Inefficient breathing is no big deal in the short term, but if you do it 15,000 times per day for a few years, this can be a major sap on energy and source of neck pain. Inefficient walking is a source of foot and knee pain. Inefficient sitting is a source of low back and neck pain. Many people who try to sit in an upright non-slumped posture at a computer will realize that they are unable to maintain it for more than two minutes without feeling extreme fatigue or even pain in certain muscles. They will then assume that these muscles are weak and must be strengthened, perhaps through a “core training” class. This is a losing battle analogous to putting a bigger engine in the car to overcome the parking brake. The problem is not lack of strength, it’s poor organization. Babies are as weak as kittens and can effortlessly assume excellent posture. In fact, even kittens have good posture. The reason is that they have no inappropriate muscular tension to fight against – no parking brake. The issue is efficiency not fitness.
Since efficiency necessarily implies a minimum of effort, we can recognize efficient movements by their apparent ease. In fact, one of the main impressions you will receive from watching a great athlete or dancer in person is that they make it look so amazingly easy. After I go to a major sporting event I usually leave with the illusion that the sport is actually pretty easy, and that next time I play it I will be near the professional level. Needless to say that does not happen because I don’t have the necessary skills. But the appearance of ease that the pro athlete creates is not an illusion – it is actually easy – for them. If you are very graceful and smooth in your movements, you don’t need to produce very much effort or strain to produce them.
If you look at most sports, a very large percentage of what the athletes are doing is actually so easy for them that they could do it all day long. Imagine a gymnast performing a back flip, or a shortstop fielding a ground ball and firing the ball to first, or a skier slaloming around poles. These are all powerful moves that accomplish a great amount of work, but because of the graceful and coordinated way the movements are executed, the athletes could perform them for hundreds of repetitions without even the slightest trace of injury or fatigue. By contrast, if the movements were performed by a person without a high level of skill, even a person with great fitness, that person would be exhausted or injured after only a few repetitions.
Even in a sport such as running, which does not involve much technical skill, efficient movement is easy to observe. Professional marathon runners have an unbelievably smooth stride and use about 30% less energy to accomplish the same work as an average runner. They are so incredibly fluid that they look like perpetual motion machines, or a ball rolling downhill. They need add only the slightest bit of energy to each stride to keep the ball rolling. By contrast, the average runner doesn’t look very much like a rolling ball – more like a rolling triangle. Their gait looks painful. And it probably is painful.
We can recognize efficient movement in everyday life by its graceful, smooth, relaxed nature. Posture is good posture precisely because it is efficient. Good posture means that all the bones are stacked right on top of one another and this creates the least energy required to maintain verticality. If you are unable to stack your bones efficiently, it is probably more a matter of some muscle failing to relax, or some muscle failing to fire, rather than any muscle being too “weak.”
So how do we train to be more efficient? Movement systems such as the Feldenkrais Method and Z-Health are devoted primarily to creating more efficient movement. So get involved in one of those! In the absence of doing that, you can do several other things to improve efficiency of movement in your everyday life, sport or training.
First is to recognize that your central nervous system (CNS) is always trying to get more efficient at whatever you do, even beneath your awareness. This is a natural process that improves with repetition. In fact, the way the CNS gets better at anything is probably to compare the relative ease of successive attempts at doing something and then select the easier way And so you learn to be more coordinated in what you do, unconsciously, whether you are trying or not. But what you do with your conscious brain as you practice can either help or hinder, or maybe even reverse this process.
Neuroscience reveals that the quality of your attention as you practice will affect how productive the practice will be. The best way to get better at a movement is to practice with the correct attitude, which would involve the following. Try to make the movement as smooth and easy and effortless as possible. Listen carefully to your body’s feedback to see whether there is any strain, pain, excessive effort or unnecessary tension. Don’t just focus on the movement goal, pay attention to the process as well. Be intensely curious about the way you are doing something and explore alternative ways to do it and compare how they feel. Make sure that there is nothing threatening or stressful about the movement because this will distract the attention of the CNS away from learning and towards protecting. This will almost always require slowing the movement down and reducing the force of the movement from time to time. If you practice this way you will make the job of your CNS easier, and it will learn faster to be more efficient and coordinated in movement.
Or you could practice the opposite way, and thereby hinder or even reverse the process of learning to be more coordinated. For example, concentrate only on your goal, such as lifting a certain weight or running a certain distance. Ignore feedback from your body such as pain, strain, or tension. Think no pain, no gain. Focus your attention on willpower, intensity and effort. In fact, create extra effort by drawing in your abs, sucking in your gut or clenching your glutes. Brace your core. Grit your teeth. Grimace. Play the theme from Rocky in your head. Try to make your workout as hard and effortful as possible. Get a coach to scream at you while doing the workout.
If you move in this way you will not learn to move more efficiently, because your CNS will be under threat. In other words, your CNS will be in survival mode, not learning mode. The CNS will use its energy to protect you from this threatening situation. It will do this in numerous ways, none of which are desirable form an efficiency standpoint. Perhaps it will increase muscle stiffness in order to prevent what it thinks is a dangerously excessive range of motion. Or decrease muscle strength to prevent what it thinks is excessive force. Or maybe it will alter an otherwise efficient motor program to protect what it thinks is a weak link in the movement chain. If you practice often enough under these conditions you will essentially learn a compromised and protective way of moving, in the nature of limping. In other words, you will not only fail to learn to become more efficient at achieving your goals, you will actually learn to become less efficient.
This is not to say that intensity and effort have no place in a training program. Obviously, it is essential to overload the muscles to create an adaptation under the SAID principle. But realize that when you are training under an inappropriately high level of stress, you are hindering or even the reversing the process of learning to move more efficiently. So, there is a balance here. Remember to include substantial time for moving more efficiently in your training program.