Practical Science on Movement and Pain
Practical Science on Movement and Pain
This post is inspired by a famous quote by Moshe Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais said that one of the primary goals of his method was to make the impossible possible, the hard easy, and the easy elegant. I’m a big fan of this quote because it reminds me that physical training involves a lot more than just working on maximum efforts. It’s also about making submax efforts easier, more efficient, smoother, less likely to cause fatigue, discomfort or pain. In other words, you need to train the “easy” moves just as much as the hard ones.
As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, most of life and even sport involves doing things that are really pretty easy to do, so it makes sense to spend some time practicing movement at the lower levels of intensity. The goal is to make these “easy” movements “elegant” – smooth, efficient, even pleasurable to perform. In life, most people rarely engage in any activity that challenges maximum physical capacity. Sitting at a computer, walking, running, bending over to tie shoes, turning to look behind you in the car, gardening, carrying groceries, or sitting on a plane are not intense physical efforts. However, they can easily cause discomfort, fatigue or even pain. Even something as fundamental and simple as breathing or lying down to sleep can be experienced as labored, uncomfortable, awkward, or not quite right. Of course there is never a question of whether these tasks are actually possible to perform – the question is whether you can perform them with grace in a way that makes life pleasurable and comfortable, as opposed to labored and effortful. In other words, to use the terminology of the Feldenkrais quote, improving these activities is not about making the impossible possible, it’s about making the easy elegant.
Given this logic, it makes sense under the SAID principle that to get better at doing something easy, you should practice doing easy things. What would that look like? In the gym, it might look like reducing the force and speed of a particular exercise or movement in a way that will help you improve movement efficiency. Less weight or less speed will allow you to pay closer attention to using proper form, and ensure that the movement is completely free of any awkwardness, discomfort, inefficiency or unnecessary effort, and that the movement feels good, even elegant or graceful. Another approach would be to do a Feldenkrais lesson or some Z-health practice. In either one you would take a very easy movement like a shoulder circle and work very slowly and mindfully to explore the very precise subtleties of how the movement is actually done. This will improve coordination and movement efficiency.
After the lesson you may feel an improved ability to use the shoulder and the trunk in an integrated and coordinated way. You might even notice that this work in the easy range has improved your ability at much harder tasks. So, for example, if you improve the coordination of the shoulder with some very slow and easy Z-Health exercises, you might find that you can increase your bench press. This is what you might all a bottom up approach – by making the easy elegant you have now also made the impossible possible.
Many people ignore this route to improvement altogether and focus instead on the top down approach – trying to improve “easy” everyday life movements with massive efforts in the gym. This is like building a roof before the foundation. The skills developed at low intensities supports the great effort at higher intensities, not the other way around. Taking your deadlift from 250 to 300 will strengthen your back extensors, but this will not necessarily make you any better able to hold upright posture at a computer.
I find it interesting that the media constantly glamorizes this “top down” approach where the main goal is to make the impossible possible. Advertisements from Adidas tell us that “Impossible is nothing.” Nike says “Just do it.” Your high school coach says “No pain no gain.” The implication is that athletic excellence is mostly a question of willpower, effort and ignoring the signals from our body. Although effort and intensity are clearly necessary elements of achieving physical goals, excessive focus on these aspects of training will lead to injury and fail to provide adequate time and energy for learning the skills that support the higher levels of effort. Put another way, life and sport is more about skill than will.
In most sports, as I’ve discussed before, most of what professional athletes do is actually very easy for them. Maybe 80% of their moves are activities they could repeat with a minimum of effort, mindlessly, automatically, with very little strain and negligible chance of injury. For example, throwing a pitch or a punch, kicking a ball, making a lateral cut – these moves are the bread and butter of sports – and they involve actions that are easy enough to be repeated by the experts thousands of times with elegance.
If you can’t do the bread and butter moves of your sport or activity with ease and elegance, you will have a very hard time competing for more than a few years. If each of these tasks presents a little discomfort and feels awkward, you can get through the game and maybe even enjoy it, but you will be sore and fatigued afterwards, and soon will be loading up with ibuprofen (Vitamin I) before each game. If your training involves bench presses, each of which cause a mild discomfort in the shoulder, then sooner or later this activity will start to break you down more than build you up. You will say that you are just getting old, but part of the problem is that you are failing to make your hard moves easy and your easy moves elegant.
So, the take home point is this – include substantial time in your training for making the easy elegant and the hard easy – that’s where most of life and sport is anyway.
(Thanks to Mike T. Nelson for posting this at his excellent blog, extremehumanperformance.com/blog. Check it out. )