Practical Science on Movement and Pain

What is Your Movement Style?

Style and substance

Panjabi divided the motor control system for the spine into three distinct subsystems -  passive, active and neural. I like applying this idea to the whole body, partly because I find it an interesting way to distinguish different strategies for movement and posture, based on preferential use of one subsystem over the others.

The passive subsystem

The passive musculoskeletal subsystem includes bones, ligaments, joint capsules, connective tissue, discs, and the passive mechanical properties of the muscles and fascia. This subsystem creates tension and stability through passive restraints to movement. The stretchy elements (muscle, fascia and tendons) can store and then return elastic energy, and the bones can act as levers and transfer force from place to place. So all of the work done by this system is “for free” because it does not require any expenditure of metabolic energy.

The active subsystem

The active musculoskeletal subsystem consists of muscles. The work of this subsystem is energetically expensive – muscles require energy to contract.

The neural subsystem

The neural subsystem consists of the various motion sensors located throughout the body, and the nervous system, which reads signals from the body and the sends signals to fire motor units. Nervous system activity requires energy. Although the brain accounts for only 2% of the bodies’ weight, it consumes up to 20% of the body’s energy.

You can think of someone’s movement style as being preferentially oriented toward the passive or active system. (Everyone uses the neural system, just more or less intelligently.)

The passive strategy

images-24If someone has long, skinny, flexible limbs, and elastic muscles and tendons, they will probably learn to rely to a large extent on their passive system. They don’t have much muscle to generate power, but their structure is well suited to do lots of work. Flexibility allows them to easily reach end ranges of motion that store elastic energy and provide free stability. The long levers generate power after summating motion at many joints. These body types start moving slowly through lazy graceful arcs, but finish movements at great speed like the cracking of a whip. Think of the long, flowing whip like movements of a lanky tennis player like Gael Monfis, a golfer like Phil Mickelson, a fighter like Jon Jones, or quarterback like Tom Brady. The impression is effortless lazy power.

This style of movement can be pathological when it gets too lazy or sloppy, and places excess stress on the ligaments and other connective tissues that make up the passive system. Imagine the posture of a slouching bored teenager – one hip kicked out to the side, hyperextended knees, collapsed chest and forward head position. In this position they are basically hanging off their ligaments. This is energetically efficient because it requires less muscular work, but it places excess stress on the physical health of the passive subsystem.

A great deal of “poor form” that we see in the gym or in sports is a result of excessive use of the passive system, possibly due to deconditioning and reluctance to use the active system. This makes movement look sloppy, floppy, or poorly aligned. Movements are controlled too much by passive restraints created by an end range of motion, as opposed to active muscular restraints which keeps the joints better centrated. Some classic examples would be valgus knees in a squat position, or a rounded lower back in a dead lift. In each case, the passive elements are doing too much stability work as the muscular system relaxes. This strategy is energetically efficient in the short term, but creates excess stress on the passive structures, and fails to create the joint centration and alignment that is required for optimum coordination, balance and power.

The active strategy

images-25Now let’s look at the movement style of someone with a stockier, stiffer, more muscular build. They will probably learn to preferentially rely on the active system. They have plenty of muscle for generating power, but they lack the range of motion and long levers that create large, flowing whip like motions. Instead, their movements look short, compact, controlled, punchy, and piston-like. The movements start fast and end fast, unlike the slow build up of the passive athlete. Balance and change of direction is easier because their joints spend more time near a neutral position. Think of the punching of Mike Tyson, the pitching of Roger Clemens, the racquet work of Andre Agassi, or the water bug changes of direction by Lionel Messi. These athletes don’t look lazy and effortless, they look like frighteningly dynamic.

The active strategy can be pathological if taken to extremes. This might happen if the athlete fails to relax antagonists, or to pause long enough to elastically load the joints before firing them. Movements will then appear stiff, musclebound and awkward, like they are fighting against themselves or driving with the parking brake on. This style is very metabolically expensive and energetically inefficient.


I usually end a blog post by asking what practical takeaways we can derive from whatever analysis I just performed. In this case, I’m not sure there are any! I just think this is an interesting topic.

Actually, here’s a few possible ideas. Different bodies will gravitate towards different styles of movement, which have their relative strengths and weaknesses. If you’re going to imitate another athlete’s style at something – say their golf swing or tennis stroke or throwing style – make sure they have a similar body type to yours.

Further, these concepts might help you to find a weak link in your movement strategy. Personally, I am a classic “passive” type – long skinny limbs that tend toward floppiness. So it is not surprising that I really benefit from strength training. Others with a more “active” style might need an opposite strategy – more focus on mobility and relaxation. And of course, everyone can learn to use their neural system more intelligently. There’s always room for improvement there.

Any thoughts? Share in the comments.

UPDATE: I just came across this article by Sam Sturgis at Mike Reinold’s site about the effects of rhythmic stabilization on ROM and throwing velocity in college pitchers. It seems the effects of the intervention depended on the “style” of the pitcher. Very on point!

Enjoy the post?
Sign up for blog updates and get a free report on improving mobility.

13 Responses to What is Your Movement Style?

  1. I love it. Classification systems like this intrique me to no end. I can think of so many examples of my clients who fit this and use their tendnancies to a pathological extreme.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Cool, thanks for the support! Of course my categories are fairly obvious and commonly used, just by different names.

  2. Interesting article – movement style as relating to body type and muscular propensity. Are you aware of the work of Rudolf Laban? His research into the dynamics of movement (or Effort as he calls it) would throw another lens on your observations. The inner attitudes of the mover towards weight/space/time/flow crystalize in outer movement, and can be less reliant on the materiality of the body, as it is the inner intention/attention/decision making processes that are revealed in the movement. That said, in Laban Movement Analysis we also look at the notion of passive/limp/active weight, and I hadn’t thought as much about different body types in this way in relation to activation of weight, and then the value systems in a particular activity (for example, dance or rugby).

  3. Charlie Reid says:

    Another good one, Todd. Having motor options is a valuable tool in anyone’s movement arsenal. The passive v. Active, like the yin and yang of movement expression, can provide a new framework for either more sustainable/enjoyable movement or provide more power to a passive strategy when appropriate. What about also hybridizing the two? Those with a visceral understanding of passive movement utilizing active “boosters” to increase the crack of the whip. Seems as though the best athletes have a mix of both: clever and efficient use of passive elasticity with well-placed power (I.e.-Bruce lee?).

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Hi Charlie,

      I think if you look at the elite athletes you will find less extremes and more balance. They can do it all as you point out.

  4. It is cool that you classify and simplify these styles and you are on point about the one style needing more of the others in athletic endeavors. What strategies do you use to employ to create fascial, neural and muscular balance? Pic n’choose little this and that? I use the integrated techniques of Aston Kinetics to get all three types at the same time!

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks Michelle,

      Practicing a movement will tend to create all the adaptations necessary to do it – muscular, neural, fascial, cardiovascular, everything.

  5. shan says:

    Thanks for the post! I’m really enjoying catching up with all your previous work.
    I read the latest last night (Australian time) but was too tired to reply. Now I find your last comment is more or less what i wanted to say!
    I’ve been intensely interested in horse riding for the last 20 years or so, have done quite a lot of Feldenkrais, AND have been managing a dodgy back and a hip that has recently been replaced.
    As someone who was reasonably “fit”and active, I was quite surprised to find a lot of muscle weakness as i went through rehab. It’s taken me more than 4 months to feel almost “normal”.
    I put it down to the fact that i limped quite badly for 3/4 years before the op, so both muscles and neurals needed to rebalance. But I also think that my previous movement habits had something to do with it: too much Feldenkrais (is that possible?!) and not enough coming up against the “real world” of muscular effort. PLUS i’m tall and long limbed (tho quite tight, i think); your post would suggest this would also contribute to my lack of familiarity with “enough” use of my muscular system.

  6. John says:

    Great article! I especially like the clear explanation of how over use of the passive system can feel easier in the short term, but have negative consequences over a longer time period. This explains many of my clients’ strategies. Thanks!

    John Tarr

  7. Chas Barker says:


    I think this is a great article. Of course, Panjabi and others are very concerned with this in relation to instability in the lumbar and cervical spine. You can see the interplay of this particularly in folks with some sort of pathology. For instance, a person with neck pain may have decreased thoracic extension. Therefore, due to this passive restraint they “rob Peter to pay Paul” and allow for increased mobility in the cervical spine. At this point, the length-tension relationships of muscle-tendon units (active) do not allow for proper firing (neural control) of deep cervical neck flexors/extensors. There is increased stretch on the anterior structures and shortening of the posterior structures. Furthermore the joint facets (passive) are being bombarded by increased stress. Physiologically, this leads to facet joint sclerosis, osteophyte encroachment,hypertrophy of the ligamentum flavum, etc. If we could address these kind of issues on the front end as a preventative measure, we could probably save our patients/clients alot of pain and unneccesary medical procedures in the future.

    Also, I like how you bring up athletes. Addressing the concept of regional interdependence, it is important that they are trained how to do it “the right way” to maximize all three systems and prevent injury. A couple of examples might be: 1. a lean tennis player who doesn’t utilize enough hip and trunk rotation to serve. The compensatory stress on both passive and active structures of the shoulder complex can be devastating. 2. a bulky football player who lacks the relative mobility to prevent a triceps or hamstring tear.

  8. Mary says:

    Interesting reading, I have actually never heard of these different strategies.

Leave a reply