Movement Variability and Resourcefulness

GER-POR_Euro_2012_(18)I have seen a lot of interesting research and discussion lately on the issue of movement variability. The ability to make small adjustments to a basic repetitive pattern like heart rate, brain waves, energy use and movement seems to be a good indicator of health and function. Experts who perform the same repetitive task (say hammering a nail) display more variability than novices.

This has something to do with dynamic systems theory, which Nikolai Bernstein used to explain the complexity of motor control. And it has a lot to do with the rationale of the Feldenkrais Method, so I would really like to write about this in much more detail soon.

But first I have to finish my book, which is almost done!

Until then, here is a brief excerpt from the book which touches on these issues (minus the complicated stuff about dynamic systems theory.)

Variability and Resourcefulness

Good movement is not just about harmonious interaction or coordination between the different parts of the body. It is most fundamentally about how the system interacts with the environment, particularly in response to unexpected changes. In other words, good movement implies a quality of adaptability and responsiveness to a changing environment.

One can imagine building a humanoid robot that can walk with flawless symmetry and grace. But if the robot cannot adapt its gait pattern to accommodate changes in the terrain, it will fall each time it steps on a rock, and its movement skill is essentially useless. True movement intelligence therefore doesn’t exist so much in the movements themselves, but in their interaction with the environment.

The graceful stride of the deer isn’t useful unless it can be modulated to jump a log and avoid a wolf. A soccer player who can execute technically brilliant ball handling skills in solo practice does not face the real test until she performs those moves in a game situation against an opponent who is trying to steal the ball.

We would not say that someone is fluent in a language if they have only one way to communicate a particular thought, regardless of how perfect that particular communication is. Similarly, one is not fluent in the language of movement unless he can accomplish the same goal in many different ways.

A person who can move from standing to sitting with perfect smoothness, but through only one particular trajectory, has less resourcefulness than someone who can modulate their descent to the floor in many ways. The power lifter who can perform a squat with perfect form is not necessarily prepared for a day of gardening, where the squatting movements need to constantly adapt to the environment  – slightly off center, with the feet in different positions. (To be fair, the gardener is probably not prepared to squat 800 pounds either.) Thus, we cannot always measure good movement by its adherence to some ideal form, but rather in its capacity to adapt to many different situations.

This capacity for adaptability and resourcefulness does not apply only to competitive sports. Our everyday lives constantly present unexpected movement or postural challenges.

  • A long plane ride in a cramped seat
  • A night on the couch or in a strange bed
  • Walking in shoes that are uncomfortable
  • Carrying groceries in one hand while loading a baby into a car

In each of these situations, solving the motor problem might require a departure from what is normally considered “good” posture, proper form, or the most beautifully harmonious way to move. The ability to find a motor solution to all these unexpected problems is part of what we should consider to be motor intelligence.

So what does this mean in practical terms? One take away is that motor intelligence is developed through facing a variety of motor challenges. This is true even in sports that involve almost no element of unpredictability, randomness or variance during actual competition.

Louie Simmons is one of the most successful powerlifting coaches in the world. This is a sport that requires only three simple movements in competition: squat, deadlift and bench press. Despite the very small movement vocabulary used on game day, Simmons trains his athletes with constant variety in the way they perform these movements – different bars, different weights, different speeds, different foot placements, etc. Part of his rationale is that: “As soon as your body thinks it has all the answers, you need to start asking different questions.”

In modern life, most of us are not asking any interesting questions of our bodies at all. There are few constraints that place the nervous system under demand to find creative motor solutions to problems. In fact, all of the intelligence to solve motor problems has been exported to the engineers and ergonomics experts who design our chairs, couches and beds!

In a natural environment, just finding a comfortable place to rest for a few minutes is a significant motor challenge. The ground may be too wet or rocky for sitting, so you need to squat. If you sit on the ground, hip mobility and trunk stability is challenged in multiple planes. The hardness and unevenness of the ground requires constant shifting of position and posture. When exposed to these challenges, many people will experience discomfort in less than 10 minutes.

In the modern world, the challenge of simply sitting and resting is removed. We don’t need any movement variability or resourcefulness to solve the problem of how to sit comfortably for 30 minutes in a row. In fact, we can rest for eight or nine hours in a row in complete comfort without using any motor intelligence at all!

The lesson – find a way to challenge your movement variability and resourcefulness. Use it or lose it!


Here are some posts that address similar subjects:

Play, Variability and Motor Learning 

Developmental Movements, Part Two

The Greatest Athlete in the World, Part II


Enjoy the Post?

Join 4,500 subscribers and get a free e-book on improving mobility

9 Responses to Movement Variability and Resourcefulness

  1. Brilliantly put. I was just talking with a friend over at Gold Medal Bodies the other day about this, and how the same principle applies psychologically as well as physiologically, but I didn’t know as much about the physiological aspect since that’s not my area of expertise.

    Basically in psychotherapy, people only come to therapy if they feel they have zero choices, one terrible choice, or two choices that form a double-bind (dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t). People don’t need therapy if they can navigate life’s problems with 3 or more choices that they experience as acceptable or good. That’s the baseline for resourcefulness right there.

    • Thanks Duff, interesting point. My wife is a psychotherapist and we can always find huge common areas in what we do.

  2. Fascinating post. I work in a tertiary pain management rehab program and, as a PT, have completely changed my approach to movement since I have been working exclusivly with folks who live with pain. Instead of focusing on recovering the precision of movement, as I did while working in sports medicine, I find ways to help my patients realize and reclaim CHOICES in movement. The nervous system makes significant changes to movement patterns in response to fear, avoidance (from expecting pain), and pain itself. Once these become habitual, movement is no longer efficient, and simple tasks are quite taxing. Much of my day is showing people how to find other options, and this ultimately improves their ability to move. Pre- and post-treatment videos are testiment to how dramatically these people change, and ultimately the end result is more freedom.

  3. Todd,

    Great article on an important and very interesting subject (variability). More and more studies show that people with pain (chronic) show a reduced variability in motor control. These people are almost literally stuck in only one way to move.

    I’m very much looking forward to your book!

  4. Hi Todd,
    Firstly I’d just like to say I recently found your website and am loving your articles. I literally can’t stop jumping from one to the next.
    I am currently creating a series of conditioning seminars for martial arts to run over here in England. One of my biggest motivations for this is the fact that these days there are far too many so called strength and conditioining coaches that do absolutely no work within the concepts of creating an athlete who is a better mover. The fact is that this topic isn’t mentioned on any level by even some quite well respected names. When you consider the dynamic demands of martial arts this just doesn’t make sense to me.
    So of course your articles here have been great for me to read and apply to my thought process of creating martial artists that are better movers.
    In one of your previous articles you wrote about how the development of motor skills and high intensity exercise were two different aspects altogether with some allowance for a middle ground.
    I guess what I am currently trying to do in my research is find the best ways to make the crossover between these areas as it is ultimately the combination of these two areas of performance that is my goal to.
    It seems to me that when looking at the concept of becoming a better mover (especially for the application of sports) the introduction of increasing intensity would not be a separate skill area but infact just the next progression in your pursuit of movement variability and resourcefulness.
    Of course I believe that there is a need to maintain a base of low intensity training in the pursuit of developing and refining motor skills.
    For the application of sports performance though it does seem to me that becoming a better, more efficient mover is only actually effective if you can develop the skill of utilising the movement abilities you have gained at the intensity level appropriate to your sport.
    So with this in mind when considering your lesson of finding a way to challenge your movement variability and resourcefulness would you consider the introduction of increasing intensity to be valid.

    • Hi Grant,

      Thanks for the kind words. Gray Cook writes a lot of work about the relationship between movement quality and quantity. One of his popular phrases is “first move well and then move often.” I would recommend checking out his books for sure. Charlie Weingroff, Michael Boyle, and Eric Cressey are also good sources on this issue.

  5. Hi Todd,
    I like that quote, I’ll definitely be using that one in the future.
    Thanks for making those recommendations!! (there’s so much bad or recycled information out there these days to have to sift through to get to the best people). I hadn’t heard of any of these guys so will be sure to check them out.

Leave a reply