Self-Limiting Exercise

Hey, movement-hungry masses. I want to make another broad-stroke across your minds before we get into the nitty-gritty of programming, periodization, and progression (which are what the next several articles will be heavily weighted towards).

Gray Cook of Functional Movement Systems talks about the concept of self-limiting exercise: activities that enforce mindfulness and technique by virtue of the movements involved, such as yoga, climbing, pose running, jump rope, and functional resistance training (the list goes on and on). They are modes of exercise that demand focus, enforce good movement patterns, and give you feedback on what you are doing wrong.

Self-limiting exercise is all about creating situations that force you to become increasingly aware of your body and skillful in using it in order to progress. It’s not that these things can’t be done poorly, but rather that you won’t excel without doing them well. Self-limiting exercise is the opposite of fool-proof: it will expose your physical issues and shortcomings in a very obvious and humbling way, and allows your weak links to hold you back (as they should). If you lack the grip strength necessary for climbing, you’re going to need to improve that before you are able to climb. If your ankles hurt when you are barefoot running (using a toe strike rather than a heel strike), that is telling you there is a problem that needs to be corrected before you have any business running.

This type of training can be pretty intimidating if you don’t have much of an athletic background. Having your inability laid bare for all to see might make you feel a little vulnerable, as well. But maybe that’s just an added character-building benefit of functional exercise; not only will you develop very useable fitness, but you’ll gain the appreciation of what it takes to develop these skills, and the confidence and the satisfaction that comes with going through the process. Just consider that the vast majority of people are going to be pretty awful at a new activity the first time around, so you won’t be alone in your experience.

So do yourself a favor and engage in some exercise that actually forces you to think about what you’re doing. Take a martial arts or yoga class, try some jump rope, learn how to do some functional strength exercises; there is such a staggering variety of real movement available to you that it is in no way a matter of taste. Even hit it buffet style and load up your plate with a combo of functional activities. (Just promise me you’ll learn how to do whatever you’re doing properly.)

Who has need of fool-proof exercise but fools themselves? You deserve better.

If you want to look into the topic a bit further, here is a video of Gray Cook discussing self-limiting exercise with fellow physical therapist Joe Heiler (who looks a bit like Tom Cruise in the right resolution). You can also check out the Functional Movement Systems website for information on this and other topics related to functional training.

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The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog

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