What Lies Between

As someone who first gazed into the realm of movement through the lens of fitness, there has been (and is still) much unlearning and relearning that has had to occur in order for me to expand my thinking on the subject. In the past year, particularly, I have found myself struggling to reconcile the various approaches to movement that I have come to admire, and the constant flux of my own programming stands as testimony to that struggle. This is one of the chief causes for the recent silence on this blog. I’ve had too many conceptual balls in the air, and it’s taken some time to start teasing out the underlying structure and pattern that unifies them.

Part of this confusion has come from the exploration of movement through the formal language of strength and conditioning. Kelly Starrett’s work was largely influential for me when I worked as a personal trainer and was invaluable for teaching me the fundamentals of human movement. I learned the mechanical criteria that define common movement patterns (i.e. good technique) used in training, and also the idea that training is about challenging one’s ability to move well in the presence of imposed demands (load, speed, metabolic demand, competition stress, etc). As someone who was struggling to overcome a very intensity-focused and task-completion oriented approach to training (with the poor movement habits and injuries to prove it), these lessons came at a critical time, and I’m quite convinced I would have long since ruined my body if not for mobility|wod.

It was through Kelly Starrett, and later Carl Paoli, that I started to consider the biomechanical and physiological effects of variations of movements within a given category. As an example, one may consider the differences in ankle, knee, and hip position between a back squat and a front squat. With the weight loaded on the back, the torso is positioned farther forward to keep the combined center of mass of the body and the barbell over the feet, accomplished through positioning of the lower extremity joints (less ankle dorsiflexion, more hip flexion). In the front squat, the torso is held more erect (more ankle dorsiflexion, less hip flexion). Both techniques constitute squatting, but their differences start to illustrate a sort of “positional continuum” that exists within this category of movement.

In his (fantastic) book, Free+Style, Carl Paoli makes a very simple comparison between the squat and the deadlift. The only difference between these categories of movement (apart from the location at which the load is applied) is that the squat typically implies a greater lowering of the center of mass. This is illustrated by the classic movement standard that a squat should involve the hip crease descending below the the knee (or “thighs parallel to the ground”), if possible, to derive a greater training benefit (or meet competition standards). If we examine the squat and the deadlift in an unloaded context, as they are often practiced initially, the mechanics are strikingly similar: you hinge at the hips, bend at the knees, bend at the ankles.

In much the same way, a dip is like a push-up is like an incline press is like an overhead press. The only major mechanical difference is the range of motion in which these movements are performed. Yes, there are differences in muscle action as well, and the differences that do exist make it important to explore these different iterations of pressing, but their technical similarities far outnumber their differences. This comparison can be taken even farther, into the consideration of movements that appear to be complete opposites: handstand push-up and a pull-up are mechanical siblings, just with the direction of loading reversed. Although we consider them inherently different, they are in reality quite complimentary. (The similarity between opposite movements is sometimes utilized in training to improve the mechanics of one movement through the practice of another, termed “reverse patterning”.)

When one starts to notice that there are often more similarities between movements than differences, this realization begins to hint at a larger world of movement that cannot be so easily contained by the formally defined movements we train. That’s not to say it’s not useful to categorize movement as such. In fact, I’m sure it’s absolutely necessary in order to properly understand the bigger picture of movement beyond one’s own intuition. Furthermore, defining movements within a category (such as push-ups as a form of pressing) help us more accurately discuss and train these movements at a fundamental level.

But I think if we only think about movement within the confines of these defined techniques (e.g. front squat, back squat, overhead squat, etc) without considering the bigger picture, not only do we miss out on a valuable perspective but we start to overcomplicate the discussion. Many fitness enthusiasts will feel quite proud of the twenty push-up variations they know, but this knowledge is often present without understanding the fundamentals of pressing. The individual is focused on the differences between these push-up techniques, differences that define the techniques, without understanding how they are not, in fact, very different at all. Instead of having a fundamental understanding of pressing that explains and unifies the variations, our theoretical fitness nut has had to catalogue a complicated list of unique movements in their mind.

Let’s consider two simple push-up variations to continue with this example: the so-called
“military push-up” (elbows at the sides on descent, hands below the elbows) to a chest-shredding “wide push-up” (elbows flared out past 45 degrees on descent, hands below elbows). Both movements are a horizontal press. We can recognize many qualities that they share, and some few that are different. What really defines one versus the other is how widely one spaces the hands to begin. But what happens if the hands are brought in by a couple inches in either technique? We arrive at different movements. These positions may not yet fit the description of another defined push-up (e.g. “diamond push-up”), yet they’re still horizontal presses and have much in common with the original “named” movements from which they were derived.

So, now that you’ve taken your long walk, here’s your short drink of water. When considering two defined movements within a category, what lies between them? The short answer is movement. In fact, most of the potential movement that we can express lies between the strictly defined movements that we’ve labelled.

If we imagine our repertoire of movement techniques as a great web, we can see each one as a little node, connected to other similar movements we have defined in our minds. But if we were to superimpose the web of another mover over our own we would likely see new nodes and connections pop up that were previously invisible to us. Add another, and more space becomes filled. Superimpose all the movement experiences of all the people of all the world, and there may not be any space left to fill. What once was once a web is now a vibrant palette of movement with the spaces between defined to a level of infinite detail. There are no nodes, no connections, only a constantly overlapping Venn diagram of incredible complexity.

The take home message (and you truly deserve one if you made it this far) is that by working to understand movement on a level that transcends specific techniques and disciplines you will discover the principles that make the movements what they are, and in doing so reveal an endless spectrum of techniques to be explored. Techniques are useful in learning and teaching principles, but only by looking past the techniques can you really begin to practice. Look for the similarities between movements and note the differences. Examine the space between.

In spite of the modest readership this blog receives (a big thanks, if you’re one of the 5-10 individuals who will read this post), I feel it’s necessary to rationalize my recent silence, if only to convince myself that my quarterly posting schedule is a consequence of more than pure laziness.

As it turns out, physio school involves a pretty demanding workload. By the time the day’s learning is finished, I find myself left with little motivation to sit down and look at words on a screen. I’m much more likely to spend that time moving, or trying to keep up with the many other requirements of (young) adult life.

I also encounter the issue, now and then, of wondering if I have anything useful to offer that has not already been better said. What could I, as someone still infantile in my own practice, possibly have to share that could stand as unique in a sea of superior information?

Maybe it’s just important to add my voice and make the message louder. Maybe that’s enough.

Regardless, I do not intend to let this blog fall into complete silence. Even if the pulse slows to a near-halt (as it has in recent months), the next beat will eventually come. After all, I might feel as though I have something to say, someday.

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