Movement training is arguably one of the most important things we can make time for as human beings.
I’m fortunate that movement has pretty much been at the forefront of my being for the past 25 years.
It first took the form of football and clambering through trees as a little boy. Said trees acted as a den for my secret spy organisation. Cool kid alert.
I then progressed from clandestine missions to athletics, martial arts, calisthenics, yoga, strength training, running, climbing, cycling, water-sports and anything else I could try my hand at.
This might sound like familiar territory to some of you.
I’ve drifted in and out of each of the above in recent years, not content with sticking to just one or two activities, and for a long time not really knowing why…
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Ido portal is widely regarded as one of the forerunners in the ‘movement’ world. I first discovered his work and the ”movement culture’ sometime around 2010, back in uni.
Ido talks about the idea of becoming a generalist mover. Like the 19th century physical educator Georges Hébert, Ido promotes the idea of becoming a well-rounded mover. As opposed to simply getting stronger or building muscle mass, his system encompasses all aspects of movement – mobility, strength, co-ordination, balance, play, and beyond.
Suddenly, my long string of movement modality relationships began to make sense. I felt less like I was simply procrastinating.
I realised that it wasn’t necessarily those individual disciplines mentioned above that I was attracted to. It was more that I just enjoyed moving, and they were just handy vessels for expressing and developing it.
So where physical activity is concerned, this generalist approach to movement training has been my main since.
Zooming out and working with that big, complex idea, as opposed to getting overly caught up with individual disciplines. Taking the best bits from various sporting arenas to form my own imperfect, personal practice, with the goal of becoming a more well-rounded, generalist mover, and just to have fun.
I’ve found that approaching movement this way is somewhat liberating. It gives you permission to be a beginner.
I’ve been enjoying the journey over these 10+ years, learning from some the best and diligently taking notes. So today, I thought I’d share a few thoughts, ideas, and ponderings with you guys about what it means to move well.
Some of my own, but many influenced by the giants that have gone before me and paved the way. Hopefully, they’ll inspire you with a few tidbits of wisdom that you can apply to your own movement training practice.
These tips are just as much for me to look back on as they are for you to explore, so let me know if there’s anything you’d add in the comments section below!
I’ve banged on about this in just about every article I’ve written on this site, which is a fair few. But it’s so important to really think about the ‘why’ behind any healthy habit or practice you decide to embark on.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t necessarily matter what that reason is – just that it’s something that you truly believe in. Something that’s personal to you. Something that will ignite your passion and keep you moving through obstacles for years to come.
They say it takes 10000 hours to truly master a skill. I’m exactly not sure how accurate that number is, but I definitely believe there’s truth behind the concept. We all intuitively know that becoming good at anything requires consistency.
It doesn’t happen by trying something once or twice and then giving up. So however you decide to structure your movement practice, if you’re looking to make tangible progress, ensure it allows you to move often.
The ability to embrace failure is key to forming any well-rounded practice, whether it’s related to movement or not. In many ways, you have to leave your ego at the door and be prepared to be terrible at most things, most of the time. This is true for any aspect of life, but it’s particularly pertinent if you’re looking to become a movement generalist. A Jack of all trades, master of few.
If you’re serious about making movement gains, failure should be a daily occurrence, and in some shape or form, you need to make friends with it. Fail, learn what made you fail, adjust for it and keep moving forwards.
Flirting with the boundaries goes hand in hand with overcoming failure, but that doesn’t give us a free pass to attempt things that are waaaay out of reach for us right now and risk getting injured. Jumping into a one handed pull up probably isn’t a great idea if you’re just getting the hang of the two handed version…
There’s a big difference between calculated risks and recklessness.
I’ve crossed that line, and after a long time spent punishing myself with stressful, high-intensity training, it’s only several years on that my body is starting to trust me again. It’s easier to not break the vase than it is to try putting it back together, piece by piece.
Now, I make it my goal to feel better at the end of a session than when I started. Exhausted, but better. So be wary of the pain cave and the dreaded hole of over-training when possible. It’s okay to visit now and again, but you might not want to make a habit out of it.
Goals can no doubt come in handy in the pursuit of better movement. And I think there’s equal merit in having SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based) goals, and big scary ones that don’t necessarily make that much sense.
But I also strongly believe in having time set aside with ‘no goals’. Where you let go of the outcomes, just go with the flow and…
Play is something that precedes human beings. Think about that for a second.
It’s been around in nature for millions of years, and most mammals continue to play well into adulthood. So why is it frowned upon in humans? Why do we deny our innate need for play? Why is it that climbing trees, play fighting, or balancing on rails is so often deemed unacceptable?
Structure can be no doubt important if you want to make visible progress in specific skills, but play is where the fun is at. It’s a chance for you to let go, connect with others, de-stress and experiment.
It’s easy to mistake play with a lax attitude. To slack off and not give your best. Remember that you can still play but with serious intent. With effort, graft and as Ido puts it:” with the fear of God in you”. This reminds me of sparring in BJJ. It’s a very playful experience, but also one brimming with intensity, ferociousness and will.
The truth is, we’re social animals at heart, and group movement is a very natural thing for us. Back in the day we would hunt together, gather together, play together, travel together. In the modern world that immediate need for survival is less obvious, but social movement still remains one of the best ways to build bonds and learn from each other. It’s definitely something that I want to get more involved in.
If for some reason regular movement meetups aren’t available to you right now, online groups and communities are another a great way to connect with likeminded people and start building your tribe. A few that I like:
Movement training on your own and with the help of friends can definitely be a rewarding process, but having tuition from a knowledgeable coach can help you take things to the next level. This is another thing I’m actively working on. Whether it’s occasional workshops, regular classes or online training, be like a sponge and soak up as much as you can.
If it provides you with your living, movement training or getting in your workout in should obviously be a massive priority, and you’ll have to make some sacrifices. But personally for me, I don’t want to be so obsessed with my routine that I’m scared to do anything else.
One of the big reasons I move is so that I’m best prepared to do the fun things in life. So that my body is prepared to go surfing with my partner, climbing with friends, walking with my family. I’ve been in that place where I took my movement training so seriously that I’d be worrying about whether these simple everyday activities would interfere with my progress. It’s anxiety-inducing.
So whilst it’s advisable to take your training seriously, it might not be in your best interest to get so caught up in it that you lose sight of the other things that are important to you.
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Movement is complex, varied and chaotic. It’s somewhat difficult to break it down into distinct, linear constructs (although that’s what we often see happening in the modern fitness industry).
You could, however, argue that there are a few archetypal patterns and skills that underlie and transfer across to most other movements you could hope to play with. The way I see it, some the big ones are:
Any you would add? Let me know in the comments section below!
By all means, go outside the box often, but don’t forget to bring it back to the basics. Practise the fundamental patterns above (and the principles they encompass) as the foundation of your movement training and you’ll be able to progress onto more advanced skills further down the line. Neglect them, and you’re asking for injury and/or a stall in progress.
You might sometimes find yourself in a bit of rut with your movement training (particularly if you mostly train alone). You might feel as if you’re going through the motions from time to time, just performing the planned number of sets and reps and then finishing up. That’s not necessarily wrong, but if you’re looking to maximise both your results and the fulfilment you experience, mindful movement is where it’s at.
One of the best ways to cultivate that is to approach each session like it’s your first. Leave your assumptions at the door and come in with the beginner’s mind – open, eager and ready to learn. The Japanese call this concept ‘Shoshin‘, derived from Zen Buddhism.
Although you might seemingly be practising the same skills, your body is always changing, as is the environment around you. When you can approach every session and each movement with fresh eyes, that’s where the magic happens.
Another one of Ido’s big principles. Again, it all goes back to the basics.
First, you build good quality movement patterns, moving through progressively more complex variations, but from the ground up. When they’re solidified, you can explore chaining those movements together. Integrating them, creating something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Then, when the foundation is laid, you get to the really fun part – improvisation. This is where you build upon the discipline and hard work that has gone before, to flow, experiment and come up with something that is uniquely your own.
Take the muscle up as an example:
Without first putting in the hours to refine the isolated and integrated skills, improvisation is limited and not based in good practice, so it doesn’t end up working too well. The driver first has to learn how to operate the pedals and the gearstick before they can think about doing doughnuts.
If you’re on the quest to being a movement generalist, it’s awesome if you can find a facility and community that focusses on that universal idea of ‘movement’. But if that’s not available (and even if it is) it can be handy to dip in and out of various specialist disciplines.
Martial arts, dance, yoga, strength training, CrossFit – they all have their merits. The goal isn’t to achieve mastery, but to take what you can from them and apply them to your own movement training, and your everyday life.
We’re so lucky have so many tools and toys at our disposal. There’s almost an infinite amount of movement you can do with just your bodyweight alone, but equipment helps keeps things interesting. Whether it’s using gymnastic rings, barbells or kettlebells, bands, balls or bats. Changing the thickness, texture, leverage or stability. Even taking the MovNat approach and just getting out into nature’s playground, using the organic tools found there.
It’s more than just adding a few pounds to your squat every session. Switch things up often, provide various stimulus and keep the body and mind guessing.
6. Lower body stability, upper body complexity
I think it was Ido who I first heard this from:
“Where building strength is concerned, the hips tend to respond well to stability (think big moves like the squat and deadlift) whereas the shoulder joint responds better to complexity (think gymnastic rings)”.
It’s not gospel, but definitely something to keep in mind. At the same time, don’t be afraid to break the rules. Cossack squats for the win.
Form is synonymous with posture, or positioning. Arguably there’s no right or wrong way to do things, but there are ways that tend to be safer and allow you to generate more force. They often go hand in hand, but not always.
A few basic ideas that seem to be common throughout many different movement patterns:
Again, these aren’t the definitive rules, just a few observations I’ve made based on previous experience. Just remember that quality is much more important than quantity. It doesn’t matter how many muscle ups you can bust out in a set. What matters is that you can do one good quality muscle up, followed by another good quality one.
Let’s expand upon that idea of the core for a sec. The popular method for developing a strong midsection often involves a boat load of situps or crunches. But flexion at the spine actually only engages a small portion of the core musculature (the visible rectus-abdominus) and isn’t all that transferable to other skills.
Rotation and stabilization are much more important and ‘functional’ movements of the core. So when you think about ‘training the core’, remember to address those planes of motion, and think about engaging the deep musculature (as opposed to just the mirror muscles).
Breathing is the source that allows us to move in the first place. Without it, we’re eternally still. But what do we do usually do whenever we engage in new movement patterns or attempt a task that seems difficult? One of our first instincts is to hold our breath. It makes no sense.
Whilst breath-hold training has a time and place, every time and every place you move isn’t cool. Check out some of Paul Chek’s tips on how to integrate healthy breathing patterns with movement.
Conventional fitness and strength & conditioning methods will often have you working mainly in the sagittal plane. Think forwards and back, up and down – squatting, benching, deadlifting, pullups etc. But if you think about how our ancestors would have moved about, and even how we go about our everyday lives in the modern day, a fair chunk of our time is spent moving side to side and rotating. Particularly if you’re involved in sports.
So by all means do your deadlifts and hit those pullups, but don’t neglect rotation and lateral movement. That’s where real athleticism is cultivated.
In our modern world, it’s easy to live much of your life without ever leaving your comfort zone. But being comfortable often means we stagnate and fail to grow.
If you get good at squatting, it’s likely that you’ll want to squat more. It feels good, and you get a sense of achievement from it. But that sense of achievement can be deceiving. The better you get at a certain skill, the less it serves you. The secret to continued growth is instead to chase after the things you’re terrible at. To regularly step outside your comfort zone, do things that scare you, and “base yourself in your weaknesses“, as Ido puts it.
If you take one thing from this article and write it on your wall, make it this. Recovery is something I overlooked for the majority of my athletic life (‘career’ seemed too douchy). Go hard or go home sounds cool, but the real HEROes are all about movement TLC. That means knowing when to push it and when to go light.
A few ideas to keep in mind:
Training hard and pushing yourself is definitely something I advocate, but only if it’s done smart.
Mobility goes hand in hand with those patterns mentioned above. It’s a key component of movement that everything else is built upon. The simple truth is that having joints that function correctly and being able to display strength in that end range allows you to become more stable in various positions. That transfers over into more movement options, more room for error, and typically better performance. So make sure you’re keeping those joints healthy by moving regularly and diligently working on mobility exercises.
We’re all a bit wonky, and that’s okay. The body naturally has variations in strength and mobility from side to side. That being said, if you have a super exaggerated posterior pelvic tilt, or one wrist is significantly more restricted than the other, it could hamper your performance and potentially lead to further issues down the line if not addressed.
So if that sounds like you, it may be worth taking a pause from any intense training to fix those issues (ideally with the help of a professional who moves themselves). The long term gains will be worth the short term frustration, I promise.
A warm up isn’t just about raising your heart rate or mobilising your joints. One of the main benefits I personally get from it is psychological. It’s a signal to the body that you’re about to go sympathetic and do some work. Warming up doesn;t have to be complicated. I typically opt for a few minutes of breathwork, something to get my pulse rate and body temp up, a few mobilisations and then easier versions of what I’ll be doing in that session.
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The cool down is arguably just as important as the warm up. Again, it’s more than purely physical. All it takes is 10-15 minutes at the end of your session to slow things down, perform some static stretches and breathing exercises. You kickstart those all-important restorative processes and make that switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Fight-flight to rest-digest.
Training intelligently and mindfully can definitely help minimise your injury risk. Both the frequency and severity. But let’s face it – if you’re moving often and pushing towards goals, things are gonna break from time to time. Shit happens.
When the inevitable does occur, patience is a virtue worth cultivating. It’s easy to jump back in before things are fully healed, but you risk doing more damage and setting yourself back even further. Again, this is advice from someone who’s been there many times and regrets it. From my experience, it’s better to be present in the moment (with a peripheral attention resting on the long-term), as opposed to being overly caught up with the short to mid-term.
I mentioned ‘good form‘ earlier. Sometimes it’s handy to disregard those principles altogether and put your body in a seemingly jeopardizing position.
I don’t mean sticking a load of weight on the bar and squatting with your feet turned in. But one school of thought is that by gradually adding small amounts of load in an unfavourable position, you begin to bulletproof yourself for the inevitable time when you do fall out of position.
An example. If instead of always training in line, you ease yourself into putting weight on the outside (or inside) of your ankle, and over time build up to being able to walk in a fully everted and inverted position, do you think you’d be more prepared and resistant against a catastrophic injury if you accidentally rolled your ankle whilst out hiking?
On a similar note, big padded shoes and thick heels are doing you no good, friend. They almost act as expensive casts, restricting the intricate movements that your feet are capable of and shortening your heel cords. The result is crappy gait patterns, poor squat depth and a myriad of other movement issues.
I’ve found big benefits from going barefoot as often as possible, and otherwise in minimal footwear. The three main things I look for in a good all-round minimalist shoe:
Morning routines seem to be all the rage lately. Mine varies, but usually includes some form of mindfulness practice (meditation and journalling), learning, nourishment, and movement. In fact, you could argue that movement actually incorporates the other three.
Whether it’s going through some yoga asanas, a set mobility or stretching routine, or simply getting outside and moving however the hell you feel like – it’s a great way to wake the body up, check in to see how it feels, and prep yourself for the day ahead.
Posture is a word that gets thrown around a lot. It’s essentially another way of saying ‘body positioning in everyday life’. Whilst there might not be a perfect formula and every body is different, here are some general pointers, starting from the floor:
We’re not static beings, and falling out of alignment is inevitable (and advised, as we’ll touch on in a sec). It’s also important to keep in mind that posture issues can be a result of faulty programming and restrictions/areas of tightness. So whilst being mindful of how you hold yourself can help, it’s advisable that you address those underlying imbalances that contribute to you moving or resting in a certain way.
Also, if you constantly find yourself battling against your posture, here’s a quick posture reset routine you can use to break up your day and retrain your movement patterns.
Sitting has been called ‘the new smoking’ in terms of the damage it can cause to our health (and the way we move). I’m not sure sitting itself is necessarily the issue – it’s more the amount of time we spend doing it. We use it as a position to work in, to rest in, to travel in…
The average person sits around 13 hours a day, and the result is shortened hip flexors, rigid spines, rounded shoulders and forward head carriage. So when you can, swap sitting in a chair with standing, kneeling, balancing, walking, or sitting cross legged on the floor.
The fact of the matter is that we’re not really designed to be stationary or sedentary for long time periods – regardless of the position. Yep that’s right – whilst being at a standup desk all day instead of in an office chair is no doubt better, it’s still not a substitute for regular, varied movement.
So do your best to take regular movement breaks. I set a timer, working for 25 minutes, and then having 5-10 minutes moving around – stretching, walking, squatting, hanging – whatever my body feels like.
Habit trackers and phone reminders can also come in handy when you’re initially forming the habit.
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Observing others is a big step towards becoming more conscious of your own movement habits. Obviously you don’t want to be the suspect guy/girl who’s obviously leering at people from afar… But try to subtly be more mindful of the people around you, and how they move. How they breathe, how the walk, how they hold their posture and how it changes with motion.
It’s interesting (and in some ways quite sad) to see how movement capacity deteriorates – from the toddler with unlimited potential, to people in their 30s and 40s starting to hunch and feel the aches and pains, all the way up to pensioners that have all but curled up like prawns.
As we’ve moved away from our natural environment, much of the complexity we would have been exposed to as primitive man has been lost. Instead of uneven surfaces and rough tree branches that would stimulate our bodies and minds all day long, we now have flat pavements, sharp corners, and comfy sofas. We’re devoid of stimulus and forced instead to create our own ‘wildness’ in everyday life.
Some of my favourite ways to do that:
Unleash that creativity, take every opportunity to move, and don’t be afraid to be you.
As a general rule of thumb, I’m not big on multi tasking. I know that I function much better when I focus on one thing at a time and do it to the best of my ability. But movement is a little different. Whilst I definitely see merit in getting out there dedicating yourself solely to movement for a set amount of time, movement is a constant. It’s something that’s always there, and in that sense can often be integrated with other things.
One of the big ones that I get a kick from is learning. It’s one of my favourite things to do – to head outside for a walk or stretch, stick my iPod on and listen to a podcast or audiobook whilst I move. Interestingly, I find I’m much better at retaining and the information compared to when I listen whilst travelling or when I’m sedentary.
With the advent of the internet and the digital world, in some ways our ability to connect with people has never been greater. But in other ways, our field of vision has narrowed. Instead of scanning the horizon for food and predators, we live with our eyes glued to screens a few feet from our noses.
Next time you’re out and about, keep your phone in your pocket and look up. Look to the distance, follow moving objects, peer up to the rooftops. Provide your eyes the nourishment and stimulation that they were designed to deal with.
You’re only as old as your spine. It’s your control centre that every movement stems from, and without regular movement through the spine in various plains – twisting, extending, flexing – it slowly but surely begins to stiffen.
I’ve heard Ido describe it before like an arm that’s motionless in a cast. Over time, the arm (or spine in this case) begins to die. Cartilage is laid down, it becomes stiff, weak and unable to move like it should.
So keep it moving!
Related: Thoracic Mobility Routine
Let me clear this up: training for your appearance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m definitely not trying to demonize it in any way. As I touched on earlier, if that’s your primary ‘reason why’ and you thrive off of it, then go for it.
But keep in mind that training to look a certain way probably won’t improve the way you move and perform.
In fact, it could even hold you back. Whereas if you train for function – for the ability to move freely and for the love of movement itself, a change in your physique is a likely by-product (providing other aspects such as nutrition and recovery are in place too).
Movement is a very personal, practical experience. It’s best taught in the flesh, either one-to-one or in a group setting. but that’s not to say there isn’t value in alternative mediums – books, videos, podcasts etc.
With that in mind, three of my favourite movement-related books include:
I’ve mentioned before that meditation is a key practice in my life. I usually perform basic mindfulness meditation, paying attention to the sensation of the breath. It’s great, but there are other methods that I think can be a bit more transferable to the needs of a 21st-century mover.
One is the body scan – where you sit or lay and slowly scan through every part of your body. It’s great for picking up areas of tightness and to help you become more in tune with your body.
The second is a moving meditation. Qigong, yoga and even Ido’s Floreio movements are all great ways to do this. Any modality where you can time your breath with the motion and really focus on how the movement feels can work well.
Like life, your movement training will have it’s ups and downs. There will be injuries, mistakes and plateaus, and always someone better than you. But none of that matters.
What matters is that you focus on your own journey, and have fun with it. Enjoy the process, and remember that one of the primary functions of movement is to play. So, by all means, reach for goals and strive to be better today than you were yesterday, but never take yourself too seriously.
Always be thirsty for knowledge, but take nothing as gospel. Just because [insert any movement guru’s name here] says this is the way to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case for you.
So soak up knowledge like a sponge but always apply a healthy dose of skepticism. You know your body like no other, because you are your body. Experiment, find what works for you, and discard the rest. But always be open to changing your perspective.
As you already know, movement is primarily a practical art. No amount of theory, speculation, ideas and quick tips can really do it justice.
What matters most is the experimentation. The implementation. The putting ideas into action.
So that’s what I’d love for you to do now.
Take the above on board, apply what resonates with you to your own movement practice, and keep on moving.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article, and if there are any tips you’d like to add/expand upon. Hit me up in the comments section below!
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