“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
Those words were very wise advice in a time, much like the present, when I’m sure factions of society were looking for performance enhancement, medical miracles and easier ways to energize the human body.
As much as a specific lesson about food, Hippocrates was stating that in our drive to succeed, we often overlook fundamental principles about how we should behave.
To paraphrase: Cover your fundamentals before you assume you have a problem—most problems break a basic or fundamental principle, then seek a complex solution.
For some reason we think with greater clarity about eating than we do about moving. Michael Pollan, one of my favorite authors, has become known for deconstructing our assumptions and unnecessary anxieties about food. To over-simplify his body of work: Food is a whole and natural thing. Real food is full of many subcomponents that, in isolation, may be beneficial, may be toxic or could throw you out of balance.
But we live in an age of supplements. We don’t want to drink green tea, we just want to identify the few good things in green tea that we can stick into a pill, a candy bar or some bubble gum.
It doesn’t work that way with food.
It doesn’t work that way in movement or exercise either.
Basically, reductionism causes more problems than it solves because it often creates an unsustainable solution. Your body already knows how to extract the good stuff from green tea, so don’t ask a corporation to do it for you.
If we were eating a whole and natural and authentic diet (as intended), the only reason for supplementation is if you have a problem absorbing naturally occurring vitamins and nutrients. To overcome the absorption problem or whole foods that have been compromised, we have to effectively overdose that particular missing element to get you back to normal.
Vitamins and nutrients are much better used to pull you out of a state of dysfunction than to force you into a state of optimization. If you agree with that statement (and you should if you review the history and science), you can see just how skewed many of our assumptions about vitamins, minerals or nutritional supplements are. If you lack something, and that supplement fulfills the need, then it feels like a competitive advantage. A performance octane boost, if you will. It’s not. It’s simply filling a hole that otherwise should have been filled, authentically, through your eating, resting and regenerative behaviors.
Let’s bring the analogy back around to movement . . .
Exercise is not movement food. Exercise is a movement supplement.
Exercise is a movement supplement because we do it largely for hopes of a better future in movement. Furthermore, no single exercise demonstrates the whole of human movement capabilities. Now, as babies, toddlers and children, we are biologically driven to play. In those early explorations of our environment through our senses and movement, we develop fundamental patterns and even physical capacities. As we age, certain parts of our movement landscape draw our attention and we continue to play:
Some of us want to throw balls,
Some of us want to run great distances,
Some of us want to climb walls,
Some of us head straight to the water,
Some of us choose to sample a variety of activities, and
Some of us obsess on specializing—becoming the best in our area, our region, our country or maybe even our world.
To support these activities, we often choose exercises that we think we need, sometimes without a logical analysis of which exercises truly supplement or support our favorite activities.
Regardless of the ways we choose to explore movement, we can break it down to an elemental level and find your movement food. The best starting point is to look at the four different levels of movement:
Try to define each term before you read further, because we have been thinking, debating and refining these terms for 20 years . . . see if you like where we are headed.
Levels of Movement Development
Does your movement serve to provide movement health? Well, if we look at many of the movements in yoga, martial arts or even movements taught in our new Indian Club course, fascia release positions or developmental neurological progressions we often see great ways to put the body through patterns in varying postures and physical loads. But does that movement not also serve our circulatory system? Our tissue system? Our organ system? Our proprioceptive vestibular visual and auditory system? Every time we move, it’s a multi-sensory experience that’s either constructive, destructive or simply a wash . . . I can’t tell whether or not your investment of time and energy in the activity helped you.
How much of your investment in exercise or activity is barely distinguishable under an objective physical exam? That means I can’t even tell you’ve been doing X, and you’ve been doing X for months. X is designed to add mass, burn fat, create speed, better agility, create symmetry (the list is endless). Yet, when I measure these things, I cannot even see the tangible benefit of your effort. Believe it or not, that’s been occurring for some time. Your effort is going largely unnoticed by the biomarkers that we use to determine whether you need the effort in the first place.
If we truly have honest tests, then we will find multiple methodologies that will address particular problems, like ankle mobility, core stability, shoulder stability, overall cardio vascular function, work capacity, slow strength and/or explosive power. As long as we can find which one of these is your weakest link, we can easily decide if it is an isolated problem at your level of physical development. Possibly, the problem has its root all the way back into movement function—the way you organize your mobility and stability? The problem could be found in your movement health—those things that serve to create a system that grows, repairs, rests and regenerates at normal, optimal or above average rate.
Many people ask for a fitness solution to a health problem,
Many ask for a fitness solution to a functional problem, and
Many ask for a fitness solution to a skill problem.
That’s a quick overview of the four ways we can look at movement.
If you’re unhealthy, we need to diagnose you.
If you’re dysfunctional, we want to clearly identify the questionable movement pattern and attempt to correct it.
If you simply can’t play golf, I don’t know how many more side planks you need . . . Maybe you just need a golf lesson. Do you have a physical barrier to golf? Or a skill barrier?
Simple testing can quickly and easily answer that question. Just ask my friends at TPI.
Movement health: Do you have the basic constituents to both move in a healthful way and have that movement benefit you in a healthful way? What is the minimal effective dose of movement for your entire system? Not just your kinesiology; that tactile interaction with your world. That ‘squishiness’ where your body bumps up against the environment, where you get off your feet, you roll around, you have different textures and experiences. You have a wash of proprioceptive experience as well as visual experience, auditory experience, vestibular experience.
Movement function: Can you take all of the attributes of movement health and organize them to become a movement-competent learning machine? Movement function doesn’t mean you know or are good at anything. You simply have the movement patterns to create feedback loops. Therefore, if you don’t have any significant mobility problems, and I expose you to a balance beam, you have no excuse for poor balance except for movement control and postural control—you’ve demonstrated the flexibility to perform the move and cannot do it. When I offer you an experience that allows you to work on those faculties with a feedback loop, you become the self-movement-learning miracle that made your ancestors so adaptable.
“Here’s a 6-inch balance beam, and it’s 1 inch off the floor. Walk on this balance beam forward as many times as you can until you have to step off. Walk down the beam, pivot, turn and walk back down the beam. When you can do five passes without a fall, try to do five passes without a fall and no wasted energy, with minimal to no movement above your waist, meaning the flailing of the arm and the awkward head position and slight lean to the left. Yeah, let that go away and still show me you’re good.”
Once that’s done, instead of closing your eyes, I’m going to have you walk forward on the beam and backward on the beam. And for those of you who say, I’ve got an individual who can’t even balance on a beam . . . First: I’m sure you overlooked a mobility problem. Second, if you want to get them on the beam, use sticks, a hand-hold or some other type of an assist. Put the beam near a wall and slowly remove the dependence on that wall. There are so many ways to scale this. That said, there is no need to scale it if you address the minimum effective mobility required for the person to use the feedback of poor balance to create good balance. I don’t need you to tell them to contract any one part of your body. They simply need to acknowledge the fact that they can’t balance. They simply need to employ their own proprioceptive visual and vestibular system to figure out how to overcome that.
Let them try to solve the problem. They have all the parts of the equation: perception, time and the ability to act. Let nature do its thing and provide feedback.
Make them find the answer. Don’t give it to them. If a toddler can find the answer, surely an adult can. There is no fast track to balance—the authentic path works best. Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. It’s as simple as that.
Movement fitness: This is your capacity to express energy for basic locomotion or manipulation. Basically, moving you or moving stuff (or moving you and stuff). Movement fitness is non-specific with capacity and basic physical resources.
Movement skill: Is your complexity or ability to do your thing. Some of us specialize in one thing; others pick a few things. Skill is when you point your physical capacity at a specific task, activity, goal or game and demonstrate technical and tactical ability in an efficient and effective way. If you are better than most, you can get paid for it.
So, knowing these four levels, what is your best movement food?
Many times we must continually scale, adjust and even ‘over-coach’ our exercises because they’re inappropriately matched to the people who need to regain a lost movement ability. If we were to deconstruct movement, we could phrase it as, “Are you moving enough to be healthy?” Or, “If you start moving more, can you potentially create a health problem?”
We see that all the time. “I’m a little overweight. I’ve started walking and jogging and now I’ve got shin splints and low back pain.” Right? They seemed to be movement healthy, but as soon as they attempted to move a little bit more, they become unhealthy. Yes, unhealthy, because shin splits and low back pain are best addressed in health care as opposed to fitness (barring the fact that we’re as screwed up in health care as we are in fitness.) So many times we treat the symptoms not the cause. Many times we treat the muscles closest to the area of poor movement or pain, instead of looking at movement as a whole and asking, “what is your movement diet?”
If we removed all stretches, correctives, foam rolling and appointments with the chiropractor and physical therapist, is there actually a way you can improve with slow, steady and sustainable progress and address the specific minimum effective dose of movement that keeps you healthy? What about the minimum effective dose of movement that keeps you functional and adaptive to those activities that you think are going to be appropriate for you? If 400 pound dead lifts are not part of your future, then we don’t need movements that will support that lift, but we still need movements that will allow you to squat, twist, turn, crawl, climb and maybe even jog. If you have something very heavy to lift one day, you’ll either get help or break the job down or use a mechanical advantage. It’s as simple as that.
- Move well enough to be healthy . . . Move often enough to maintain it.
- Move well enough to be functional . . . Move often enough to learn.
- Move well enough to be fit . . . Move often enough to adapt.
- Move well enough to be skillful in what you do . . . Move often enough to perform consistently.
- Move well enough, but in that prescribed order. Your nature demands it!
If you move well, often enough, adaptation will occur and none of that adaptation will be in a direction of disadvantage. That’s very important; A disadvantaged direction promotes a more ambitious level of movement development over a fundamental one. How many times have we ever seen a pitcher throw their arm into a state of poor movement health—a torn rotator cuff, a muscle strain or a joint sprain is the result. He was doing a skill that, if dosed correctly, can actually benefit his fitness and his overall personal development. But he exhausted that resource and created a health problem. Back to zero.
A lack of systematic feedback on well or often will get you just that.
As you move up through movement, from health to skill, or as we evaluate you down through movement, we deconstruct the minimum effective necessary dose of health, function, fitness and skill to find out where should you be working. What’s the minimum effective dose? We often learn that what we assumed was wrong with us isn’t even close to being our weakest link. That weakest link in movement is often the reason you’re not progressing or performing, the reason that you may not be losing weight or even sleeping the way you want to. Your body is extremely sensitive to the movements that you choose to do, and the ones that you choose not to do.
Sounds like diet, right?
I’m unbelievably inspired by the clarity in nutrition when compared to exercise. I don’t have an academic credential in nutrition, but I think that I can clearly recognize good logic and poor logic in nutrition. Nutrition can easily get as poor as the pharmaceutical industry, where you’re simply directed to eat based on your symptoms alone. But it can be as all-encompassing as to create a complete, sustainable lifestyle change by giving you a few principles of good eating, bad eating, healthful eating, functional eating, fitness eating and then long-term eating.
If we looked at exercise like we look at supplements, and we considered physical activities and exposures to new environments like we consider food, we would be far more advanced in our movement technology.
It wouldn’t be obvious that you’re from a sedentary culture simply by the way you walk . . .
Americans are becoming recognizable around the world. And it’s not just because we’re a little overweight and dress slightly different than the rest of the world.
It’s because we don’t move well.
We don’t move well, yet we choose to move more often. That creates a problem. It creates obvious compensation. And even as something as simple as a walk can identify the fact that you and your body are enjoying movement supplements far more often than real movement food.
I hope you’re inspired by this. If you are, be inspired enough to look deep and break down the level of movements. Take your assumptions, throw them out the window and look at a clean measuring stick for the four different categories of movement. Are you consuming food or supplements at each of these levels? At the top level, enjoy that what you want to do the most, whether it be cycling, rock climbing, hiking, or playing a competitive sport. If you do it right, your skill load will give you an appreciative level of fitness. That fitness will bestow you with a certain level of function, and that maintained function will help you maintain your health. It works backwards.
And at the very top rung of movement, I encourage you to find those things that make you smile, those things that put you in a flow state. Does it mean that you won’t have homework and supplementary work to do? Sorry, you will. But those supplements are temporary obstacles to get you into balance and harmony for the long haul in this event called life.
If you’re using a supplement for years instead of weeks or months, I question the effectiveness of who put you there and why they did it. Many people have embraced functional movement technology and continued to do supplements, not realizing that my team and I would have pulled you off of that corrective a long time ago and readjusted your entire scope of health, function, fitness or skill/competition. I wouldn’t just be adding a particular supplement because you have a bad movement pattern. Once I show that the movement pattern could improve with correctives, the first thing I’d do is turn you around and say, “okay, how can you do without this corrective?” Well, by doing more of X and doing significantly less of Y, and never doing Z again, because it’s simply not a food that you need or that agrees with you.
Please don’t trust me . . . Test me. Start with a simple look at organism and environment, because where you need work may not be where you are working.
We use our tests that way. Not to promote one methodology over another, but to help you find medicine in your movement, and movement in your medicine.