Think about your movement goals for a minute. You have some, right?
Maybe you want to become a competitive Olympic lifter, earn a black belt in Brajilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), or achieve mastery in golf. Maybe you want to get your first pull-up. Maybe you just want to be able to put your shoes on and tie your shoelaces comfortably. Or maybe you just want to be able to continue to put your shoes on and tie your shoelaces comfortably, for many years down the road! All of these are worthwhile, respectable goals! Have something in mind?
Great! Now think back--way, way back--to those days when you were learning to read. You needed to cross successfully through some other steps first, right? Like figuring out what letters were, then learning the letters, then developing an understanding and mental map for how letters combine to form words and then sentences and, ultimately, hold and communicate meaning. As smart as you might be and as hard as you might try and as much help as you might receive, you would not be very successful reading that Great American Novel had you skipped over that basic, yet rate limiting step, of learning your letters.
In order to fluently handle all the varied movements that life demands of us, and as a prerequisite for the more advanced, highly technical pursuits that may be on your goal list, we need to have a base level of movement proficiency. Think of the elements of the very formal sounding “movement proficiency” as simply letters of the alphabet. These letters are movements like squatting to (or, better yet, below) parallel, balancing on one leg, hinging our hips back while maintaining a neutral spine (i.e., not cat or cow-esque), or getting our arms overhead comfortably and without compensation.
Without these “letters,” which can be combined in a variety of ways, you will, at best, have difficulty stringing together the “words” of more complex skills like a full barbell snatch efficiently. And, at worst, you’ll have trouble doing so safely. Even one of our simpler goals from above, like achieving a pull-up, requires multiple letters, such as sufficient mobility to get your arms overhead, adequate grip and core strength, and appropriate motor control of your shoulder to coordinate actions of several different muscles.
When we’re talking about fundamental movements, we want to be good--at least proficient--in a wide variety of shapes and patterns, not just a limited handful. We want to be mobile enough to get into all the postures required in our daily lives, and we want to be able to stabilize appropriately in these positions. Knowing just the first half of the alphabet is cool and all, but not nearly as useful as knowing A to Z.
I used to move well; what happened?
There are many movements that are completely natural to us as babies and young kids that become exceedingly difficult as adults, the squat being perhaps the most obvious. Watch any child less than five years of age for five minutes or less and they’re sure to drop into a perfect squat and give you some serious hip mobility envy! From warming the seats in our offices to the seats in our cars to the couches in our living rooms, we often get tight in some areas and weak in other areas, to the point that dropping into what should be a comfortable resting position is excruciatingly painful and feels like a lot of work!
Similarly, many of us sit hunched over our phones and computers for the majority of the day (you’re probably hunched over right now while reading this!). This locks up our upper back, shoulders, and chest, to the point where we cannot get our arms overhead without sticking our butts back and pelvises forward. We forget what a “neutral spine” should even feel like.
We knew these letters of the alphabet, but we seemingly forgot them. Almost as if we had moved to a country with a different lettering system and lost the need for them!
It is frustrating, no doubt, to try some simple (not easy) exercises and feel like an uncoordinated hot mess. It’s easy to want to quit. We may feel silly, or we may feel that something like a one-legged squat doesn’t allow us to lift as much as we could in a bilateral version. It’s easy to let our egos get the better of us.
Remember that having imbalances and weaknesses in basic movements does not make you a bad person! We all have unique life stories with different anatomical concerns and injury histories, all of which can impact our ability to move well. And you are far from alone! Everyone is terrible at single leg deadlifts when they first try them! Despite our differences, most of us deal with similar environmental “hazards” like cars, offices, and smart phones that have bequeathed most of us with similar mobility and movement concerns. But, just because these concerns are common does not mean we should accept them as inevitable.
Let’s get to work (slowly)!
Instead of getting discouraged, respect where you are today as far as mobility, flexibility, and coordination, but begin to work each day on improving these. We’re striving for super small gains, like 1% improvement per week! Working on the fundamental patterns like squatting and hinging, along with building improved balance and coordination--with patience, and over the long haul--will make you a much stronger, more balanced, more capable human, ready to tackle any physical challenge that comes your way. Pretty incredible, right?
If you need more convincing, taking a step back to work on some basic movement limitations or weaknesses will often result in huge gains in your higher level goal movements down the road. So while you may be disappointed to take a break from heavy back squats, focusing on split squats and single leg deadlifts for a while may be just what you need to bust through your old plateaus. Basic life movements like reaching down to grab the sweatshirt you dropped on the floor will be easier, too! Sure, you can choose to continue to train only the movements you like and excel at while avoiding those you find a struggle, but the return on investment will not be nearly as high as tackling your challenging movements directly.
[A quick aside: if you have had multiple ankle injuries, will you be able to achieve the ankle mobility of a competitive Olympic lifter? Probably not, but that’s no reason not to work towards developing the best ankle mobility for you. Avoid letting an ideal of perfection get in the way of “better.” We can always work around limitations in the short-term and work on getting more mobile and coordinated in the longer term.]
At Achieve Fitness, we work on building and improving the fundamental movements from Day 1! For those of you who get frustrated by some of these drills, remember that practicing them is increasing your mastery of the movement “language,” and consider working on practicing some of these postures and patterns at home. The more frequently you remind your body what a deep squat should feel like and how to find balance on one leg, the more fluent you will be and the easier these will feel. Be intentional, be consistent, be patient, and you will be amazed at how much better you feel and move in just a few short weeks and months! You may even start to love single leg deadlifts!
- We all have weaknesses, whether it be in mobility, stability, coordination, or strength; weaknesses do not make us bad people!
- Before we can move onto highly technical, skill-based movement goals (like powerlifting or Olympic lifting or fancy gymnastics skills), we need to attain adequate levels of mobility, stability, coordination, and strength; these basic aspects of movement are key in our day-to-day activities, too!
- Acknowledging our weaknesses and investing dedicated, consistent effort each day (even 5 minutes a day) to improve these areas will make a huge difference in our overall movement proficiency and leave us feeling more capable and fit, ready to handle any challenge that comes our way!
- Choose one BALANCE/COORDINATION movement pattern (e.g., single leg deadlift) you find challenging and aim to accumulate 5-10 minutes each day, spread over the course of the day in separate bouts, just practicing the movement. No equipment necessary! Go slow and focus on QUALITY repetitions!
- Choose one MOBILITY movement you find difficult (e.g., full-depth squat). Spend 5-10 minutes over the course of the day (in 30 second to two minute blocks) relaxing into a deeper range of motion. Try resting in a squat position, holding onto a door or table for support. Let yourself gently relax into a new range as you continue to breathe!