How to Develop a Healthy Movement Practice

What Is A Movement Practice?

A Movement Practice (MP) is the frequent, reflective performance of complex movements with the goal of improving general movement proficiency, with a concurrent increase in body-awareness.
Move Well.

Move Well.

If exercise is the tool we use to strengthen the body, the MP is the application of the resulting increased level of strength. The MP is a chance to explore the space around you and the physical processes within you in non-linear, complex patterns and with the goal of improving body awareness. You practice controlling your body. In physical therapy, this is called motor-control training, the purposeful practice of certain movement patterns and muscle sequencing to optimize how your body manages internal force production. The MP is not a “workout” with the goal of burning calories or getting stronger (although those things may also happen). It is an attempt to gain mastery of your movement, and an immersion into a deeper, meditative state through the medium of physicality. It is a way to introduce play into your life, connect with others, and reveal truths about yourself.

But what exactly counts as a MP? Is it running, capoeira, or gymnastics? It CAN be all of those things, and it can be none. The MP is more a state of mind, a conscious level of intent you apply to a movement. It requires contemplation, poise, and composure. Below are listed common natural movements that could form the basis of your MP. You should strive to perform these movements competently.

Natural Human Movements:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Crawling
  • Swimming
  • Climbing
  • Rolling
  • Throwing
  • Lifting
  • Jumping
  • Balancing
  • Defending

Specific Movements:

  • You can also add in more specific movements if you wish:
  • Gymnastic holds (iron cross, planche, etc)
  • Tumbling (flips, cartwheels, etc)
  • Juggling or object manipulation (staff twirling, weapons practice, etc)
  • Ground flow (capoeira, animal flow, etc)
  • Weightlifting practice (Olympic lifting, powerlifting, kettlebells, clubbells, etc)

Note: Many of the more specific movements can also be used as exercise, it just depends on the manner of execution. 

In order for these things to become a MP,  follow these guidelines:

Movement Practice Guidelines

1. Do not try to force your MP. You will naturally develop an insatiable urge to move more as a result of the increased strength from your focused muscle-loading workouts, and enhanced mobility from your mobility workouts. Move when you feel it occurs naturally, don’t force yourself to get up and go for a run, do handstands, or whatever is currently popular. This is not a healthy approach to the MP.

2. Try to pick a large variety of movements. While there’s nothing wrong with dedicating yourself to practicing a specific movement, realize that as you become more specialized, you develop increasingly large muscoskeletal imbalances and you will need to perform mobility training (MT) to compensate for this. Also, the more specific your movements are, the less transfer they have to other skills. A MP is NOT a sport. Performing a sport involves repeatedly performing a specific movement (like swinging a tennis racket) at a high frequency and high intensity. This is why athletes are injured so often. Ever heard of tennis elbow, golfers elbow, or jumpers knee? This is why these things happen. Athletes become good at their specialty, but this is not necessarily healthy.

Regarding the balance between volume and intensity: There must be an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. No matter which movement you choose to practice on a given day, you can either do something easy for a long time, or hard for a short time. An example would be going for a long leisurely walk with minimalist shoes versus performing a gymnastics stunt like a muscle up. Doing a high volume of muscles ups can create an exercise effect but will almost inevitably cause injury or pain. Do one or two muscle-ups instead while focusing on the “perfect rep”. Stay fresh.

“First move well, then move often”

– Gray Cook

3. When doing your MP, attempt to use “perfect control”. Although perfect is subjective, we can employ a few general guidelines to help. As soon as your movement begins to slow down due to fatigue, your breathing changes, or your muscles burn excessively, either stop or change position. Note: Changing position here is the OPPOSITE of what I recommend when performing HIT. When performing HIT, the goal is to rapidly and safely fatigue a localized area of musculature, and any attempt to change or squirm out of position defeats that purpose by loading other muscles. In the MP, we are attempting to AVOID fatigue, so changing position to load other muscles is not only sometimes necessary, it is recommended.

4. Always employ nasal breathing, that is, nose-in/nose-out breathing. This is to help you keep your intensity low. Opening the mouth to breath is your body’s way to rapidly increase oxygen turnover in your lungs so you can ramp up muscular force output. The problem with this is that when we ramp up the intensity we create fatigue and muscle damage, something we want to avoid with the MP. Also, the MP is usually a skill based movement, and when we perform skill based movements under conditions of fatigue it not only increases the risk of injury, it creates a new, fatigue-based skill set. This is based on established laws of motor learning theory and going deeper is beyond the scope of this guide.

5. The MP is not a competition. You are not trying to “beat” anyone or be best at any skill. You are not even trying to compete against yourself. This is the heavily westernized goal-focused approach. You will take a process-oriented approach. You are trying to attain effortless proficiency in movement; in reality an impossible goal. The REAL, hidden goal is to immerse yourself in the process, to practice mindful movement. To attain flow.

6. You can do your MP in a segmented block of time, such as 30 minutes a day, or frequently throughout the day like I do. Every time I walk I try to feel the ground underneath me, I focus on my posture and arm swing. Every time I pick something up from the floor, I groove the perfect hip-hinge. Every time I sit on the floor, I try to make it look effortless and use no hands for support. You can, and should practice all the time. However, your lifestyle and situation may not allow for this (I get that doing full squats in your suit with an open landscape office is awkward) so in this case you can block it off.

7. If being forced to choose, prioritize High Intensity Training (HIT) and Mobility Training (MT) before your Movement Practice (MP). Again, the MP should emerge naturally as a result of increased strength and a surplus reserve of energy from sleeping and eating correctly. Forcing yourself to go into your energy “overdraft” and use borrowed energy is possible but undermines your long term health.  Building strength is like building the foundation of a house. It must be linear, strong, and resilient. The MP is what you fill the house with. It gives the house character, life, and meaning.

8. End the MP with a surplus of energy. You should finish feeling energized and fresh and better than when you started. If you are excessively sore, tired, or beat up afterward, you have done too much work and moved into HIT territory. Judging this can be hard, although you get better over time at listening to your body. If you have pushed it too hard, take a few days off and do some light mobility to recover. Only start when you are “itching” for movement again.

9. If you are using movement as a therapeutic modality, such as motor control exercises prescribed by therapists, focus on control of movement, activation of specific muscles, and sequencing of activation. Knowing what to do can be tricky, so I recommend getting a therapist or functional movement specialist to give you some feedback.

The Why of Movement

“The origin and ultimate reason for the brain’s existence is not to help us think or feel or create art but to control the movement of the body”

– Daniel Wolpert

Movement is life, and to live is to move. You may ask yourself why we need to move at all in the modern world, and indeed, we have molded our environment in such a way as to automate heavy and tedious manual tasks. Generally this has been a massive success for humans. It has allowed us to live long prosperous lives, as well as free up time that would otherwise be spent hunting or foraging for food and instead reading, building, and exploring. There is however, one small problem with this. Our technological and cultural evolution as a species has far outrun the evolution of our DNA. Most scientists are in agreement that our actual DNA has changed very little from our days as cavemen. Our cavemen ancestors evolved moving, living outdoors, and occasionally being faced with intense life-threatening situations. As such, our physiology adapted to thrive on movement. Simply take one look at an immobilized hospital patient confined to a bed, and you will see how quickly muscle atrophies. We literally melt away if we do nothing. It’s clear that movement is critical. We need bursts of high intensity activity to create muscle, and lots of low intensity movement to keep our joints lubricated, and our lymphatic system pumping gracefully. Movement has even been shown to enhance brain function, by stimulating the production of neurons in the brain.

“Motion is lotion”

– A wise person somewhere

Besides the health benefits of frequent, low intensity movement, there are a host of existential benefits. As we develop technologically, we risk losing part of what makes us humans. The Transhumanist ideology is a fascinating intellectual movement that believes that as a species we should strive to harness technology to overcome the limitations of our physical bodies, and thus improve the human condition. I am actually an ardent supporter of this and believe that the TM movement is already happening. As such, we are creating environments where there is no need to move in order to sustain life. However, I believe that in order to optimize the pleasure we can extrapolate from life, we not only need to move, we need to move often. The new, Transhumanist role of movement replaces the previous function of movement as a vehicle to procure food or money, and instead uses it for for pleasure, healing, and connecting with other humans. As such, we need to develop an intelligent and refined approach to movement, much as we are refining our approach to technology. The utopic future of optimum health is one where we blend technology and best movement practices (based on our knowledge of the body), to use the former to leverage the benefit from the latter.

Early on in our development as a species movement was not a choice, it was a prerequisite for survival. Now, its optional. Many would instantly criticize this and view it as a bad thing, but really, it marks the beginning of an era where we can finally engineer movement to benefit us on a higher level, exploring the inner dimension of physicality, while enhance the experience through technology.

Closing Thoughts

My argument is that the MP should be an integral part of every human’s routine, much like brushing one’s teeth, cleaning one’s house, or reading a book. It doesn’t need to be something that is too intense or time consuming. We simply need to start thinking about movement and how it is one of the greatest gifts we have been given by the universe. Biological movement is truly a miracle, and something not even the greatest supercomputers on earth can replicate. Lets use it.

If you’re interested in digging deeper, check out some of these great resources on movement-centric approaches to training:

Dave Dellanave 

Ido Portal

Al Kavadlo

Global Bodyweight Training

Strong First

GMB Fitness

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