At some point, everyone experiences difficulty either with a new exercise or skill, or with one that has always seemed to be harder than it should be.
Instead of a smooth flowing motion you’re herky jerky and tiring out too quickly.
And that’s when we need to make some adjustments.
The desire to move better is at the heart of everything I do in training.
Strength and power are all well and good, but I’m after the total body control to perform difficult skills and moves in a way that looks easy. When I do this, I know my strength and power are there.
Fluid, seemingly effortless movement simply looks good.
It’s as if we are hard wired to recognize and appreciate it, and I’m going to share some useful tips that will help you to move better right away.
1. Slow it Down for Instant Awareness
We have a tendency to muscle through those movements we have a particularly hard time with. If something is really difficult to do, it’s easier to just move quickly to get through it.
But that won’t lead to graceful movement – and it’s not safe either!
So, how do you move better, even with especially difficult skills? Slow down and pay attention.
It may sound cheesy, but being mindful is really the key to better movement, and it’s what all the rest of these tips hinge upon.
- Walk briskly from one end of a room to the other.
- Now, slow down your movement, and as you walk back to the other end of the room, pay attention to each of these details.
- Feel how you adjust yourself as you walk – your posture, eye gaze, hip dominance, weight distribution, and breath.
Before, during, and after any exercise, really make an effort to pay attention to all the elements we’ve talked about – how your hips are moving, your weight distribution, your eye gaze, and your breath – and already, your movement will be leaps and bounds better.
Slow down your movement and you’ll be able to pay better attention to the details.
2. Use Your Hips for Instant Power
You probably know that the center of gravity in the human body is a few inches below your navel. This is the balance or pivot point where all movement above or below is “disruptive”.
This puts your balance right above, and in between, your hips and butt.
The better you can initiate motion from this point, the more efficient your movements will be, as you’ll move with less wasted action.
The hips contain the power generators of the body.
For example, if the glutes, the main hip extensors, are not working properly, any motion that is generated by hip thrust will not be as fluid as it otherwise could be. The glutes and other muscles that connect the pelvis to the lower extremities (such as the psoas) are also involved in stabilizing the spine through their connection to the pelvis. In fact, the “top” of our legs can be considered to be at this center of gravity point since the pelvis leads leg motion.
If the hips are not working properly, the body acts like a collection of parts, rather than as a whole entity.
One application of this is, with any stepping motion, rather than your feet propelling you forward, you want your hips to lead.
Even with this simple shift in thinking, you’ll likely move better right away.
3. Use Visual Aim for Instant Control
There’s a complicated reflex that I won’t go into, called the vestibulo-ocular reflex, that connects the eyes to the rest of the body. In simple terms, the head is hardwired to follow your eyes, and the body is hardwired to follow your head.
Basically, the body will follow the eyes.
In Judo and other martial arts, it’s a truism that “where the head goes the body follows,” and it’s not just because you have some guy is trying to rip your head off!
A simple example of the body following the eyes in an exercise is in squatting.
If you want to keep body upright and tall with a proper spinal position, you should look straight ahead. If you gaze downward, the muscles in your neck and the rest of your spine will flex, reflexively,which will cause you to go into a rounded posture.
- Stand upright.
- Turn your eyes all the way to the right, while keeping your head facing forward.
- Pay very close attention, and feel how the left side of your neck and trunk contract.
Since the eyes are so closely connected to the muscles throughout the body, if your eyes are not gazing in the right place, you won’t be able to control your body properly.
Ashtanga yoga people talk about drishti, or the proper gaze point, when performing your postures. Leaving aside the meditative aspects of perception and visualization, as a practical point where you look has a significant affect on your body’s alignment and posture.
If you want to move better, think of it this way: your eyes should always be pointed where you want your spine to be.
4. Notice Weight Transfer for Instant Agility
Along with an understanding of our center of gravity and the best way to move with that in mind, is the importance of shifting our weight correctly before, during, and after our movement.
The correct transfer of your weight is the beginning of a smooth and controlled motion.
- Stand tall with your weight evenly distributed between both feet.
- Now quickly lunge to your right.
- Go back to the center and rest a second, then lunge towards your left.
- Repeat this again to each side, but this time, move slowly, taking note of how you are actually moving.
Now, before you went to quickly lunge to the right, did you notice that you shifted your weight to the left a split second before you went to the right? It’s a natural loading response that you do without even thinking about it.
If you were just to put your right leg out it’d look and feel more like a stumble than a deliberate motion.
In the last few years, researchers have been looking into the effect of Tai Chi training on fall prevention, and it’s not any mystical Chi development that helps seniors levitate, but proper body alignment and a deliberate training of weight shifting that reduces the risk for debilitating falls.
With any movement, if your body’s natural weight transfer mechanisms are not working properly, it will hurt your balance.
For instance, if you perform a deadlift (especially with a weight heavier than your bodyweight), in order to prevent yourself from toppling forward, you need to shift your weight to your heels.
It doesn’t take much to pay attention to this weight transfer in all your activities throughout the day and you’ll soon notice some nice changes in your agility.
5. Breathe for Instant Poise and Calm
Many people forget to breathe – thankfully, we do that reflexively, or those people would be passing out left and right!
When exerting yourself, however, the reflex is actually to hold your breath – and that’s no good either. When performing a movement that requires some effort, the body knows to brace itself, even if you don’t do so purposefully.
What happens, though, is instead of bracing the abdominals, as you should do, the bracing often comes from the diaphragm, which shuts down the breathing reflex.
This is problematic, as you need oxygen to do anything well, but especially to perform a movement skill. Now this does not necessarily apply to lifting maximal weight where that all out body tension is what it will take to complete the move, but for skill-based movements holding your breath isn’t going to help.
Another consequence of improper breathing is the relationship between breath and anxiety.
Breath holding and hyperventilation are signs of anxiety, but in that wonderful body-mind connection loop, it can also create anxiety. Robert Sapolsky (Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) speaks of that interconnection in detail, but the gist of it is that our bodily actions and responses and emotions are incredibly intertwined.
Poor breathing creates feelings of anxiety, anxiety, creates tension, and unmediated tension causes poor movement.
Smooth and purposeful breathing leads to smooth and purposeful movement.
Putting these Techniques to Good Use
Regardless of where you are in your training cycle, learning to move smoothly will improve your performance in every aspect of your training.
Skillful movement is efficient; thus your endurance training will improve.
Proper movement patterns also allows a better platform for generating force and power, so your strength moves will improve as well.
Three Chances to Feel It – Right Now
I’ve shared five of my favorite techniques for instantly better movement. You should try them the next time you work out.
I also shared three exercises that you can do right now in less than two minutes.
Did you try them yet?
Don’t cheat yourself by planning to do them later and forgetting. Stand up right now and give them a shot. Nobody will laugh at you, and they’ll give you a feeling for using your attention to move with greater power and control.
Then, next you you practice, just remember that feeling.
Consciously recalling what it feels like when you’re moving well is called “anchoring,” and it will help you return to the focused mental state you need to move at your best.
Give it a shot.