“Natural Movement” versus “Moving Naturally”

by / Sunday, 08 May 2016 / Published in Feldenkrais Practitioners, Movement Health, Somatic Futures

In response to our modern lifestyle, with all the conveniences that “save us time and energy,” and  destroy our collective health, there are a growing number of “natural” or “primal” based fitness methods sprouting up all over the fitness landscape. From my perspective as a Feldenkrais practitioner, this is a welcome and long overdue development. These functional based movement systems or methods are including more complex and rich opportunities to move and learn. They are bucking the long time trend of imposing mechanistic and Cartesian reason to how we, in the western culture often move and think. 

Or are they?

Just because an exercise program uses more natural and complex movement patterns doesn’t necessarily mean that its followers are moving more naturally. One of the biggest arguments that natural movement methods use is that how we evolved as a species and how our children develop are very different processes than the way we generally train in the gym. Quite often, the gym model of fitness breaks us down into parts and muscles to be trained individually in order to achieve a certain look or “shape,” resulting in not only less efficient movement overall, but in some cases, injury from overuse and repetitive movements. In an effort to awaken and train more natural, complex and effective movement patterns, natural movement systems will include movements like balancing, lifting odd shaped or awkward objects, climbing and jumping onto or over obstacles. Sounds great!

Here’s the catch

Applying the “set/rep mentality” to “natural movements” does not necessarily lead you to “move naturally.”

The set/rep mentality is the idea that in order to get stronger, you must create ever increasing demands on the body so that it will adapt and grow more muscle mass. I’m over simplifying for the sake of brevity but the logic is, you lift a given weight until you can do that reliably a certain number of times and then you either add weight, another set and/or increase the number of repetitions, you’re getting stronger. The value of this method is to incrementally increase challenge so that the person will grow stronger. Progress is measurable, easily tracked and can be very effective if done well.

But that’s not how infants develop. Infants learn to crawl and walk because they want to be able to get from here to there in order to put things in their mouths and/or be closer to their parents/caregivers (this is also a gross oversimplification). No baby develops by performing ten repetitions of head lifts one day and twelve the next day. They lift their head to see, look for food and/or mother/father. Once a baby is able to roll up to sit, they don’t say to themselves, “Now I’m going to do that fifteen times so that my 6-pack will have better definition.” Once they’ve rolled up, they go onto something else. Of course, that rolling will be repeated many times but will always be connected with a purpose. And equally important, the baby’s movements are exploratory, purpose driven and connected to/influenced by the environment. For a nice post on this subject by Todd Hargrove, click here.

As with or ancestors, I can’t imagine that if a cave person was moving rocks in order to build a shelter, she/he would say, “start with that rock and put it up and down ten times for 3 sets and then after a rest day (to recover and let your muscles grow) you’ll lift that same rock 12 times per set.” No, my guess is that once one rock was in place they took the next rock, which was of a different weight and shape and needed to be placed (safely, I might add) in a different place, necessitating variation and adaptation. Once the wall was finished, there were other tasks to do, perhaps collecting firewood, going hunting or finding a mate with whom to share the shelter.

“Natural movement” versus “moving naturally”

Repeating “natural movements” doesn’t necessarily equate to moving naturally.

If we want to embrace, mimic and utilize our natural and ancestral wisdom for our best development, why would we then apply the gym model to our training? I’ll use jumping as an example. Let’s say you go to a newly opened natural fitness gym and your trainer says jumping is on your workout plan. After all, jumping is a natural movement and good for developing explosive strength. So you take out one of those nice wooden boxes with grippy material on the landing surface and jump up ten times. Then you rest and do it again for ten times. The third time, you only get 8 but that’s ok because you’ll come back a day after next and repeat the same workout.

But what have you really done? You’ve practiced jumping the same height and onto the same surface 28 times. You did some nice conditioning but very little skill/proprioceptive development. You also might not have noticed that your landings were quite heavy because the rubber padding dampened the impact. On the weekend, you go for a hike, see a rock and think, “I’ll jump up onto that.” But it doesn’t go so well because the rock is not flat and level, and the launching surface is covered with dried leaves so it’s slippery. Oh, and your left heel hurts because there was a pebble right on the same spot where your left heel landed, too heavily.

This example is to say that just because you are doing “natural movements” doesn’t mean you are moving naturally. It can be very useful to mindfully practice moving naturally in a safe and controlled environment like a gym. It’s also necessary to practice and hone certain movements so they become more accessible and reliable. However, when learning and refining a skill, it’s important to add safe and meaningful variation. There are a number of research studies showing that adding variety, and practicing a skill under different conditions increases learning effectiveness and retention.

A human made environment will never come close to the beauty and complexity of nature but it’s possible to use a gym or park to develop better movement skills. It’s also possible to reduce complexity and danger in a controlled environment in a manner that may not be possible in nature. But be careful not to succumb to the mindless repeating of sets and reps, thinking that you’re practicing moving naturally. As we also know, you get what you practice, so if you practice mindlessly, you get better at being mindless.

In the next post, I’ll suggest some strategies for making “natural movements” more useful, interesting and most importantly, more human. Until then, I hope the spring weather will inspire you to get out and explore a bit.

A very special thank you to Edward Yu, author of “The Art of Slowing Down” and “The Mass Psychology of Fittism,” which goes much deeper into this subject and I recommend reading for an in depth look into the madness of the fitness industry. Our conversations and his book helped me get clearer on this topic so I could finally write about it.

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