Harder, stronger, faster. Lifting more weight, doing more work. The language we use to describe athletic development is typically performance oriented and used to refer to competency within a specific discipline. What concepts can we use to think about and steer the development of movement and strength in a more nuanced way?
Movement Vocabulary and the Map of Available Movement
At any given time we have a certain range of individual positions and patterns of movements available to us, our movement vocabulary. Taking these together, the full extent of movement we are capable of exploring can be viewed as a map of available movement.
The map is not a fixed, immutable region, but a territory that expands or contracts following the learning curve and type of our training and also the conditions under which our movement vocabulary is applied.
We may temporarily lose areas of accessible movement due to injury, or simply a lack of practice. Parts of the map become effectively greyed out, awaiting a return to full health or a few sessions with which to reacquaint ourselves with previously familiar skills.
The nature of our map of available movement is determined by our physical competencies, in particular flexibility, mobility and strength.
Flexibility – defining the boundaries
Our passive range of motion, our flexibility, defines the total region within which movement could potentially take place. It therefore defines the edges or boundaries of our map. Without the requisite flexibility movement outside of our existing range is simply not possible. Although it defines limits of the map, flexibility alone does not equate to movement ability. It needs to be applied to be of any practical use.
Mobility – unlocking the territory
Our mobility subsequently determines to what extent we can actively choose to move, or control movement within the region described by our base level of flexibility. Access to strength within the range of motion is therefore the limiting factor in terms of applying movement in a useful fashion, and with any sort of intent. Mobility requires a horizon of strength.
Strength – developed as a horizon
If flexibility and mobility determine the basic extent of our movement vocabulary then strength limits our ability to actually apply it. There are two useful and straightforward conceptual distinctions of strength; simple strength and sophisticated strength. Together these describe how strong we are and in what ways we can apply that strength, in other words our horizon of strength.
Simple Strength – deepening the horizon
Simple strength refers to our level of basic strength in the basic, fundamental positions and movement patterns. It determines how robust our capability is in terms of crude tasks where we are not constrained by movement skill as a limiting factor. Generally speaking we can categorize all of the traditional, slow body weight and weightlifting movements such as chin-ups, presses and squats and dead lifts into this category.
Taking the squat as an example, a deeper horizon of strength ensures that the movement pattern remains accessible under load. A weak trainee may be able to access this pattern successfully only without any additional loading. Under the increasing weight of a barbell however, the accessibility of the squat will begin to diminish, exceeding the threshold of strength, so that only half or quarter squats become possible. This will continue right up until the squat pattern diminishes entirely, at a load so heavy that only standing, without any movement, can be maintained.
Alternatively, a strong trainee will be able apply their squat more effectively, across a wider range of loads. The same area of map, the squat pattern, is available to both the weaker and stronger trainee, however the latter enjoys a horizon of strength that runs deeper and as a result is more robust.
This conceptual understanding of strength, as applied to potential movement ability, starkly highlights the shortcomings of merely developing range of movement by itself, without the accompanying strength needed to use it. In practice each part of the movement vocabulary has a corresponding depth to it’s horizon of strength.
Read also: Back Squats – Are They Necessary?
Sophisticated Strength – thickening the horizon
Most training methods focus on developing simple strength, getting stronger and building capacity. This will improve competency at tasks and performance challenges requiring crude strength. However, in more complex and sophisticated movement tasks, skill becomes a limiting factor in the ability to express strength. Taking someone outside of their skill level renders much of their basic strength inaccessible. For instance, how many people comfortable military pressing substantially more than their bodyweight can translate this into a successful press from headstand to handstand? This ability to express our base level of strength in increasingly complex ways is described by sophisticated strength.
Sophisticated strength recognizes that simple strength in only half of the equation. If our strength horizon is deeper where we have more simple strength, then it becomes thicker where this strength remains accessible despite increasing degrees of sophistication.
Lateral Expansion of the Movement Vocabulary
Continuing with the squat example, how many of us can retain a decent level of base strength across all the variations of this movement pattern, as they ascend in complexity? Keeping the essential pattern the same, can we express a consistent level of strength across not only back squats but front, Zercher, and overhead squats? How about during uni-lateral work? What happens if the load is uneven, or we’re not even squatting a barbell?
Assuming they weigh less than your 1RM in the gym, can you squat your partner? How about a friend, who’s drunk? Could you do this on a boat, or blindfolded? Or both (please don’t)? The challenge of sophistication reveals the limits of how we can deploy strength skilfully.
These examples require a far broader scope of ability and are more sophisticated by virtue of demanding a thicker horizon of strength around their respective fundamental movement patterns. Exploring our horizon of strength laterally reveals how versatile each specific component of our movement vocabulary is. A thicker horizon of strength allows us to do more with the same amount of base strength and accessible movement.
Personally speaking, I enjoy the pursuit of sophistication as a worthwhile end in itself and one that yields far more intrinsic satisfaction than only seeking gross improvements in fitness capacity. I’d go further and suggest that this is in fact a universal drive shared by everyone, waiting to be tapped into where we are divorced from skillful and creative ways of moving.
Movement Fluency – resolution and integration
Given two people with identical physical capabilities, it follows that they will have access to the same skill-set, the same map. If one can perform backwards rolls, handstands and cartwheels, so can the other. But in application and execution they may exhibit a remarkable difference in movement fluency. Performing these three three skills separately is relatively simple. Integrating them into a seamless sequence of effortless, flowing movements, across the full range of tempos is something altogether different.
Tempo as Map Resolution
Movements demand a condition of time. Each skill within our movement vocabulary will be naturally be expressed at a particular tempo. A backflip could be performed slower of faster than the regular, natural tempo of the skill. So more precisely both of our trainees have access not just to the same skill-set, but to the same skill-set and accompanying tempos for each movement.
If one trainee is later able to perform back-handsprings across the full range of tempos, then although having the same movement vocabulary, they can be said to have a higher resolution map for this skill. They have access to a richer expression of movement.
The three tempos, crudely normal, faster and slower typically have a hierarchy or complexity. Skills performed at faster tempos usually allow poorer quality in their execution, as speed begins to gloss over poor technique. Slower tempo movement typically requires a higher degree of competency because it reveals weaknesses in fundamental positions and pattern and draws out energy leaks previously hidden by speed. Slow, rich movement is one hallmark of mastery we all recognize.
Integrating the Territory
The extent to which we can we piece together the separate components of our movement vocabulary determines how coherent our movement is in action, our level of integration.
Where can we go from the bottom of a body weight only squat? Up, down. Perhaps switch to pistol? Can we transition into a static freeze or cartwheel out even? Move from A-to-B and into C. How can many routes can you create into a handstand? Forwards only? Maybe even by jumping backwards*? Lose A, skip B and link C into G?
Is our map comprised of a series of scattered islands or a single unified territory? Is it Indonesia or Russia?
A larger movement vocabulary generally acts as a buffer against injury as the body is able to accommodate unforeseen and extreme movements outside of the expected range.
Similarly, in the event of an injury, a thicker horizon of strength and better integrated map with provide alternative pathways through the movement vocabulary to a desired skill, otherwise rendered inaccessible. Where parts of the map seem to be greyed out due an injury a different route can be sought to the same area by moving laterally into the horizon of strength.
In my experience a recovering wrist injury may prevent back squats, but the squat pattern can perhaps be reached using the body-builder style front squat position or even Zercher squats. Regular two-handed deadlifts could be substituted with single-handed lifts using the uninjured limb. In these examples moving sideways into the horizon of strength allows access to the desired movement pattern.
Applications of the Model
By acknowledging the two inter-related concepts of the map of available movement and the horizon of strength we can easily interrogate our training at more general level. What precisely are we aiming to develop? Are we trying to deepen strength within the limits of previously established territory; such as in power lifting or Olympic-lifting? Or do we need to conquer new territory by attaining a full squat to begin with.
Less rigidly defined activities such as Strongman events or freestyle gymnastics may require expanding the map in addition to both a deeper and thicker horizon of strength Training in two disciplines that ask different questions of the same vocabulary may reveal where they conflict, even if they appear similar at a superficial level. Gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting both require a high level of relative and explosive strength in addition to superior flexibility and co-ordination yet the horizon of strength in the shoulders, for even only a recreational gymnast, needs to be much wider than that off the weightlifter. Additional range beyond that required to access the correct overhead position in the receiving phases of the Snatch and the Jerk will make it harder to control a heavy weight ripped from the ground and thrown overhead.
For the purposes of maximum efficiency using a sprung floor, gymnastics develops an ability to generate and express power heavily biased towards linear planes of movement. Whereas, Capoiera typically eschews straight lines and employs a more organic geometry. Both are valid yet ask different questions of and develop the map in fundamentally different ways.
Even within the same discipline, as our training age increases it is likely that we will shift training from initially expanding the territory of the map, when learning the basic moves as a beginner, to later concentrating on deepening the horizon of strength as we focus on improving specific skills. Lifting more weight, jumping higher, running faster for instance.
At subsequent stages, the focus may return once again to thickening the horizon of strength in order maintain longevity or approach a new movement discipline.
Creativity – exploration and improvisation
Systematized and formal ways of moving inevitably emphasize a certain bias in our vocabulary of movement. Training in a specific discipline, sport, following a pre-defined system such as CrossFit or MovNat or even engaging in a generalized style such as primal movement or bar-athlete street workouts typically develop the map in a particular way. Even the arguably more complex disciplines that develop complex sequences of movement such as gymnastics and capoeira, will tend to focus on specific types of movement.
Weightlifters move primarily in the sagittal plane. Gymnasts move in mainly linear domains and prioritize body weight conditioning.Most bar athlete workouts are heavily biased towards upper body pulling movements. CrossFit gyms typically ignore slower, more creative movement modalities. MovNat tends to avoid ‘unnatural’ progressively weighted movements such as barbell and dumbbell work.
It is a reasonable assumption that we could take two average trainees from any one of these disciplines and expect them to share large areas of common territory on their maps of available movement. Equally they are likely to share the same blank areas of unexplored territory where movement competency is lacking.
Understanding how our training and practice develops our map of available movement and horizon of strength gives us a clearer picture of our strengths and weakness, the relevance of our training and in what direction it is taking us.
Creative ways of moving can be developed though simply slowing down and exploring movements. Slow, mindful movement, a kind of introspective movement research of sorts, can reveal previously unsought of possibilities and to expand existing movements and approach completely novel ones. Casting aside labels and fixed skills and simply experimenting will result in dead-ends but also illuminate new, surprising routes into creative expression.
Physical improvisation drills also have the potential to be valuable tools to develop more creative and sophisticated movement. A high level of ability expressed freely, without inhibition is one of the common hallmarks of any exceptional athletic performance. Being in the a zone, transcending deliberate, thought driven action.
By providing just enough of a framework to structure the direction of movement research improvisation drills can prove fruitful. Movement created improvised partner work develops sophistication by blurring the leading/following dynamic that underpins almost all of our interactions, not just movement related. As a result the outcome is a movement vocabulary is unpredictable, maybe even unrepeatable but iterated and sophisticated to a different degree than that formalized ways of moving.
Dance, in many ways a series of more structured improvisation, is obviously rich which creative ways of moving. The topic far exceeds the scope of this article the options are out there and ready to be re-interpreted however we want.
At heart, I have articulated Physical Origami to accommodate exactly this – a philosophical framework that accommodates a uniquely personal quest into physical culture. By definition it is at at once personal, in that it is ours to design and evolve individually, and also universal, in that it can be built with any type of athletic activity.
From Theory to Practice
Physical Origami is not a free for all. Yes, anything goes, but there’s a caveat. The output is only as good as the input. The degree of quality in expression and the validity of the rationale underpinning the movement approach, reveals everything we need to know about its worth.
Developing our movement vocabulary, increasing the territory of the map of available movement. Sharpening the resolution. Thickening or deepening the horizon of strength. Navigating around injury. We can talk in a meaningful way about developing movement and strength, both in terms of specific techniques and skills but also general disciplines and training approaches. About the similarities and differences, the strengths and shortcomings. Where the map is made robust and where it is becoming fragile. About how we might want to explore and refine our movement competency in a principled fashion.
Regardless of where we choose to take it, developing the map of available movement is a common practice that binds all of us.