Transitions – Effective vs. Efficient


Transitions – Effective vs. Efficient

Jenn Pilotti

In the movement disciplines, it’s easy to get hung up on specific aspects of a skill. What does the finished product look like? How does the person begin? What does the posture look like at the end? It’s as though the middle part takes care of itself, assuming the rest of the pieces are in place.

Often, this is the case, especially when the degrees of freedom are low. Degrees of freedom, remember, are how many options a joint has to move. When there is an external force acting upon the joint, like load, the degrees of freedom a joint has is significantly reduced.

For instance, take a relatively simple movement like folding forward to touch the floor and standing back up. Think of all of the ways you can perform this particular skill. You can bend your knees, you can keep them straight, you can stagger your feet, you can take a wide stance or a narrow one… All of these options will change how you fold forward.

What if you are asked to pick up one hundred pounds? Would you have as many options?

No. You would search for the most efficient way to move the weight from the ground to your waist, which would likely involve bending your knees, keeping your arms in close to your body, and not keeping your feet too narrow. The load will change how many options your hip joint has to hinge forward and come back up- the options that happen during the transition are limited because of the weight.  

Contrast this with the person folding forward and standing up without load. Her transition options are plentiful. Her spine can arch, round, or stay straight. She may even shift her weight over one leg as she comes up or down, playing with what happens in the middle of the movement. Her options are plentiful because her degrees of freedom are high- she has nothing weighing her down.

I read in one of the many motor control textbooks I perused in the last two years that “posture is the transition between movements.” Think about this for a second, and think of how you generally view posture. If you’re like me, typically you think of posture as the resting point. Like I mentioned in the first paragraph, coaches look at the beginning and the end, but if posture is the transition between the two places, shouldn’t we pay special attention to what happens during the intermediary space?

Another way to think of this is posture is the ability to move from point A to point B efficiently and effectively. It is not efficient if it requires a lot of extra moving parts. And efficient doesn’t always mean easy. Often, when a person begins exploring efficiency, it feels like a lot of work because it differs so much from his traditional habit.

Take the 75 year old that hasn’t worked out in thirty years. When she is first asked to get out of a chair without the use of her hands, it’s not pretty, There is a bit of lurching that occurs to use momentum to shift the weight into the feet. The jaw clenches and the shoulders move up, as though the upward movement of the shoulders will somehow translate into upward movement of the entire body. She holds her breath and looks down. Her knees collapse inward and she flops back down on to the chair after standing up. But, the effort level isn’t terribly high because this is her normal strategy.

When she is cued to press her feet strongly into the ground, keep her jaw and shoulders soft, and breathe, the sensation of work increases. She feels her quadriceps and her abs, and she can only do a few before she has to stop. While this strategy is technically more efficient, in the current moment it feels like a lot of extra work. Over time, of course, the sensation of work will decrease significantly, leaving her with an efficient way to get out of a chair.

If we took the same person and handed her an object, such as a medicine ball or kettlebell, it’s possible her strategy would have improved without saying a word simply because she had to deal with an external load. Her degrees of freedom would decrease, and limiting her options in this case might be a beneficial way to teach her how to feel different ways of doing the movement.

What about effectiveness? How do you tell if it’s effective? Simple- if he got to where he wanted to go, his transition strategy was effective. In the example of the 75 year old client above, her strategy to get up without any hands worked- she was able to stand up, even though it wasn’t necessarily efficient.

Transitions are something we do multiple times a day. We get up from bed to standing, we transition from seated to standing, and we (hopefully), interact with the floor periodically, which requires removing ourselves from the floor as well. How we do these things is not only a reflection on our general movement quality, it’s a reflection on how well we interact with gravity. And gravity, as most of us have experienced at some point in our lives, isn’t always our friend.

A huge part of being able to transition easily is a) flexible hips b) a supportive and responsive spine and c) basic strength and coordination. Transition training (made up term), can gently coax more flexible hips, a more responsive spine, and more strength and coordination without looking like traditional stretching or strength training. It’s a great way to “trick” someone into working on mobility without actually calling it that.

This also means if you are training a client and you don’t have much equipment available, you can work solely on transitioning and end up with a fairly comprehensive workout. The beauty of transitioning is there are infinite possibilities; the only limitation in options is your creativity.

From a visual perspective, an efficient transition will look fairly effortless, with load being dispersed throughout the system. An aspect to exploring transitions is to accept that there will be failure- you may not always end up in the state that you were hoping, or you might try something that looks a little sloppy. That’s okay. Learn from it, and see if you can apply a slightly different strategy to improve your strategy for next time. And don’t forget to breathe.

Below are different ways to explore transitions. Think about what makes it efficient (and note that I am not always performing it in the most efficient way possible). What needs to respond in order for the movement to take place? Can you find any sticking points in the middle? Where can you pause that might be mildly uncomfortable but might reveal something about how you are performing the movement?


A Christmas transition challenge (aka “The Obstacle is the Dog”). To perform: 1) blindfold yourself and ask Alexa to play “bad at love,” (or maybe something a little less angst-y and more merry, like “Ukrainian Bell Carol”) 2) goal: go from your back to seated as many ways as possible for the duration of the song. 3) fun fact: to change positions from supine requires head and neck movement, which are influenced by the eyes. Often people hold their head and neck rigid when rolling around on the floor. Removing the sensory input from the eyes sometimes triggers more movement and suppleness in the spine making it easier to transition. 4) mildly neurotic dog that wants his ball thrown is optional. Have a very Merry Christmas!!!

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Using transition training in your work with clients can improve coordination, strength, and mobility. It improves people’s relationship to the floor and to gravity reducing the fear associated with ending up on the ground. Remember when cueing these types of movements that it’s okay if they aren’t pretty at first and offer suggestions that improve overall movement integration. Encourage people to explore unfamiliar movements in an environment that fosters safety and trust to open doors that were previously closed.

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