Anatomy of a Movement Practice

Anatomy of a Movement Practice

Jenn Pilotti


I was recently contacted by a concierge service to train an out of town visitor. I thought about it before calling her back, since it meant I wouldn’t have any days off from training and I had things I needed to do, like format the book/film/complete online training for my government job, but since my week had been slower than normal and training is more interesting than formatting/filming/clicking through online trainings, I called back and said yes, I would do it.

It’s been a long time (i.e. years) since I have worked with someone who wasn’t a direct referral with some idea of what I do. I wasn’t even sure I knew how to deliver a standard, run of the mill personal training session any more.

It turns out, I don’t. It also turned out it didn’t matter—I provided an experience that differed from the client’s regular, periodized program. “I feel like I just did something really good for myself that I don’t do in my every day life, so thank you,” he said, halfway through our workout the second day.

As I drove home after our last session, I found myself reflecting on what, actually, makes a good movement practice? What do people require to say, “this feels really good,” or “I feel really good?”

The Value of Awareness and Joint Mobility:

There are a lot of things I do that I take for granted. I assume every personal trainer/movement professional is consistent with cueing and takes into account the reference points of the body. I also assume every personal trainer/movement professional watches someone move and identifies the blind spots, the joint ranges that are ignored, impairing body schema and proprioception. When joints are healthy, placing people in positions that tap into these blind spots provides afferent feedback to the central nervous system, waking the brain—and the body—up. This awakening leads to a recognition of a more complete physical body and feels satisfying.

Awareness is created positionally and through afferent feedback. This can be done in either an open chain or closed chain manner, dependent on the client and whether they have any restrictions. Awareness and joint mobility can be an entire session or a small piece, depending on the client’s needs. Eventually, awareness can be sprinkled throughout the session with effective cueing and joint mobility can be used as a warm-up, a cool-down, or as a way to rest between exercises. My sessions never look the same, and classes and workshops don’t look like my client sessions. The components are important, but how they are mixed together depends on the teacher, the environment, and the context. Awareness can also be used to teach connections, which generally enhance more complex movements and can be used as a neuromuscular warm-up before a specific skill, establishing integration and motor control.

Strength and Conditioning:

Everyone benefits from strength. Basic strength, which doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective, decreases anxiety, improves feelings of stability (), and can reduce symptoms related to chronic pain (which is correlated with anxiety and depression. Funny how that all works together). We are designed to lift heavy things occasionally, but daily, modern life doesn’t require that from us very often; the solution, then, is sets and reps with iron (or bodyweight, or some other form of outside resistance), in a gym.

Here’s the thing with strength and conditioning: as long as resistance/load/time under tension is added gradually, people will get stronger. The keys to effective strength and conditioning programming in the absence of specific goals are:

  • Use compound movements

  • Develop pushing and pulling strength

  • Lunge/squat/hinge/carry

  • Perform movements slowly

  • Performing movements quickly

  • Consistency

It doesn’t really need to be more complicated than that if you have a balanced movement practice.

Some people love strength and conditioning work. They begin salivating at the idea of kettlebells and barbells, and the thought of adding plates makes them gleeful. I am not that person. That isn’t to say I don’t like feeling strong or watching my clients get strong (I do), and it’s not that I don’t like weightlifting; deadlifts make me happy, and I love a good pull-up (or four). But given the option between iron and bodyweight, left to my own devices I will choose bodyweight.

However, the benefits of thoughtfully placed external load really can’t be ignored and regular conditioning plays an important role in a well-rounded movement practice. The external load used doesn’t have to be in the form of iron and steel if that isn’t your thing; some of the strongest people I know lift other people on a regular basis and since other humans are heavy, they provide enough load to elicit strength and stability.

Play, skill, and adaptable movement:

Being able to adapt and interact with the physical world makes life more playful. People who find the world interesting are engaged with the world around them and are more willing to explore. The physical world is not predictable or uniform; as a result, if the goal of a movement practice is to enhance a person’s life, the practice should contain elements of adaptable, fluid movement that’s not predetermined. Introducing an element of play or skill training into the movement practice is a way to nurture adaptability and responsiveness.

Play and skill work both require focused attention. They differ in that learning a skill requires specific sets to attain the skill; however, good teachers use drills that examine the same skill many ways, approaching it in a less linear manner.

Play, of course, isn’t linear. Unlike skill training, play doesn’t have a specific outcome. It’s an opportunity to explore a task with a set of constraints and see what happens. It’s like creating your own game or movement puzzle.

Both play and skill training turn movement into something more than work. It changes a person’s relationship with their body as they begin to realize what they are capable of doing with the right intention. The types of play and skill training used depend on the person’s interests—a person who dislikes ball skills probably won’t enjoy a movement session centered around throwing games. However, that same person may enjoy balance activities and may find obstacle courses and balance challenges interesting.

Restorative movement and floor work:

Restorative movement and floor work are opportunities to slow things down. It becomes less about work and effort and more about ease and softness. Restorative movement can be introduced simply as breath work or gentle, somatic based movements that are performed slowly and attentively. Restorative movement is a wonderful opportunity to practice open monitoring, the act of observing without judging, as people connect to how their physical body responds to various positions and/or movements.

Floor work can be used in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this article, let’s think of floor work as a way to learn how to respond to the floor. This responsiveness down-regulates the nervous system, increases kinesthetic awareness, and acts like a self massage, applying pressure to the skin as you move over it. Tools like foam rollers have an analgesic effect, so if you place pressure on your left anterior thigh with either a foam roller or the floor and you notice sensitivity, the sensitivity throughout the body decreases. For people who tend towards less flexibility, this decreased sensitivity temporarily increases mobility. Floor work is also a time for inquiry, where people can ask, “what happens if…” The floor teaches softness as people learn how to adapt to the pressure the floor applies. It teaches people how to gently transition from various positions, moving from supine to prone, from prone to seated, or from seated to supine.

Self reflection:
The final aspect to a movement practice is self reflection. This can be interspersed throughout a movement practice (how did it feel when you used your foot? Was it different to press your right hand into the ground? How can you make it over the obstacle in a more fluid way? What can you do differently when you transfer weight into your hands?)

It can also be performed at the end of the practice, allowing the practitioner to reflect on the experience. Self reflection is a component of learning, a way to establish what worked and what didn’t. It also gives people an opportunity to observe the impact the practice has on the self as a whole, making the practice about more than just a physical act of doing.

These elements don’t have to be separate. They can blend together, since skill work can certainly be strengthening, strengthening work can mobilize joints (so can game play and floor work), awareness can be used during strength work or restorative work, and self reflection can be practiced during the warm-up, after an exercise, or after the practice has concluded. But it is these components that begin to make exercise more mindful and less about simply doing to do.

On the second day of working with the client who sparked this article, I purposely had him do a wrist mobility drill and shoulder band drill during the warm-up that I knew would provide interesting feedback for him. “Oh my God,” he said. “Where has this been all of my life?”

Later, during a weighted clubbell exercise that is performed in a circular manner, he said, “this feels really good. Hard, like I’m doing something, but really good on my back.”

At the end of the session, after he had carried heavy things, practiced getting up from the ground, rolled, performed plank-ups, and a myriad of other exercises and drills, I had him lie down on a foam roller length-wise. I cued the breath, brought awareness to his middle back, and watched as his entire system relaxed. I was reminded in that moment that I don’t have to try to be a traditional personal training session. I believe in movement as a vehicle for learning, and I think it can be taught in a way that is more than periodized strength and mobility.

Getting people strong isn’t actually hard. Neither is getting people more flexible. Both of these aspects of physical function are important and there are many people out there who teach this part of fitness better than I do. But the other parts, the part where the person becomes more interested in their body and how they move, the part where the person feels the connections between different parts of the body and the sensation of work in new places, the part where the person feels like they have just had a massage, except no one has touched them, those are the parts I am interested in. Those are the parts that begin to chip away at the centuries old idea that the mind and the body are separate and that the body is fragile, incapable of healing or not worthy of being celebrated for what it can do. Once this shift begins to happen, it seeps into other parts of a person’s life, from their nutrition, to their sleep, to their emotional responsiveness to the world—and the people—around them.

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