One of my favorite post-rehabilitative exercises is vaulting. Yes, you read that right, as in figuring out ways to navigate objects that are off the ground. Or, more accurately, the steps towards tripod vaulting or the butt roll vault or any other variation that involves weight bearing on a hand while navigating an obstacle with the torso and legs.
Now, it’s true that most of the shapes made while vaulting can be made on the floor. It’s also true that most people won’t feel the need to use a tripod vault to deal with a tree that has fallen down or to jump a fence because a) the obvious solution to a downed tree is to go around it b) if a fence is prohibiting you from accessing a specific place, the fence is probably there for a reason and the legality of jumping the fence is probably questionable and c) unless you practice vaulting, you don’t realize it’s even an option to vault over the tree or over the prohibitive fence. Learning to trust the limbs to coordinate and support you while you manipulate your body over objects has benefits that extend beyond accessing questionable locations and can improve proprioception, strength, and mobility in joint positions that aren’t often used in most people’s daily lives.
The Benefits of Novelty and Variability:
Let’s start with the most obvious reason to learn how to navigate over objects: it’s interesting. One of the best ways to get someone into their body is by giving them an activity that requires focus. There is a meditation technique that easily transition into the movement world called focused attention, which at its most basic level means paying attention to what you are doing.
When you teach someone a skill where there is a manageable challenge (if hands aren’t planted just so or you don’t lift your leg high enough to clear the obstacle, you may fall), they pay attention to the task at hand instead of their phone or the never-ending script in their heads. This external focus of attention may contribute to positive performance states, such as the state of flow. Additionally, external focus of attention during the performance of motor tasks, like vaulting, may lead to more efficient and effective movements than focusing on the body movements themselves. I find it much easier to teach the coordination of flexion, abduction, and external rotation of the hip using a vaulting preparation task like the first one demonstrated in the video below than isolating out each individual piece. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for isolating movements. There is, and I teach that, too, it’s just that the task based work is often more mentally stimulating and frequently accomplishes the same results in a shorter amount of time.
Because vaulting can be done over a variety of objects, at differing heights, the movement pattern is challenged in a variable way, creating a novel experience for the nervous system every single time the student performs the skill. The brain thrives on novelty, and researchers speculate exploring novel options is an essential aspect to our ability to make adaptive decisions. Novelty is intrinsically motivating, which leads to exploration. When someone becomes interested or curious in a movement or skill, they are more likely to practice the movement or skill outside of the gym, resulting in faster skill acquisition and more opportunities for unstructured physical activity, which is good for health and well-being. The movement of vaulting, then, never feels rote, and the movement pattern isn’t ever performed in exactly the same way. This is a rewarding experience for the central nervous system, and results in associating a movement skill with a positive experience.
These slight movement variations are also good for proprioception and joint health. Joint position sense, an aspect of proprioception, is reliant on several factors, including the forces that are acting upon the joint (i.e., muscular tension), and how a joint is regularly used.
When joints are used in positions that are slightly varied to meet the demands of the task, this translates to varied amounts of force and muscular tension through the limbs that are resisting gravity. In the case of vaulting, that is largely the upper extremity. Put more simply, the act of vaulting on different objects leads to more strength and mobility in the shoulder joint, as well as more accurate joint position sense.
Researchers suggest elite soccer players allocate less energy processing proprioceptive information regarding the movements required to dribble and pass the ball because they have spent so much time practicing and refining their skills that the neural circuits devoted to ankle proprioception are well developed. Because these circuits are fast and efficient, players can devote more attention to locating team mates and monitoring opponents. Honing proprioception in a complex movement task will likely translate to the ability to use the joint in more varied ways in every day life—the more confident you are in your body’s ability to support you, the more likely you are to use your body on a daily basis.
Enriched Environments and Anxiety:
Creating task based obstacles and giving people movement puzzles that require thought may also be good for emotional well-being. Animal studies consistently show enriched environments improve working memory and decrease the effects of chronic stress on anxiety behavior.
While humans are obviously different than rats, a compelling case study utilized an enriched environment on a war torture survivor as an intervention for PTSD. Modified sports, dance, games, restorative movement (such as breath work), and movement tasks were all used to emphasize training, learning, and experiencing. The subject reported positive affective states associated with the training, including feelings of mastery and accomplishment, and focused attention on playing. He also reported having fewer depressive moods, being more active, and feeling more motivated to live, suggesting an environment that emphasized movement and learning had a positive impact on his overall mental state.
A recent study performed by Faro et.al, found that when compared to traditional resistance training, functional resistance training led to higher acute positive psychological states, higher levels of enjoyment, and more energy expended (). While the study was small (34 subjects), hopefully more research will be done to explore whether strength based movements that are done in an environmentally interesting context positively impact psychological well-being.
This small study is consistent with what I have observed with clients: people who are scared to lift a 35 pound kettlebell off the floor repetitiously have no problem walking a 45 pound plate back to the rack to help me put things away, or moving a medicine ball from one side of the room to the other while avoiding obstacles. In fact, it takes on a different meaning and becomes interesting in a way that traditional strength based work sometimes isn’t. People get interested when there is a purpose and end up doing more even though it feels like they are working less.
Incorporating vaulting into a movement practice:
“This is all fine and dandy,” you may be thinking, “but how can vaulting be incorporated into a physical practice?” When you are pondering where to place a specific skill, like vaulting, there are there main factors to take into account:
What mobility is required to do the skill?
What stability is required to do the skill?
How exhausting is the skill?
The progressions to the tripod vault I demonstrate in the video require hip flexion, abduction, and external rotation, wrist extension, and straight arm pressing strength. Ideally, unless you are working with a client who moves around all day, tripod vaulting would be placed after mobility work for the hips and wrists.
The stability required to perform the tripod vault are shoulder stability/integration between the hand and the shoulder and the ability to control the pelvis when the leg moves into hip flexion/abduction/external rotation. As a result, tripod vaulting should be taught after shoulder and hip/pelvis pre-requisites have been established. If I am planning on having the client perform variations of a tripod vault in the day’s practice, I will incorporate loading of the shoulder in different positions, cueing hand to shoulder integration, and moving the femur independently of the pelvis in the warm-up. I find particularly with the first progression demonstrated in the video that people naturally orient the pelvis towards the obstacle they are lifting their leg on to, limiting pelvis rotation and excessive hiking, making it great for active hip mobility work
Unless you are performing the skill at a high speed or as part of a circuit, this particular skill isn’t overly taxing, which means performing it early or towards the middle of the practice won’t exhaust the client. This skill does require focus and coordination, so performing it after a taxing physical task may result in neuromuscular fatigue/difficulty focusing and coordinating the arm and the leg. Set and rep schemes vary based on how you are integrating the movement into the practice, but for teaching purposes, I often begin with 4-6 repetitions per side for two to three sets as part of a three exercise circuit (which is frequently how I set up sessions), but there are no hard and fast rules. Just remember that if you want to teach a skill, repeated exposure to the task grooves the motor pattern and moves the student from the cognitive stage to the associative phase of learning more quickly.
Any movement can be corrective if it’s taught thoughtfully and with the appropriate progressions. Skills that look advanced can often be useful for almost anyone if they are broken down into manageable pieces and cued in a thoughtful way. Incorporating the environment into movement focuses attention, stimulates curiosity, and makes the physical practice feel less like work and more like play. Gaining strength and mobility doesn’t necessarily have to be miserable to be effective; introducing skills like vaulting can be a fun way to enhance strength and mobility, all while improving proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. Plus, it makes people feel empowered when they realize they have moved their body in a way that they haven’t in years, and who doesn’t like feeling empowered?