Making it Look Easy – Functional Movement for Endurance Sports
It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
-Aldous Huxley, Island
They say it takes zero muscles and energy to just sit there with no expression in your face while it requires tens if not hundreds of contractions to show any emotion or even a basic facial expression. Whoever they are, in this case they are spot on.
I can still remember a rowing coach yelling at me that I should be trying harder. Ok, let me rephrase, it LOOKED like I was too comfortable, so I must have been taking it easy – you know I didn’t have the grimace of intense torture that tells the whole world that you eat pain for breakfast, lunch and dinner with an extra side of suffering. I also had a nagging suspicion that was the main reason I got a negative review at a job (that I subsequently had to voluntarily ‘resign’ from) because I looked too comfortable and didn’t complain like the rest of my coworkers, so I must have been grossly inefficient and slacking. While my personal experiences are just that – experiences, I suspect you share them to a degree. Nowadays whether it is a professional setting, or a weekly training session or even a favorite past time hobby, it is highly accepted, even required to show the intense effort of whatever it is you are doing, lack of stress is for slackers! Yet when we look at any great athlete, craftsmen, etc they are a pleasure to watch in their controlled almost nonchalant movements, while obtaining great results. That raises the important question:
Why should you have to work hard, if you can do better with less effort?
This is the first out of a 4 part series focusing on details and fundamentals on how to (re)learn to move easy, it is not aimed only towards athletes, but towards everybody. I have separated the progam it into 4 separate articles.
- Phase 1: Activation and Awareness
- Phase 2: Integration
- Phase 3: Global Coordination – Whole Body Movements
- Phase 4: Dynamic Control – Making it Automatic
What you will read below is not just a program. The most important part are the exercise descriptions.
Terms like gluteal activation, yoga, mobility, flexibility, etc get randomly thrown around and you see in gyms worldwide, people trying to perform some of the movements described in this series. The most important aspect of doing anything in life, that includes training is awareness – knowing WHY you do it. For a fancy term it is called neuromuscular awareness – it’s your brain that runs the whole show. The mind and body note every movement pattern whether it is good or bad, so feed only the most efficient messages into the nervous system. Otherwise you are literally and figuratively just “going through the motions.” Undoubtedly you will notice patterns between all movements; it is easy to recognise the errors and identify them in other movements that you may use (daily, etc.). Therefore ‘feeling’ what is moving etc is the goal behind this series of 4 posts.
Functional movement is simple stuff, we are born to do it, yet we are very good at making things complicated. In addition the coaching establishment has made it all look like a mystery that only they – the professionals have the answer. We all want everything yesterday and simple trainings are wrongly viewed as weakness.
With that being said:
DO NOT SKIP Phase 1.
It doesn’t mean you are weak.
I repeat, do not skip Phase 1. Phase 2 and beyond type of movements represent some of the common gluteal activation, lunges, etc. exercises that you see some of the “more knowledgeable” personal trainers prescribe. Phase 1 should feel easy and certainly “doesn’t look cool” and probably why it is skipped over.
You can see some of the weight training programs that I did in seasons past and you will without a doubt find the exact exercises. Also in my rowing days we had a core/body program that used almost all of the exact Phase 2 and 3 drills outlined in the series. We as a team had ZERO instruction why we had to do them (just a printout of photos and number of reps/set) and even less supervision if we were doing them correctly. My coaches at the time were convinced that: “If this was the same thing the national team was doing, it must be good for us. I am repeating myself though “banging square pegs in round holes” is NOT coaching or in the words of Tyler Durden.
Sticking feather up your butt does not make you a chicken.
“A movement is a movement so what is the big deal?”
If you do not have the basic and I do mean the quite fundamental muscle firing patterns that activate the deepest stabilising muscles, you are already starting in a disadvantaged, subotpimal and energy inefficient position. Therefore without having the awareness of how to set up your body for correct movement, you will find a way to go around it – you WILL compensate. If you compensate during training with isolated movements suboptmally, you WILL break down even more when under load, tension or fatigued (ie race day). Without a functional foundation (Phase 1) you are moving in a wrong way and this is NOT functional. In addition a highly active and correct muscle pattern (signals from the brain) is REQUIRED for building strength.
Before getting into the program there are words of the author who inspired this article:
Performance plateaux and chronic injuries relate to training which only asks “how many?”, “how much?”, “how far?” and “how fast?” without insisting on “how well?”
How to Approach the Program
If you just landed here, it would be wise to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the functional series, since that way you can avoid some confusion about why some of the exercises are included and also there you will find diagrams describing muscles such as GMax, GMed, TrA, etc – in short
Ideally, you would have performed the evaluation described here, though the good part is that we all get broken up in the same way – just the degree varies. Muscle imbalances form patterns and in our mostly sedentary way of life our butt muscles (GMax and GMed) get inactive and we use our “abs,” to tense up and hold our breath to stabilise the trunk when we “give it all.” As such this general 4 phase approach would benefit most people. For further more specific education, I have included some publications at the end of this article. In addition a PDF version is available for download at the end of this post.
- Do NOT Skip Phase 1.
- Perfect execution is key. Do less repetitions but perfect, rather than the full set with poor form.
Equipment is rather simple. You will need a swiss ball that you can comfortably sit with knees at 90 degrees. Ball should be inflated enough to be firm. Do not deflate it in order to get a better fit.
The average person up to 170cm, (5’7″) will find a 55cm ball suitable and up to 185cm (6’2″), a 65cm ball will work nicely. If you are over 190cm (6’3″), a 75cm ball should be used.
Also you will need a stretch band (available at physiotherapy/fitness stores) and a weight (NOT heavy) that you can hold like a medicine ball.
Phase 1: Activation and Awareness
Duration: 2 weeks or until movements can be performed effortlessly
When and How often?: 2-3/week
As the title suggests, this phase focuses on teaching the connection between the brain and the muscles you are trying to activate – in this case the deep stabilisers. These muscles work at low levels for looong periods of time and act as a support for all movements. Why?
If you put roller skates and stand next to a wall and push against it two things can happen.
If the wall is flimsy you will push it over and you won’t roll far if at all. However if the wall is stable you will be able to push as hard as you can. When it comes to the human body the spine, pelvic and shoulder girdles can be viewed as the wall and the stabilising muscles is what makes that wall stable (and also what holds the body up so you don’t collapse on the floor as a bunch of bones/bricks.) It is this stability that allows for powerful leg and arm movements.
We don’t think much about the stabilisers, which is why it is easy to use other larger and sensory “louder” muscles. For example, you can see your quads and feel them as they contract more and more.
You are looking for effortless control of your pelvis and trunk area while you are moving your arms and legs. Do NOT be fooled that you are not doing anything. It is an activation and NOT a strengthening routine.
Movements are simple and do not be surprised that they might seem awkward at first. Pay very careful attention to what and where you are feeling it.
Aim for PERFECT movement every time. As you fatigue and start using additional muscles or “go back to old habits,” switch to another exercise. Phase 1 movements are perfect for warmup and in between (weight) sets, etc.
6x30s as a starting exercise
Among the most fundamental movements that we our muscles are hardwired (LINK) to do is the ability to resist gravity. Particularly the deep stabilisers around the spine. You can emphasize that movement by “ball bouncing”
Sit on a swiss ball and find your sitbones with your hands. Arch your back back and forth and feel your pelvis tipping forward and backward. Find the position where you are sitting directly above your sitbones. This is the position for ALL seated exercises.
Stretch both arms overhead and feel your stomach draw in as you do that. Squeeze your butt muscles and as such initiating a slight bounce. Make sure you are ‘landing’ directly on your sitbones
- Possible problems: Inability to contract the glutes (butt muscles)
- Solution: Glute bridge (see below)
Seated Knee Lift
2 sets of 10reps/side
“Tight hip flexors” gets thrown around as a thing that people have. Even more frequently the idea that you should just “stretch them out” is toted as the solution. However, why did you get tight hips flexors to begin with? If you used them as a way to balance your trunk, muscles not designed for a stabilising role react in two ways. They become overactive and tight and their full range of motion is limited (they are always half on). Therefore you need to get your deep trunk stabilisers activated and give your hip flexors a break.
Sit directly over your sitbones on the edge of a chair. Lift both arms to the side; they will be your reference for any unwanted side to side movement. Take a deep breath (don’t tense up) and lift one leg off the floor and hold it for 5seconds. Your arms should not have moved and no visible activity of your “abs” should be happening. You should be able to breathe effortlessly by expanding your ribcage. You should feel your lower abdominals working and the lifted leg should be straight (correct if not).
Once comfortable on the stable chair you can perform the Seated Knee Lift on an unstable surface (swissball, etc)
One of the easiest and hence most (ab)used way to stabilise your trunk/spine is by tensing your abdominal muscles. That is why core strength is labeled as extremely important, right? Not exactly. The deep abdominal stabilisers are perfectly suited for that and function at low energy cost and do NOT limit breathing (by tightening the ribcage). The Greyhound is an exercise to activate and increase your awareness of that important muscle group. In sports where maintaining a stable trunk while moving the arms and legs (rowing, cycling, etc) overactive abdominals limit breathing, fluency of movement and have a high energy cost.
There is a progression from Greyhound 1 to Greyhound 3 and adding increased skill and load demands afterwards. Follow the numbers=).
3 Sets of 10 reps/side
Lie on the floor with knees bent; feet flat on the floor. Put your palms on your lower abs, just above your navel. Feel your breathing. Release any unnecessary tension from your abs as you exhale. Do NOT force exhaling. While still breathing normally and relaxed, move one arm above your head – feel your stomach drop toward the floor just like a greyhound and your spine and rib cage lengthening.
Think of releasing your spine rather than pinning your back towards the floor. Your back should not arch and you shouln’t need your abs. Once you can relax proceed to version 2.0
3 Sets of 10 reps/side
Same as above though this time take both arms overhead. You are still lengthening your spine. You should not feel like you are bracing your abdominals. Arms should move with almost no effort. Once you can do the above without tension, it is time to add some challenges – skill and load
Greyhound 3.1: Increased Skill
3 Sets of 10 reps/side
Perform Greyhound 2.0 and once relaxed slide on heel on the floor trying to get it as far as possible from your fingertips
Greyhound 3.2: Increased Load
You need a small weight (1-2kg/2-4lbs) that you can hold with both hands. Perform Greyhound 2.0 and move the weight with as little effort as possible above your head. No abdominal tension and no back arching as the basic exercise.
2 Sets of 5-10reps
The glute bridge is among the most popular gluteal activation exercises. I don’t have to repeat though that if a muscle is inactive others will take its role and as such there are wrong ways to perform the glute bridge. Among them are using your back extensors and/or hamstrings.
Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet flat at shoulder width apart. Relax your abs, flatten your back by rolling your pelvis towards you and slowly lifting your butt of the floor. You are curling up rather than going vertically up. Hold the position for 10 seconds. You should feel your butt muscles doing most of the work.
You should NOT feel tension in your back muscles or hamstrings. If you feel any discomfort/tension there, lie down and try rolling the pelvis more towards you. As you go back to the starting position you are uncurling – ie putting one vertebrae after the other on the floor and not just straight up and down.
Experiment. If you have really inactive glutes it might take a session or tow until you can actually control the tension in your lower back etc.
2 Sets of 5-10 reps/side
The gluteus medius or GMed is crucial for stabilising the pelvis ie keeping it level when you are switching balance (when walking, running, etc) from one leg to the other as well as internally rotating the thigh. If GMed is inactive you will use the big abdominal muscles in a stabilising role and limiting breathing and adding a lot of tension. The clam is the perfect exercise for isolating the GMed, though there are wrong ways to do it (such as too fast, wrong position etc. and I have done them as well..).
Lie sideways with the top arm in front of you. Your knees should be at around 90 degrees or less and when relaxed the top knee should overlap the bototm by about 5cm (2in). That way your pelvis is tilted forward, therefore you cannot use some of the bigger muscles (Gluteus maximus, etc) to compensate. Raise the top leg up (spread your knees like a clamshell) and hold it for a 10s count; you should feel tension at the top of your butt. Slowly come back to the starting position. If performed correctly the overlap should still be there. Only the leg should move, you shouldn’t’ be rolling your body back and forth.
1-2 Sets of 5-10 Reps/side
This is yet another exercise that when performed correctly does wonders and when done wrong is of little value. The Superman coordinates the stabilisers along the entire body. As noted above you are looking for relaxed but firm position with no extra effort and no abdominal “tensing up,” breathe freely.
Start on hands and knees with your head and neck in straight alignment with your spine; Hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips. Draw your belly upwards and press your chest up so that your spine is straight. Press directly out with one heel, straightening your leg; make sure your pelvis doesn’t sag or drop. Stretch out the opposite arm as far away as you can – your shoulders shouldn’t drop and your back should remain flat. Hold for 5 seconds and return to the quadruped position.
Variation 1: Start in your basic superman position with opposite arm and leg outstretched. Move your arm out to the side, then under your body, and straight out in ont again. Your trunk should remain still throughout the movement.
Variation 2: Increase speed of dynamic control. Perform the Superman as described above; however this time snap your arm and leg out into position and then hold for a moment to ensure that you have hit the target position. Bring your arm and knee back under your body.
Once you can perform 10 PERFECT repetitions you are ready for the next level.
Same position as above, however lift your knees off the ground. Same points as above apply. Hold for a 5 count.
We all have those moments when we just say
I never knew I had all these muscles
With Phase 1 I hope to have introduced you to a new friend – your deep stabilising muscles. We have this predominant tendency to show to the world that we are trying hard and as such we had forgotten the feeling of effortless-ness. Therefore it is time to relearn to enjoy how easy should really feel like and use this awareness as a base for any of your movements. Just remember – great champions are the ones who make the difficult look easy.
PDF FILE DOWNLOAD: Fluent_Movement_Phase_1_Activation_and_Awareness_TheTallCyclist
Stay tuned for the following training phases for fluent and efficient movement.
For further information check the ever-increasing Reading List
I welcome comments, however, before asking a question please visit the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page.
For Further Information
As someone who grew up with the “Do More Harder” and “No Pain, No Gain” mentality I give a lot of the credit towards my understanding of efficient movement and towards the newly regained awareness of my body to:
Stability, Sport and Performance Movement – Joanne Elphinston
This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.
Cover Images: michaelvalenti.com