Thoughts on Movement Variability

Something interesting happened last week; I yelled at the TV twice.  Yelling at the TV isn’t my thing; it’s for fanatics of Sports Center and Fox News.  But there I was, yelling at the TV.  First, it was during the Battle of the Bastards of Game of Thrones. A few days later, it was more destruction, as Danny Hart won his first UCI downhill race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

As Danny came down the mountain, hovering around Aaron Gwin’s split times, I watched with excitement and awe.  Downhill mountain biking can get pretty rough, but there he was, just floating down the mountain, with his bike bucking like a bronco beneath him.  Here’s an Instagram video from the Fort William race to demonstrate what’s going on:

Can you hear the mayhem at the wheels as he floats over those rocks?  That’s one of my favorite sounds in the world.  As I watched Danny, as well as Gwin and Minaar before him, I thought about the degree of elegance that these guys bring to the sport.  The bikes move so much beneath them, and yet their casually perched on top.  That’s when it hit me:

I’d venture that the best downhill mountain bikers in the world move more on the bike than amateur mountain bikers, like myself.  Sometimes that’s to shift their own weight aboard the bike, and other times, it’s to absorb the bikes momentum, like Danny Hart does in the above Instagram video.

There’s more variation in their riding than mine or yours, and I assume that makes them better, right?  As I thought about it, I recalled seeing this .gif on Eric Cressey’s blog:


The action of each pitch is pretty damn consistent, but each of those thrown balls end up in a unique position.  If you read THIS study, the researchers observed that “pitchers who advanced to higher levels exhibited less variability in their motions.”  It would seem that less movement variability would be advantageous for pitching.  Hmm, interesting.

Let’s talk about what this means for you.

The concept of movement variability is defined as “the normal variations that occur in motor performance across multiple repetitions of a task (Stergiou & Decker, 2011). Nikolai Bernstein, who could be considered the father of biomechanics, described movement variability “repetition without repetition.”  How beautiful is that?!


As a general rule, every movement we do requires a degree of movement variability.  This includes the way we take brush our teeth, or squat with a kettlebell.  The degree of variability is varies from exercise to exercise, and it’s personal.

Ideally there’s a sweet between having too much variation and being too rigid.  This is something to explore in our all of our movement.  In the gym, we tend to follow a linear trajectory of movement.  That is, we learn an exercise, we repeat and refine it, and we continue to refine it and minimize movement, in the endless quest to make every single repetition look like the previous repetition.  That’s a well-intended goal, but ultimately it may better serve us to increase the variability of many of our often used movements.


This may mean you use an exercise which is harder to replicate, like a medicine ball throw or plyometric push-up.  Perhaps you alternate between exercises over days or weeks, like switching from a conventional deadlift, to a sumo deadlift, to a hex bar deadlift over the course of three workouts.  Maybe it’s as simple as changing the angle of a dumbbell bench press from one set to the next.

As a starting place, let’s be aware of the inherent differences from one repetition to the next rep.  The next time you do a goblet squat, it’s not 10 of the same exact squat, but rather 10 different opportunities to move in a way that feels strong and successful.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about; feeling strong and successful.  When Danny Hart drops through a rock garden faster than the British pound post-Brexit, and when a pitcher throws a fastball after a slider, they’re experimenting with movement variability within their acceptable range.

Now that we’ve introduced the concept of movement variability, get out there, play, and find the variability in your movement!

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