Hey friends, in the next 6 minutes I want to talk to you about movement efficiency and one of the conversations I’ve been having most frequently as a coach at MFF. Today’s chat was inspired by a series of tweets from strength coach Miguel Argoncillo who shared a passage from Thomas Michaud’s book, “Human Locomotion”. In the book, Michaud writes:
“The neurological mechanisms necessary to complete a gait cycle are unusual in that swing phase motions are reflexive and present at birth, while movements associated with stance phase represent a learned process….This is a time-consuming process and perfecting the musculoskeletal interactions necessary to become metabolically efficient can take up to a decade to master… In order to create a metabolically efficient gait, Saunders et al claim that individuals must learn to “translate their center of mass through space along a path requiring the least expenditure of energy.”
Does that give anyone else chills, or is it just me?! I’m so excited about this, I’m going to extrapolate this gait cycle analysis as a simple idea for all movers and coaches. Think about it this way:
We’re born with built-in movement patterns that are metabolically demanding, and the development of motor skills is about being as efficient as possible. That is so the overarching concept of movement and coaching that it’s not even funny!
If you’re learning how to move your body or manipulate an object through space, that learning process is essentially about figuring out how little you need to do, metabolically, to complete the task at hand. The human brain is hardwired to take all of our metabolic activities and make them as efficient as possible.
Think of it this way: Movement is a Pass/Fail course in college, and all the movement part of your brain cares about is not getting a score below 65. Sure, you can bust your butt and try to get 100%, but that’s energy that would be better served elsewhere, so we try to save it. Why would you do more work, if you might actually be more successful doing less?
Efficiency is essential for sports performance because it means that rather than simply relying on the contractile abilities of our muscles, we get to use our bones, ligaments, tendons, and fascia to create, maintain, and absorb the forces of our activities. For performance in modern competition, and in the ancient game of survival, we want to be as efficient as possible.
But for fitness? In modern training for fat loss, metabolic efficiency is the enemy. Hear me out on this: When we’re practicing fitness in the modern world, we’re often using it as a stand-in for physical activity spread throughout the day – rather than walking 5 miles with a bag of potatoes, we’re lifting for an hour after sitting at a desk all day. Modern fitness is a man-made construct to match our man-made world, and the most efficient program design and coaching is all about taking limiting our body’s ability to develop efficiency.
Have you ever heard advice about doing new workouts every day for muscle confusion? The general idea is that if you never get efficient at something, you’ll maximize how many calories you burn while doing the activity.
Have you ever heard someone say that after you start swimming, cycling, or running, you stop burning as many calories because your body gets more efficient? It’s entirely true – Imagine that you’re a car that gets more fuel efficient after driving your morning commute for several weeks.
The poorly-packaged but well intended idea of muscle confusion – and the desirable endurance adaptation of metabolic efficiency – are at the middle of the Venn Diagram I use when I’m coaching Ninjas at MFF. Ultimately, we want to have control over the efficiency of our movements, able to move with higher-threshold or lower-threshold strategies at will.
One of the concepts that I’ve introduced to my coaching is this: The weight that you’re lifting isn’t the source of muscular tension – you are.
I want you as the mover to be able to create your desired level of muscular tension and then challenge your ability to maintain that tension while moving with progressively heavier loads. Progressive overload is still key, but an ability to manage muscular tension, and therefore metabolic load, can be essential for people who are learning to be at home within their body.
My recent Ninja Essentials classes have included discussions about how our ability to consciously contract muscles decreases as we tire out, and that fatigue is both physical and mental. You can think of that exploration of metabolic efficiency, of intentionally experiencing higher-threshold strategies by doing more metabolic work than is necessary, and feeling lower-threshold strategies as we ease into the work that we’re doing, as adding more gears to the transmission of a car, so that we have more metabolic options available as we work to accomplish a task.
Remember friends, that’s always the goal of a well-thought-out training plan – to increase the number of options that we have to successfully accomplish a task. For children learning how to walk, and adults learning how to perform new activities, learning how to be metabolically efficient is the name of the game. For those of us who are making a deliberate and concentrated effort to get to know a little bit more about what our bodies are capable of, the game of fitness is often about being as inefficient as possible.
Alright, that’s it for this article – thanks for joining me for this conversation about efficiency in movement. Take a moment to consider which activities during which you find the path of least resistance, and where in others you can seek the path of most resistance. Leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking!
As always, if you’d like to watch this as a video, you can see it on Instagram right here: