Excerpt from the book Movement
Self-limiting exercises make us think, and even make us feel more connected to exercise and to movement. They demand greater engagement and produce greater physical awareness. Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a fitness machine.
The earliest exercise forms were self-limiting—they required mindfulness and technique. Idiot-proof equipment and the conditioning equivalent of training wheels did not exist. Great lifters learned to lift great; great fighters learned to fight great; great runners learned to run great. Their qualities and quantities were intertwined.
Self-limiting exercise demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.
The clearest example of self-limiting exercise is barefoot running. While running barefoot, the first runners connected with the sensory information in the soles of their feet. This works perfectly—this is the very reason the soles of the feet have such a uniquely dense distribution of sensory nerves. This provides a window to our environment, like the nerves in our hands, eyes and ears. The information provided by sensory nerves in the soles help all who walk on two feet continually adjust their movement, stride, rhythm, posture and breathing to meet changes in the terrain.
The modern running shoe allows us to ignore a sensory perspective of running that is only second to vision, and, as you know, the increase in running-related injuries paralleled running shoe development. When running barefoot, over-striding and heel striking is not an option—it produces jarring, discomfort and pain because it is not authentic. Is it not a bit peculiar that the quick twinges of pain refine the barefoot runner’s stride to help avoid running injuries, while the comfort of the modern running shoe later exchanged those friendly twinges for debilitating pain?
The modern runner uses braces to cover a weakness, often not taking responsibility to rehabilitate a problem, or dissatisfied with the rehabilitation process and its incomplete outcome. Christopher McDougall reveals this concept in an amazing story in his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a story that reminds us to temper all technologic advancements against historical facts and time-tested principles. He touches on medical and biomechanical issues, prehistoric man, exercise concepts and a detachment from the joy of movement we exchange for superficial results.
This book is highly recommended for trainers, coaches and rehabilitation professionals to help them see their respective professions through the eyes of the inquisitive, chronically injured runner. Christopher’s investigation and story connects important dots we can all appreciate. In his journey, he discovered rehabilitation and coaching wisdom that is logical and simple. The problem is that he had to dig to find it. Part of his digging was caused by our incomplete practices of movement assessment, exercise and rehabilitation.
Examples of other natural, self-limiting categories are governed by breathing, grip strength, balance, correct posture and coordination. Some exercises combine two or more self-limiting activities, and each has natural selective and developmental benefits. These exercises produce form and function while positioning the entire movement matrix for multiple benefits. As we train movement, anatomical structures model themselves around natural stresses.
Self-limiting activities should become the cornerstone of your training programs, not as preventive maintenance and risk management, but as movement authentication—to keep it real. The limitations these exercises impose keep us honest and allow our weakest links to hold us back, as they should.
Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.
Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.
A word of caution: These activities are not magic. They don’t automatically install movement quality. They simply provide the opportunity should the individual be up to the challenge. Each of these activities imposes natural obstacles and requires technical attention. There is usually a coordination of attributes not often used together, such as balance and strength or quickness and alignment. These activities usually require instruction to provide safety and maximize benefits. If you do not respect them, they can impose risk.
However, patience, attention to detail and expert instruction will provide a natural balancing of movement abilities. These do not have to make up the entire exercise program. Instead, they offer mental and physical challenges against natural limitations and technical standards. These activities will not only provide variety, but should ultimately produce physical poise, confidence and higher levels of movement competence.
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Download a pdf of sample self-limiting exercises