Have you ever worked systematically on a skill, doing the work required to be find a high level of competency, only to get stuck, plateauing in a bog you can’t seem to claw your way out of? Maybe you change your set/rep scheme, maybe you apply a more mindful approach, maybe you even hire a coach, but nothing seems to move you through your sticking points.
Efficiency is something Kevin C. Moore, founder of the Reembody Method, has thought a lot about. He believes efficient movement is available to all of us if we take the time to consider our natural tendencies.
Moore grew up studying Chinese martial arts, but always believed he would be a scientist. It wasn’t until he began working in a laboratory that he realized it might not be the best fit. “I wanted to move more, I wanted to be more social. The idea that movement could influence my career didn’t occur to me until after I got fed up with sciences.” After being introduced to a personal trainer that was both a powerlifting coach and a Pilates teacher, he realized movement could be an actual study that was approached in a systematic, thoughtful way.
After studying and teaching Pilates for several years, Moore began managing a well respected Pilates studio in Hong Kong. Throughout his Pilates career, he frequently found himself thinking outside of the traditional Pilates system, developing techniques to improve the way his clients moved through quality and efficiency. He found the techniques he was developing and the skill set he was utilizing outside of the traditional fitness methodology wasn’t received in a welcoming manner by his colleagues because “the kind of dogmatic approach to fitness kept getting in the way.”
Letting go of being a “good” Pilates instructor allowed Moore to begin noticing movement pattern relationships at a much faster rate. He began keeping records of things that he noticed, particularly how clients used the left and right side of the body. Then he used the techniques he developed on his clients, observing how they responded. When people performed things differently on each side based on their particular side dominance, did it yield different results? As he honed the application of movement based on the idea that we are not symmetrical beings, the idea of Reembody was born.
While Reembody was founded on the principles of side dominance, or laterality, the underlying principles are rooted in physical properties. “The immutable laws of physics act on all of my living tissue exactly the same as it acts on everything else,” Moore says. “And if a practical intervention can’t be made to make mechanical or physical sense then it probably doesn’t make sense biologically either.”
The Role of Side-Dominance
When was the last time you thought about how the two sides of your body moved, either together or separately? Unless you’ve been injured, I suspect you ignore the fact that one side of your body performs certain movements or skills a little bit better than the other side of your body. Interestingly, just because you are right handed, it doesn’t mean that your right side will be good at every single thing—the left hand side of your body will excel at different things than the right side. And that’s the point. The two sides of our bodies compliment each other and enable us to move forward, lift heavy things, and contort ourselves in unique positions, just not in exactly the same way on each side.
Instead of viewing the two sides as completely separate entities, it’s more likely they are partners, working together to cooperate and negotiate whatever movement skill you want to accomplish.
To clarify the idea of how laterality can be thought of in the fitness world, Moore says, “It’s really on the forefront of emerging research that the way the brain talks to the dominant side of the body and the non-dominant side of the body is radically different. In fact, in many cases, it’s opposite. We waste a lot of time in the health and wellness industry doing assessments that I don’t think we need to be doing. We can make predictions rather than assessments and speed the process along for the client and take a lot of pressure off of the practitioner.”
If you have ever been to a trainer, you may very well have spent your first session going through a series of movements, with the trainer fervently making notes about your movement quality, and then giving you a set of corrective exercises to fix whatever inefficiencies he noted. The problem with this (well-intentioned) approach, is it takes away from what the vast majority of the population needs, which is to move. By moving in various ways, the things you need to work on will become pretty clear, and whether the issue is you just don’t know how to do that specific thing or you can’t do that thing because you aren’t strong enough/flexible enough/mobile enough becomes evident fairly quickly.
Another aspect that many athletes and trainers struggle with is where to begin. What magic part of the body will unlock the key to movement happiness? Does training the core fix the back? Or maybe improving neck position will improve stability. Or perhaps the answer to everything starts at the feet.
Moore takes a more pragmatic view. “I don’t buy into the idea that there is one part of the body where everything begins. In fact, I know that for a long time, especially coming out of the functional fitness craze this idea of ‘ah, yes, this part is the one part that means everything.’ It used to be the core, then it was the feet, then it was the cranium. The truth is they’re all correct. Every part is as important as every other part. What Reembody methodology is very interested in is how they are all related.”
Researchers have been trying to tease out the best exercise modality for non specific low back pain for years. What they are finding is that one exercise type doesn’t appear to be better than another for long term pain relief.1 In fact, the most effective exercise for non-specific low back pain appears to be a general exercise program. Why? Perhaps it’s because, as Moore says, one part isn’t more influential on the body’s position and the nervous system’s perception of movement than any other. However, how they interact with each other can dramatically improve overall movement quality. “The brain is constantly trying to build these internal maps of how all of our parts are related and then again, how those parts are related to our environment. The more robust that map is, the more likely we are to make smart choices, unconscious choices, to maintain mechanical advantage within our environment.”
This doesn’t mean there is a perfect alignment, or one way to perform a specific movement. What it means is that if the body has a clear, internal image of all of its parts and how they work, when the time comes where you have to decide how you are going to scale the very large downed tree that is clearly standing in the way between you and the trail you want to access, you will have a mechanically efficient way to get over the tree. If you practice things like climbing over oddly shaped objects, you will be even more efficient because you have a frame of reference for how to do a version of this particular movement.
The Role of Your Breath
Perhaps the most important aspect to human movement (or life, for that matter), is the ability to breathe. Oxygen nourishes every cell in our body. It enables us to function. Without it, we perish, faster than we do without food or water. As Moore says, “Oxygen is the most essential resource. Every single structure we have, from as far back as we can see, has been based around the idea of I need to make sure I can get enough oxygen. Period. Everything else plays second fiddle to that first need.”
Yet, our ability to breathe in an efficient manner is often ignored. The breath is influenced by a number of factors, including our emotional and psychological state, as well as our physiological state.2 How we breathe affects how we hold ourselves, our ability to move freely in the ribs, and our ability to efficiently adapt to the external environment. Have you ever tried rock hopping while holding your breath? Were you successful? What happens if you take a long exhale before you begin? Is it easier?
“When we find that breath is optimized, we should also find that everything else is optimized,” Moore states. “So if we buy into that initial premise, if I am breathing in a way that is optimized, it means I should be stronger, I should be faster, my digestion should work better, my stress levels should be lower. Everything can and should be improved by the way that I breathe.”
Breathing can feel tedious. It’s a little bit like performing corrective exercise drills; a little bit goes a long away. If you start with the basic idea that your exhale should occasionally be longer than your inhale, you will begin to notice you are holding yourself differently. You will feel more freedom in your movement and less over-effort, creating a more balanced movement approach.
If you add 2-3 minutes of supine breathing in at the end of your workout, where you inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight, observing the effects your breath has on your body, you may even find a general sense of relaxation as you leave the gym, rather than feeling mildly fatigued and slightly beat up.
The Role of Balanced Intensity
Moore’s message is not only one of efficiency, but one of balance. When it comes to movement and general fitness, Moore says, “We excel at low stress level, low to mid intensity level, repetitive tasks—walking around, bending down, reaching up, fine motor tasks that are deeply repetitive and you can let your mind wander while you are doing it. Human beings get enormous benefits out of moving in those ways.
We are also really good with our fight or flight or freeze responses, responding to extremely stressful situations with a high degree of power. We can suddenly take off in any direction in a very high run. We can fight fiercely and ferociously whenever we need to. We have it within us to work under high stress. We can be trained to work very well under high stress. One of the biggest ways in which the modern, current movement environment differs from, say, a hunter gather movement environment is that movement of the first type, that repetitive, low level, daydream-y type, is almost gone. We do very, very little of that anymore. And, the only time we engage in exercise is typically exercise that falls much more into the second category, exercise that we think of as being intense and stressful. Even most yoga classes, I would argue, are physically stressful. They are physically challenging.
Now, we invite that stress in because it does feel good to use the body in a stressful way. We do get chemical feedback and neurological feedback that says, ‘Hey, good job. You’ve accomplished something.’ We get the endorphin rush, we get the sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff. That system is designed that way for a reason. What I want to see for a well-balanced, fitness lifestyle that is aimed at well-adjusted social behavior and longevity, we need what I’ll call an 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the movement that they do should be low to middle level, repetitive, unstressful, daydreaming. It’s long walks in the park, it’s playing with your kid in the pool, it’s stuff like that. And then 20 percent should be, okay, now it’s time to pick that weight up, whatever the cost.”
Like all things in life, the ability to move well and respond well to a variety of situations is predicated on a degree of balance. What Moore is referring to is the elusive idea of using movement and exercise as a way to recover and prepare for high intensity work. When I talk to amazing movers who seem to rarely be injured, their dirty little secret is that they don’t spend large amounts of time in the red zone. Instead, they hang out in doing more moderate level work, sprinkling the high intensity work in periodically. As a result, they recover well and move more.
Employ Balanced Movement and Exercise
Many people allocate exercise into two categories: beast mode and everything else. Everything else is considered an afterthought, a waste of time because it doesn’t improve 1RM deadlifts or 5K times—except it does. And here is the conundrum. A well-balanced outlook to exercise and movement supports all intensity levels. If your concept of exercise is that you have to always go hard to get any benefit, I encourage you to reconsider, not just for your performance, but for your longevity.
1. Wang, X-Q., Zheng, J-J., Yu, Z-W., Bi, X., Lou, S-J., Liu, J., Cai, B., Hua, Y-H., Wu, M., Wei, M-L., Shen, H-M., Chen, Y., Pan, Y-J., Xu, G-H., Chen, P-J., (2012). A meta-analysis of core stability exercise versus general exercise for chronic low back pain. PLoS One, 7(12).
2. Paulus, M.P., (2013). The breathing conundrum-interoceptive sensitivity and anxiety. Depression & Anxiety, 30(4), 315-320.