Human movement is one of those concepts most of us take for granted. Much like breathing. Since we are internally wired to ‘naturally’ acquire the skill, we often don’t value the intricacies of it. Until we loose the ability to freely move or breathe, that is.
Our ability to move well as adults, is the end product of a long developmental path of motor learning we go through from infancy to childhood. This path is marked by reaching a series of ‘milestones’ during infancy, involving the systematic development of simple skills before combining these into increasingly more complex activities.
For example, from 0 to 3 months, we learn to turn our heads from side to side while lying on our backs, and to lift and hold our heads up while lying on the tummy. From 4 to 6 months, we roll from our backs to our tummies, and visa versa, and use one arm to support ourselves while sitting. From 7 to 9 months we sit without support, and begin to creep or crawl, using the arm and opposite leg in coordinated supportive fashion. Fast forward hundreds of small ‘millstones’, and we’ve miraculously acquired the ability to learn sport specific skills during pre-adolescent and adolescent years.
Although we were created with the ‘software’ (or DNA) to develop certain fundamental movement skills, this potential has to be tapped into and developed through interaction with and stimulus from the environment. In a healthy environment, with no trauma or other interference of a child’s motor learning experiences, our ability to develop optimal movement integrity is high.
However, as we don’t live in a perfect world, accidents, injury, or interference affecting the experience of the necessary stimulus on this developmental path, do occur. So does bad postural habits, 12 years of sitting behind a school desk and dragging a bag of books, over-training, or poor rehabilitation of injury. These can all lead to weaknesses or limitations in the total movement integrity of an individual.
Maybe it’s useful at this point to clearly define the concept of movement integrity: It can be seen as the adaptation potential or positive motor learning response to the stimulus of the natural environment. In other words, your motor control of a specific movement is improving through regular exposure to a particular functional demand.
One of the core principles of nature is that we only grow stronger through being challenged. Engaging with a challenging environment is therefore a healthy part of the journey of life. However, when we loose the ability to positively adapt to the challenges we face, we no longer have a positive learning experience.
So what is the big deal about a negative learning experience, you may ask? Well, firstly, it means that whatever you’ve learned from the experience didn’t add to your ability to practice the activity with better quality in future. This implies that practicing any skill with poor form, is not going to improve the way you move.
Secondly, it means that completing the activity came at a cost, as your inability to deal with the task in a healthy way, has forced you into survival mode. The moment you merely survive an activity or exercise, you’ve lost the opportunity to learn from it. Survival of a physical task requires the body to compensate for it’s ability to move with control, which leads to overuse of parts now working in a way they are not supposed to.
In movement, central to our ability to have positive motor learning experiences, is the principle that perception drives behavior, and behavior modulates perception. This means that the less proprioception (or sensory feedback of contact with the environment) my central nervous system receives, the more limited my movement behavior will be. To improve my movement output, I have to first improve my sensory input – the better the quality of information in, the better the quality of information out.
Healthy proprioception that facilitates the development of movement integrity requires a balance between mobility and stability around every joint. The first priority for developing sufficient proprioception is the ability to get into positions regarded as functionally normal for our species. For most in our desk bound sedentary culture, the primary limitation to getting into positions where positive motor learning can happen, is a lack of mobility.
A lack of mobility can however be the result of insufficient stability, or stability could have been given up to compensate for a lack of mobility. Whichever the scenario, stability (or motor control) cannot be developed without the necessary range of movement (limited sensory feedback). So increasing mobility would be the starting point for most. Excessive mobility does however not guarantee quality movement, as this is often significant of a lack of stability. As in all of life, balance holds the key.
How do we determine the functional ‘normal’ for our species, or the right balance between stability and mobility? This is where Functional Movement Systems have done pioneers work over the last 15 years. Their Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a scientifically reliable tool to measure an individual’s functional movement patterns against normative standards.
They also developed the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA) to guide clinicians/therapists in their assessing and treatment of patients/clients with pain in movement. I make use of both the FMS and SFMA in my practice as Movement Specialist, and have come to regard these tools as invaluable over the last 12+ years of providing functional solutions to restore movement integrity.
These evaluative tools (and the systematic corrective philosophy that supports them) serve as an objective baseline of movement competency (synonym of movement integrity), which gives direction in making decisions about what to prioritize in a corrective or training program. Although goals are important when designing a training program, knowing your starting point is of even greater importance when planning a journey to any destination.
Another way to understand movement integrity is to look at the hierarchical order of movement skills as represented by the Optimal Performance Pyramid. At the base of the pyramid we find Fundamental Movement Skills (movement competency). The better our movement competency, the more potential we have to develop sustainable Performance Skills (movement capacity). Our capacity to move (strength, power, speed, endurance, etc.) then forms the base on which we develop Sport Specific Skills.
The goal of corrective exercise is to improve/restore integrity of the Fundamental Movement Patterns, thereby improving performance potential and reducing risk of injury. There is no better model than the developmental path of motor learning ingrained in our human software (as referred to earlier) to guide the corrective process. Pioneers like Moshe Feldenkrais and Vaclav Vojta, a Check pediatric neurologist, recognized the potential of utilizing fundamental developmental patterns to change long-standing movement dysfunction in adults.
The new perspective of movement utilized by the world leaders in corrective exercise, embraces this approach. Backed by the latest in functional movement science, we’ve learned the value of revisiting some of the primitive patterns in the correction of movement dysfunction. This means the more significant ‘milestones’ of the developmental path of motor learning becomes the positional stations in which we can stimulate the neural system to adopt new improved movement patterns. Once competency in one position has been achieved (equating to a positive motor learning experience), we progress to a more challenging station/body position. This way we can ‘reboot’ the ‘software’ of motor programming, and lay the foundations for restoration of movement integrity.
We don’t need to get injured as often as we do, or get out of bed with pain in the morning. Having our movement integrity objectively evaluated by means of an FMS or other functional tests, allows us to identify movement limitations or weaknesses, and be proactive about restoring balance. Once your functional movement competency has been restored, you can again engage in activity with confidence and efficiency, and with more respect and appreciation for movement integrity.