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Movement Variability and Degrees of Freedom

Fundamental Movement Performance Training

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We each have approximately 230 joints within our human bodies, most of these joints have one possible path of movement, or degrees of freedom, think of the flexion and extension of a elbow as an example of this

Yet more complex joints such as the shoulder and hip however, each have upwards of three degrees of freedom (flexion/extension, internal/external rotation, adduction/abduction…).

In total therefore, we have somewhere in the region of 244 degrees of the freedom within the body, controlled by the 630 muscles we each have inside us.

When we think about this from a movement perspective, the capacity that each of us has for differing movement types, patterns and complexities is vast.

Yet one of the things we know is that a system when stressed and under threat, will revert to its simplest form to maximise survival.

Whether this be acute stress such as an individual training session, episodic stress from interpersonal relationships with a spouse of friend, or the chronic stress gained from a job you may despise, our physiological response is often indistinguishable from a biological standpoint.

However, using just the acute training stress of training and our movement system as an example, when under heavy load in an exercise such as a Deadlift, our body steals from our ability to move in other planes of motion, side-to-side or twist and turn (Frontal and Transverse), in favour of giving us the strength needed to lift the load in what’s called the Sagittal Plane (Forward/Backward).

We limit the degrees of freedom at our joints to focus maximally on those that we immediately need for the task at hand.

Similarly, an individual in pain, therefore a system under threat, often also has a reduction in range of motion at a joint. However, this is a protective mechanism for the joints safety as opposed to a performance enhancer. Individuals with lower back pain for example, may have difficulty in touching their toes or twisting to one side without said symptoms occurring.

The bodies response is simple and often universal when under threat, limit range of motion, i.e. degrees of freedom, and revert back to the simplest form we know to enable survival. (Read more about the stress response here)

Sedentary individuals beginning a new exercise regime, are often in similar circumstances. Their activity levels and movement behaviours have been adapted to over time often resulting in a reduction ing movement competency and capacity. Use it or lose it…

In each of these scenarios, the bodies response to stress and threat has been the same, limit range of motion and revert to it’s simplest form. However one scenario is a positive adaptation for performance purposes, the other two are simple survival mechanisms, e.g.. the introduction of pain, and decrease in movement variability due to sedentary behaviours.

When we look at this from a training perspective, it becomes imperative we recognise this concept. Under threat, the body will revert to it’s simplest of from and reduce degrees of freedom.

When we’re training for performance, as in with out Deadlift example, it becomes wholeheartedly beneficial to limit range and shut down some degrees in non-essential motions to provide us with the strength we need for the task at hand. With 200kg on a bar, limiting rotation in the body has huge and obvious benefits.

However, if we lack the capacity to limit this perception of threat when training has ceased, and the stimulus removed, we stay limited in these degrees.

Over time, our body recognises this limitation as “normal” and degrees remain restricted.

We may perform to a high relatively high standard, gaining muscle, strength and fitness in the short term, but we lack the basic joint position long-term to absorb and adapt to the higher levels of stress we impose over time. Reduction on breeds further reduction under the circumstances.

In our pain example, the threat perception and imposed stress has limited range of movement. Yet what these individuals crave more than anything is a broadening of their available movement capacity. To toe-touch without pain, twist and turn without symptom flare up. Hence why physiotherapists, masseurs and healthcare providers provide pharmaceutical, manual and non-manual solutions, to increase the available range of motion and restore variability and degrees of freedom.

Furthermore, whilst post-session DOMS and subsequent limitation of movement range is often a component of the day-after effects from training, this should in no way be a normal component of the training response in the longer term. It is a body literally telling you to not do to it again what you’ve just done… It’s simply poor training load management.

Our new client example needs much the same, a broadening of movement variability and a restoration of available degrees of freedom. Once this has been achieved, they can then develop the ability to deliberately limit degrees needed for performance purposes.

Widen variability to then allow focus on specificity.

An individual that can limit degrees of freedom when needed for the purpose of performance, controlling threat perception and managing training load, yet when the training stimulus in removed, open up degrees of freedom and maintain basic ranges of motion across the 230 joints, has a powerful underpinning for performance and recovery.

Too often we jump straight into performance training protocols with individuals who lack joint position and degrees of freedom to absorb and adapt to the stresses we impose as trainers.

Without access to the required degrees, the body compensates. The result is often pain symptoms, joint stiffness, a decrease in movement competency, reduction in performance and an all-round negative response to the training stimulus.

Consider the uniqueness of the individual at hand, have an appropriate battery of movement assessment tools (FMS, SFMA, PRI…), a good medical referral network, and monitor over time to establish whether the individual is adapting well from a movement standpoint to the training stress imposed.

Better yet, a bit of self-care. Take 10 mins a day and simply take your joints through the basic ranges of motion they each possess, making a conscious attempt to maintain as many of the 244 degrees we have available to us before it’s too late…

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