Gray Cook: Self-Limiting Exercise and The Movement Principles
Self-limiting exercise makes us think. It makes us feel more connected to activity and movement, which in turn demand greater engagement and produce greater physical awareness.
Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a plastic-encased fitness machine.
That’s a good thing. No, that’s a great thing.
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, shuffling the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor.
Self-limiting exercise is our history. The earliest forms of exercise 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, but in the correct order. Well before often.
Principle 1: Move Well, Then Move Often
The clearest example of self-limiting exercise is barefoot running. While running barefoot, our predecessors connected with the sensory information in the soles of their feet. This works perfectly—there is a reason the soles of the feet have such a uniquely dense distribution of sensory nerves. They provide 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. When running barefoot, over-striding and heel striking is not an option—it produces jarring, discomfort and pain—because it is not authentic.
Isn’t it 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 exchanges those friendly twinges for debilitating pain?
Is it any surprise that the increase in running-related injuries paralleled running shoe development?
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 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.
We depart from running altogether to find what is, likely, the most useful self-limiting exercise for running. Jumping rope fits the bill perfectly for so many activities. It is often dismissed as too simple to be considered a viable exercise option, again probably due to today’s exercise equipment market and the fact that, though simple, it can be quite difficult.
People who have a tough time with the technique, or who never learned to jump rope, are embarrassed because of their poor form and constant mistakes while jumping.
Those are precisely what makes jumping rope great.
In other words, truly poor technique will prevent the participant from performing the exercise, so bad movement patterns cannot be reinforced. This is the most important reason for jumping rope. It is possible to perform sprints, shuttles, and agility work with poor form as long as times are adequate. Other forms of popular endurance work such as jogging, cycling and rowing can also allow poor form without supervision and coaching. Poor form can be reinforced without the athlete ever realizing it.
Jumping rope allows many athletes to self-train effectively, whereas self-training or training with a partner using running or sprints sometimes has too many uncontrollable variables. The jump rope is extremely portable and allows for position variations. Running, wind sprints, cycling, and rowing can provide a workout, burn calories, and improve stamina, but possibly by sacrificing technique, hurting reaction times, and altering ready position.
Jump rope variations can be performed to work on left-right differences. This is not possible in running or sprinting because both sides must work equally to propel the body forward. It is easy to focus on a weak side while skipping rope.
The ability to work on asymmetries leads me to another great, historical example of self-limiting activity. A long, long time ago, if you went to a school of strength—a place where very strong people gathered, where the lifting of heavy things occurred—and you asked, “Please, master. Teach me how to lift heavy things.”
The legend is that they would introduce you to the Turkish Getup.
Until you could raise a massive amount of weight on both your left and right sides in a Turkish Getup, they would not teach you. They would say, “When you can get up with a heavy thing on this side and then when you can turn around and get up with a heavy thing on that side, come back to us and we will teach you how to lift extremely heavy things.”
Let me translate: “Get your mobility, stability and symmetry racked and stacked. Get your carries down. Get your flexibility right, and we will help you get strong because 90% of the work will be done. We’re simply going to demonstrate some techniques that would take you years to learn on your own.”
That’s what education is—us showing you a better way once you can hear and do what we’re talking about.
Principle 2: Protect, Correct and Develop
There are life lessons in those old stories. It goes back to the Karate Kid (whichever version you’ve seen.) You’re not just painting the fence, waxing the car and sanding the floor. You are learning movement patterns. We will use these resources later to help you become resourceful.
Some clients just don’t get those analogies; the reality that we’ve got to make certain things hard and we’ve got to restrict participation in the next level. Progressing could impose potential risk and poor adaptive capability on a large scale. There’s plenty more to work on right here.
It could be said of training wheels that they don’t make you a better cyclist. They simply keep you from getting injured while you’re trying to develop some volume and confidence. Training wheels do not correct your ability to ride. They protect you from injuring yourself at one level. You don’t really learn to ride until you get rid of the training wheels because with them, balance is made secondary.
Self-limiting exercises 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.
Principle 3: Create Systems That Enforce Our Philosophy
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: self-limiting exercises 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.
For more on self-limiting exercises and movement philosophy, continue with these books and videos from Gray Cook and OTP:
Gray Cook: Self-Limiting Exercise
(This talk is also included in the in the Gray Cook Lecture Compendium)
Gray Cook and Greg Rose: Three Principles You Can Apply to Any Movement
(Want to learn more on the Movement Principles? This article provides a great overview.)
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