#Simpsonschallenge. I must  use a Simpsons reference in every blog post. Because that is how I was raised.

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here.

And welcome to part 3. In my mission to be more concise, let us get right to the point.

Today we’ll be talking about movement variability.

Movement variability means having options. But not too many options—>

 

Movement variability: An optimal amount of variance within the global movements, due to the infinite changing conditions that occur before and during the movement task.

Here’s what’s on our agenda for today:

  • What is movement variability and what is it good for?
  • How can we appraise it in our bodies?
  • How does higher variability help us as dancers and movers?
  • Other random stuff that comes out of my brain.

Ready?

What is movement variability?

Picture yourself walking down the street. Something shiny catches your eye over the the right. With your eyes in the other direction, you don’t see the uneven patch of concrete and your ankle rolls over  to the outside.

Outcome 1: Sprained ankle. OMG! NO!

Outcome 2: You’re totally fine.

What’s the main factor determining your fate? Could be luck. But it’s more likely that in outcome two, your body understood how to get out of the ankle roll because it had been there before in a more favourable, safe condition, which didn’t result in an ankle sprain.

You and your ankle had the OPTION to get out of the inversion moment because that movement was in your body’s present vocabulary and you knew how to use it reactively without thinking.

This is an example of possessing movement variability, and using it in real life.

Having multiple strategies for joint and segment interaction to accomplish the same movement (walk around while gazing dreamily off in space, crappy sidewalks or no).

Having options (to move your ankle into maximum inversion and get out of it safely).

Having tri-planar movement ability when you want it, where you want it, to do whatever you want with it (to avoid inversion sprains).

The spice of life

Plain food sucks.

Unless you agree with the food shape…

I’m very sorry if that was disturbing for you…

Anyway, as in food, so too in movement; a lack of variability is not only bland, but…

…result in systems that are less adaptable to perturbations, such as those associated with unhealthy pathological states or absence of skillfulness.

~Human movement variability, nonlinear dynamics, and pathology: is there a connection? (Human Movement Science, 2011)

Movement variability provides us the ability to handle errors and make real time adjustments that occur with movement. Not enough variability and we become stuck in a pattern with limited options, increasing the potential for acute or chronic overuse injuries.

Variability creates movement options in multiple planes to cope with volatility (and all life is volatility). How well we get on amidst the volatility is a reflection of how safe or unsafe we feel with this perpetual flux, and how well we can find strategies to deal with it.

INTERESTING ASIDE: A lack of coping strategies is one of the top reasons researchers think dancers get hurt, so variability as a coping mechanism is a huge deal:

…ballet dancers tended to distinguish poorly between pain that is customary in dance performance and pain associated with injury. Pain is typically seen by dancers as an accompanying facet of dance practice, and dancers are prone to “dance through” pain, even when doing so may be detrimental.

…researchers determined that ballet dancers who are taught general psychological coping skills experienced fewer injuries and less time injured.

~Preventing dance injuries: current perspectives (pen Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 2013)

We can also potentially link optimal movement variability with a healthy variability and function of our autonomic nervous system: The ability to relax when we need to (parasympthetic), and to mobilize ourselves into action when necessary (sympathetic). We need to be able to do both to dance.

Evidence also shows us how higher movement variability reduces risk of injury, or, at the very least, is correlated with non-injured states.

You can see that movement variability is a pretty huge deal:

  • More movement options
  • More freedom in movement
  • Ability to reproduce movements reliably in variable environemnts, like, on stage under bright lights and high stress
  • Less injuries
  • Better neuroregulation

Sounds great, eh?

Embrace chaos

What’s interesting is that optimal variability in movement appears “chaotic”, which makes it easy to interpret as “noisy” and not useful. This is incorrect.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about human movement in the gait cycle, is how freaking chaotic the map of every joint motion seems. But chaotic doesn’t mean unhealthy.

First it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of variability: “End point” and “coordinative variability”.

End point variability: Refers to the product of movement, for example, stride-length, jump height, pirouette, etc. Ideally, this should be low. It’s nice to be able to reliably  perform tasks in a similar way each time we do them. Each step, each turn, minimal surprises.

Coordinative variability: Refers to the variability of the interaction between segments or joints. This should be high, or, within an optimal window that is neither too low nor too high. It’s nice when individuals can use multiple strategies in their bodies to safely achieve the same outcome.

When we look at literature relating movement variability with over-use injuries, the traditional view is that low variability in movement is good, because we want to be able to have a reliable experience when we go and try to use our bodies. Makes sense, BUT this  is only true if we are working with “end-point variability” which refers to the PRODUCT of movement.

When we zoom in, we see that variability in how joints can safely and easily interact should be high.

When we zoom out we can see how variability in the product of the joint and segment interactions should be low.

Having multiple safe and effective routes to drive to the grocery store is more useful than one “perfect” route, and can save you time and stress when 3 of those routes have massive construction.

To put it another way (as stated HERE):

 The path to frailty or injury is identified in this emerging perspective by a loss of variability in fundamental variables reflecting biological function

A loss of freedom. A loss of optionality. Injuries. Disease. Awkward dancing.

Movement variability vs. being skilled at making movement look good

But aren’t dancers already exposed to all kinds of movement? Doesn’t being a dancer imply high movement variability?  

Just because you can make all kinds of movements look good, doesn’t mean you possess the variability to perform the safely, efficiently, without extra compensation, and that you can keep doing them that way for as long as you wish.

Too, many dancers, particularly those who are hypermobile, have so much variability and don’t know how to use it. Too many options is just as troublesome as not having enough options.

This is why as educators, trainers, and health-care practitioners we need to understand how to look at fundamental movement quality.

Dancers need to prepared for infinite movement options, because you just don’t know what the choreographer is going to throw at you.

Ohh Marie Chouinard…

An example is a professional ballet company hiring a contemporary choreogpraher who may ask the ballet dancers to move in ways they are not used to. This often can increase the instance of injuries, despite the technical prowess these dancers possess: They just aren’t prepared for the new physical demand!

The fallacy: Strong technical skill does not equal adaptability, fundamental movement quality, or general strength, although adaptability, movement variability, and physical strength DO create the potential for stronger technical skill. 

So even though we could infer that dancers have high movement variability, this is sometimes an illusion due to skilled, but patterned movement.

As we know, being stuck in one pattern, even one you can do really well, does not create the multitude of options your body craves to perform safely and effectively in a variety of unpredictable situations and environments:

  • Different floors
  • Different lighting
  • Different size or shaped stage
  • Different style of dance
  • External stressor messing up your movement game
  • Uncomfortable shoes

Just consider the injury rate in dance. That should be enough to question: If a non-injured state is correlated with higher movement variability, and dancers are rarely in a non-injured state, how optimal is their variability, really? 

Is it too high, or too low? Where’s the sweet spot?

How did we get this way?

We were all born as bundles of perfect movement potential. Where the heck did things go wrong??

In dance a major factor is that we never mastered the fundamentals. Early specialization plays a role in this.

This is something I discuss all the time in this blog: Never having established, (or lost) a requisite base of fundamental movement. Miguel Aragoncillo wrote something really great on this topic (long term athletic development) a while back, too.

So while many dancers appear to be able to move their bodies in all kinds of ways, they are doing it without a foundation of tri-planar movement to support them, thus desirous coordination and interaction between joints and segments is not happening.

They can make most movement look good (their job as dancers, after all), but when it comes to the fundamentals, they might not be able to demonstrate clean, simple movement.

“Fundamental is not lowest level, but highest importance” ~Source unknown… Probably some Shaolin monk

So maybe you can achieve the range of motion you need, but it comes with an energetic cost, requires some “cheats”, and can cause some problems long term.

How are you doing?

Because I believe that demonstrating the ability to move well in three planes says a lot about you, how you’re doing in life, and the state of your autonomic nervous system. But that’s not really in the scope of my blog, just something I’m observing.

To illustrate the idea of clean, non-compensatory, tri-planar movement, just stand up and give these a try:

  • Can you posteriorally tilt your pelvis without bending your knees?
  • Can you shift your pelvis to one side without also rotating it?
  • Can you rotate your pelvis without also hiking one side?
  • Can you lift your ribcage up without having to lift your chin?
  • Can you shift your ribcage to one side without also tilting your head?
  • Can you tilt your head without shifting your ribcage to one side?
  • Can you inhale without needing to flare your ribs?
  • Can you exhale without thinking you’re going to die?

In other words: Can you do one thing without having to do another thing if you don’t need to? 

How’s your behavioural variability?

As in movement, so too in life…

Can you receive a correction in class without also taking it personally and feeling like a failure for a week?

Can you express yourself and your feelings-be vulnerable, without oversharing unnecessary details. Like that time in Vegas, you know, the incident at the swimming pool, with the peanut butter, and the Elvis impersonator?

Can you eat just one Lay’s chip?

You get the idea. The meta question is, “Do you have the ability to choose?”.

Movement being a behaviour, and behaviour requiring movement, we can see how variability is useful not just for physical performance, but LIFE.

Back to movement though, because this isn’t a behavioural psychology blog.

In an optimally variable system, we should be able to differentiate tri-planar motions, such as in the examples above, meaning, body parts can move in three dimensions independently of others to a certain degree.

Quite often this differentiation is missing: Things get smudged together (technical term). In the motor cortex, areas related to one body part can overlap with others creating this situation in which things HAVE to move at the same time and going through life as a chunk this is not going to feel good for very long.

life as a chink

The “traffic light” variability classification system ©™®;)

Here’s my FMS inspired “red light, yellow light, green light” approach to simplistically classifying potential variability, both for me to observe, and for the individual in question to feel.

I am basing this off results my standard movement screen, part of which uses the Anatomy in Motion model to look at triplanar movement through the pelvis, ribcage, and skull.

I feel that most people can be classified as green, yellow, or red, to varying degrees. Where do you fit in?

GREEN LIGHT:

  • You can differentiate most joints segments and movements with relatively symmetrical ranges right to left, front to back.
  • You are not completely missing one plane of movement.
  • What you feel happening is an accurate representation of what is actually happening.
  • Strategy: Let’s train hard, swing some bell, and kick ass. 

YELLOW LIGHT:

  • You may have difficulty differentiating some (or many) movements.
  • You have some pretty evident asymmetries right to left, and one or more planes of movement may be completely inaccessible
  • There is some discrepancy between what is actually happening and what you feel happening with movement.
  • Strategy: Let’s train the crap out of what you can do well. Spend some time exploring missing movements in reasonable, safe doses. Keep checking in regularly to see if things are improving. 

RED LIGHT:

  • Most of the body finds differentiating movements from one another troublesome and foreign as a concept, often bilaterally.
  • Very apparent asymmetries side to side and/or multiple planes of movement completely inaccessible.
  • Very little ability to distinguish whether movement is happening, in what quantities, and whether the range or quality differs from side to side.
  • Presence of acute pain with some movements.
  • Strategy: Let’s consider the need for rehab. If they don’t need/want rehab, get them breathing well, build in education on the value of movement quality/differentiation into sessions. Emphasize tuning in to how movements feel. Focus on making movement exploration feel safe with a conservative approach to adding intensity.

As a trainer with manual therapy skills, not a rehab professional, my general role is to help already healthy people get even healthier and perform better, yet due to the nature of the gym I work in (which is also a sports medicine clinic) most of my clients are fresh out of physio, and I tend to see a lot of sensitive, red light folks.

Though they have been “cleared” to begin training for fitness or strength or whatever their goals, just because their treatment is “done” it doesn’t mean Red Light Randy is ready to jump into a training program without first building a movement foundation, and learning to differentiate and appreciate his body in 3 dimension.

Randy: A classic Canadian work of art

I think a good chunk of dancers can be classified as red-lights. Surprising? Not really.

Dancers become really, really good at moving in specific patterns. They take great pride in their patterns, and will hold onto them for dear life. Does this sound like someone who can differentiate movement? Does this sound like someone with variability?

If we think of the biases in dance training and performance (those trained in ballet primarily) there are some “patterns” that can become pretty ingrained, such as preferring to stand and turn on the left leg, turning to the right, and gesturing with the right leg.

But it is useful knowing this lateralization is common, reducing our ability to move in various ways, and points to the importance of providing strategies for dancers to enhance and clean up their ability to differentiate body parts and their movement both right and left, in all dimensions.

Can you move it if you can’t feel it?

We need to back up for a moment and consider that if you can’t feel certain parts of your body at rest, it will be difficult to move them, too.

In your brain there is a physical area called the somatosensory cortex that holds a “map” of your body. In this map, the hands and face have the most representation- more brain tissue devoted to them, compared to the rest of the body, meaning we are more sensitive to touch and sensation in these areas.

What is also pretty cool is that the somatosensory cortex also has a motor function when the motor cortex is impaired.  Just shows that the structure in your brain that allows you to sense your body also is important for moving it.

Furthermore, in this monkey study, it was found that overuse of a particular pattern of movement requiring minimal variability, resulted in  motor control deterioration and degradation of body part representation in the somatosensory cortex.

To boot, in this study, there as a link found between somatosensory afferent input and motor control in people with neck issues.

How well you feel your body is linked to how well you move your body. 

This seems pretty common-sensical, but then you look at the number of people who don’t want to take the time to learn to “re-sense” where their heads are at, literally, and just want quick fix stretches and exercises.

I believe that a piece in this optimal variability puzzle is being able to feel each part of your body and have your brain recognize they exist while NOT moving as well as in motion. To me, this somewhat explains the hypermobile people who have all the movement potential in the world, but without an ability to feel their bodies are unable to fully use them.  Would love to hear some thoughts on this.

Can you sit still, close your eyes, and have a conversation, not a monologue, with your body?

“Hey there ribcage, I feel you there, I know you exist, how’s it going today”

“Actually, brain, I’m feeling like you don’t fully appreciate me, but thanks for checking in. Let’s work on this relationship a bit harder”.

This could be the topic of a blog post for another day, but I believe this ability to sense body parts at rest, to distinguish what you can feel clearly and what you cannot is incredibly important for movement.

Maybe I’m talking about meditation, maybe I’m starting to sound esoteric. But what I’m getting at is that differentiated sensory input = differentiated motor output.

How can you expect to get up and perform complex movements when you can’t even feel a body part at rest?

I would love to see more dancers develop an appreciation for the ability to sense themselves and their bodies at rest, and I think adopting this as a daily practice could be a huge asset.

In the ballet class I go to regularly, we begin each class in exactly this way: Lying on the floor, encouraged to explore which parts of our bodies we are able to sense, whatever that means to us. This has had a profound impact on my ability to connect and feel my body in motion and has allowed me to make interesting connections to why some movements are difficult to do, which streamlines my process of making adjustments in training and in life.

I would love if more dance teachers took the first five minutes of class in this way, to help the dancers tune in and appreciate their bodies in stillness before layering on the complexity in which this appreciation can become easily lost.

In martial arts, the “tuning in” part of training is huge. Being able to feel your body. To see yourself doing something in your mind before doing it with your body. Why is it not seen as important in dance? And in other sports?

Conclusions?

  • Higher movement variability (coordinative variability) is linked to being in a healthy, uninjured state, and provides you with multiple useful and safe strategies to perform the same task. Knowing that the world we live in is highly volatile, our ability to adapt and fine tune movement in real time is a crucial ability to possess.
  • Higher movement variability allows us to improve our performance as dancers by improving our ease and freedom in movement, get our joints into the positions we want without strain, and allowing us to easily adapting to new choreographic styles while reducing the risk that we might injure ourselves in the process.
  • The role of cross-training in dance is not limited just to strengthening and improving mobility, but to ensuring strength and mobility are built in a way that enhances movement variability. Often, the choice to participate in a strength training program is enough to enhance variability due to the new novel input.
  • The ability to differentiate the movement of  joints and segments in three planes is a useful way to appraise potential for movement variability, and a great learning experience for the individual.
  • “Tuning in” also plays a role in being able to sense our bodies at rest, which can influence how and what we can move when we are up on our feet. This is something that needs to be discussed and valued more highly in dance training.

That’s all for now. I think I wrote enough. Believe it or not, this post was originally much longer… You’re welcome.

Stay tuned for part 4.