Movement variability: how to approach introducing novelty

The very first time I took a yoga class with one of my favorite yoga teachers, she instructed us to take the first five minutes of class to move freely, in a way that felt natural.

As the music started and people started moving in and out of positions, I found myself irritated. “I am not here to move freely,” I thought. “I am here to be told what to do.”

I got over myself and ended up going through teacher training with her years later. Eventually, as I became more flexible and less rigid in my thinking and in my movements, I learned to appreciate the value in moving freely, without any set exercise sequence.

My original mindset is one that can easily be take a step further, separating movements into “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” As soon as people adopt the idea that there is a “right” way to move, we assume the “wrong” way to move will be injurious somehow, as though for the centuries before exercise science and EMG tests, our ancestors instinctively knew not to move the “wrong” way because imminent catastrophe was sure to happen.

When it comes to movement, I tend to get stuck in my habits. It’s one of the reasons I do weekly Feldenkrais lessons and carve out a little bit of time daily to play and explore. But, like all of us, I like what I like, and I tend to gravitate towards specific skills and specific ways of doing those skills. I think this is large due to the fear infested world that was fitness, exercise, and yoga, during my early (and not so early) years as a coach and teacher. “The knees shouldn’t go over your toes during a lunge,” your back should never bend when you lift something,” “your abs should be engaged at all times, about 10%, as though someone were punching you,” etc., etc. 

I adhered to these rules, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and later I adhered to different rules, eventually morphing the rules into an amalgam of what studying movement and people has taught me. I realized the traditional rules don’t always fit, just like my preconceived notion of what movement should look like didn’t always work for the person in front of me.

Home base:
Before introducing reactive or responsive movement, it is important for people to feel secure in what we will consider for the purposes of this post home base. I pointed out in a previous post posture is simply the transition between movements, or put another way, movement is simply a series of postures (2). If you pause for a moment, say, on your right leg as you are walking, what does it look like? Is it stable? Is there a sense of security on that right foot while the left foot swings forward? How does the rest of you feel? And what happens on the left foot? What happens in your hips? Or maybe one side feels really heavy and the other light, or the quality on each leg is different but you aren’t sure why. You get the idea. The point is, finding the pause as you transition from one movement to the other can often times be just as effective of an assessment as a single leg squat.

That’s not to suggest there is a “right” or “wrong” way of doing these things. However, many of us can find ways to be more efficient in our home base positions. 

Efficiency does not mean easy, especially if our habits in these positions aren’t reliant on an interplay between strength and softness. If you are in a squat position and I gently push you, can you recover from the push? Can you absorb any of the push? If you squat down to pick up something that is heavy, do you have the strength to establish the appropriate amount of stiffness? This balance between strength and ease requires muscular effort that is situationally dependent, at times requiring more rigidity, and at others less. Can you meet the demands of your environment?

There is also the degrees of freedom issue. The more control and mobility one has at the joints, the more ways one can respond to an external cue (1). As a result, spending time in the home base positions enables individuals to develop the flexibility and mobility needed to be in these positions (we’ll look at examples of home base positions below).

If you lack strength, you will feel floppy. Recovering from any sort of perturbation will be challenging. Think of what happens, for instance, if you slip on a rock while hiking. The home base in this scenario is being on one leg. If the base leg isn’t strong enough to recover from the slip, you will likely fall. This could have implications for other joints, like the ankle or knee, or it might simply result in a little bit of blood and a bruised ego. 

Conversely, if your ankle can’t absorb any of my the movement because it’s too rigid, something might break.

There are a few standard positions where developing basic strength allows more overall ease of movement. These are basic ones I look at for the general population. If you are working with a special group that has more specific needs, such as a martial artist or a dancer, developing strength in variations of these positions may be appropriate.

The first is the basic squat. Why? We squat down to get up. Gaining a sense of proficiency here can be extremely helpful during gardening, picking things up, and general daily life activities. 

When someone tells me they have pain during squatting, I have the person stand up and sit down from a chair. Nine times out of ten this isn’t painful. If the person uses his arms, the first order of business in having him do it without his arms. This becomes the exercise. The great thing about this is it can be practiced frequently throughout the day.

I have a client I will call Jan. Jan came to me for back pain about two year ago. She had radiation in the lymph nodes surrounding her chest years ago, which left her with a kyphotic posture. (This is common when you are working with clients or students who have had radiation. There is surprisingly little research regarding training people post radiation treatment, but my experience working with these individuals is the tissue typically feels tight and range of motion is restricted). She is quite active, and when she first started seeing me, she would try really hard to “stand up straight” by throwing her weight into her heels and extending her lower back. She had very little mobility and awareness of her thoracic spine and, despite how active she was, lacked strength in basic movement.

While we worked on awareness of her thoracic area and her perception of standing up straight, I used the wall as feedback for the wall sit position. I didn’t have her hold the bottom of the position at first while she built strength. I just had her slide her hips up and down. Once she was able to do sets of 8 without her legs feeling like they were on fire, we worked on holding the wall sit position for a couple of breaths on the last repetition. Because this kept her ribs and pelvis connected, she also experienced work in her abdominals. 

From there, we moved on to standing up and sitting down from a bench without using her arms. She had no knee pain during this exercise, even though her knees caved in significantly at first. I didn’t make any changes to her knee position the first couple of weeks. I simply let her build up strength.

Some of you are freaking out about potential tissue damage. Because her habit of letting her knees cave in was pain free and was how she had been getting up and down from a chair for years, her tissue had adapted and become strong enough to support her. This doesn’t mean it is efficient. Think about. What if she squatted down to do something, her knees are in towards each other, and something bumps her from the right side. Her knee is already caved in to the left; she has nowhere to go but down.

Once she became stronger, we worked on using the strength to keep her knees tracking more forward. This increased her options and hypothetically gives her a more stable base.

Progressions from here are removing the bench, using weights, and pausing at various points on the way down. 

Other home positions include standing on one leg, split leg stance, standing with feet parallel, hands and knees (quadruped), prone, plank position, tall kneeling, 1/2 kneeling, and sitting (both on a bench and on the floor).

Questions to ask yourself when you are assessing clients and students in these positions are:

  • Is the position pain free?
  • Does the person have the strength to hold it for a few breaths?
  • Is the person breathing in the position? (Indicates whether the position is stressful for the individual).
  • What is the person’s habit? i.e., How does the person hold each side of the body, what are the extremities doing, what are the hands and feet doing, what are the shoulders doing, what are the hips doing, what are the ribs doing, and what is the pelvis doing?
  • Is the person bracing, or does it look fairly relaxed?
  • Does the person look and feel stable?
  • Can the person move in and out of the position efficiently?

Now is probably a good time to mention reference centers. These are areas that provide feedback regarding position in space. Often what you will find people struggling with pain or insecurity moving is they don’t feel these reference centers. This can be for a variety of reasons, including lack of range of motion at the joint (affects proprioception), lack of muscular strength to get access the reference centers (affects both interoception and proprioception), or they simply “can’t find it” because they lack a clear internal map of their body (3). Reference centers I commonly use are:

  • Center of heel
  • Big toe and pinkie toe
  • Center heel of palm
  • Knuckles of index finger and thumb
  • Bottom of xiphoid process/T8
  • Ischial tuberosities
  • ASIS 

A lot of these come from PRI’s Impingement and Instability course; the hand connections are from a variety of disciplines and years of arm balancing work (when you like to be on your hands, being able to feel the ground is critical for support all the way into the shoulder).

Accessing reference centers requires awareness (teaching clients where the area is located in a variety of settings), improving mobility (often), improving strength (usually goes along with mobility), and being patient. These things take time to develop, so consistency and practice is key.

Fortunately, applying the reference centers to the home base positions is a great way to work on the things mentioned above and improve efficiency.

After establishing a solid home base, you can begin working on variability.

Adding variability to standard positions is fun. It challenges perceptions and empowers clients to feel strong and flexible in a multitude of ways. It also changes perspectives about how movement and strength can evolve. 

Let’s take the quadruped position. Pretend the person you are working with can feel his hands on the floor and the connection to the shoulders, doesn’t have difficulty maintaining a rib cage to pelvis position, and can hang out for a while without feeling fatigued. Where can he go?

Keeping the hands and the feet fixed there are a number of options: cat/cow, quadruped rock backs (with rounded spine, with arched spine, with “neutral” spine), rocking forward, “wagging the tail,” spine circles… Many of you do variations of these exercises already, to warm-up the hips and shoulders or the spine. You could turn this into a game for the client by asking him to keep his hands an knees connected to the floor while moving as many ways as possible. Ask him to go slowly, and see what he comes up with. It also moves the awareness away from how the client is moving internally, and shifts the focus externally. This can be really beneficial for increasing confidence and helping people move less rigidly. 

Another way to introduce variability in quadruped is to ask the person to touch your hand. Move your hand around, and make it challenging, but not too challenging. If the person struggles the entire time, you aren’t building confidence. You are slowly deflating it. 

An example of how to turn this into a game using downdog as home base can be found here:

Different habits will pop up (if you are standing towards the center of the person, which hand does he habitually use to touch your hand? If it’s always the same one, it gives you a clue about how he prefers to stabilize and gives you an idea for an exercise to use with him later).

You can also have the client move different parts of his back by placing a light object on different parts of his back and asking him to move towards or away from it. You are only limited by your creativity

Before introducing this type of work, I use elements of these movements in earlier sessions, such as cat/cow, hand and leg reaching, and quadruped rocking. This way, the person has ideas to draw from. If he gets stuck, I might offer suggestions along the way, like, “what happens if you turn your head to look back,” or “can you move your spine a different direction, other than up and down?” So many people are unaware of what their bodies are actually capable of; trainers, coaches, and teachers are in a unique position to open doors to the infinite possibilities that exist in human movement.

Other ways to introduce variable movement include throwing a ball at different places on a wall and catching it, avoiding a moving target, and transitioning between movements, (sit to stand, supine to prone, side-lying to 1/2 kneeling, supine to standing…). The possibilities are only limited by your creativity. 

This is not to say you should throw standard alignment and basic principles of good form while strength training at the window. We need to cultivate strength and mobility; we also need to instill a sense of confidence, allowing people to move freely and without always thinking about what comes next. Give people the opportunity to move playfully, without self-imposed constraints, and see what happens.

Yours in health and wellness,

Suggested further reading and Youtube ideas: (ideas with a ball) (more ball ideas. Great website). (squat ideas)

Latash, M., (20..). Fundamentals of Motor Control…
Gollihofer, A., Taube, W., and Nielsen, J.B., (2012). Routeledge Handbook of Motor Control and Motor Learning. Route ledge: New York.
Tao, H., Galea, M.P., & Hodges, P.W., (2008). Reorganization of the motor cortex is associated with motor control deficits in recurrent low back pain. Brain, 131(Pt8), 2161-2171.

Upcoming events:
Handstands: an introductory class series, May 13, 20, and 27 at Be Well Personal Training
Nature and Movement Retreat, Friday, June 2-4, Mayacamas Ranch Napa Valley
Breath and Upper Body Mobility: freeing up the shoulders and the neck. Saturday, June 17 at Be Well Personal Training
Hip Mobility and the Squat. Saturday, July 8, 9-10:30
All event information, including registration, can be found at