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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Movement quality, beauty, efficiency, and how to use it

Movement quality is often talked about in my profession. People recognise its importance, and try to test the quality of movement, but most often, in my humble opinion, the test batteries test something different. They test for range of motion, balance, strength (whether or not core-strength), motor control. While these can be useful to have, they’re not the same as the movement quality we’re talking about. Or they test some quality of only a few movements, but cannot capture the true movement quality of complex movement in a complex environment, e.g. normal movement in the real world *. I would like to suggest a non-technical, maybe obvious and even woolly, but practical way of looking at the quality that emerges from movement.

Imagine you’re invited by a friend to watch a practice session of an unknown sport, at least, unknown to you. The session is attended by both beginners and more advanced players. Would you be able to tell them apart? Although this is a hypothetical example, the answer would probably be: ‘yes’. Probably: ‘Yes!’ Maybe even: ‘Yes, easily, even my grandmother, who couldn’t care less about sports, could do so.’

Even if you would not be able to see the amount of goals scored, the amount of points earned, the amount of punches landed, … you would probably find it easy to separate beginners from advanced players. Let’s take basketball as an example and you are only allowed to look at a few basic moves, things that even beginners have learned, skills like dribbling, doing a lay-up, shooting a free-throw (without knowing the result of the shot). Would you see the difference? Easily!

Or take capoeira, the great game-dance-fight I’m enjoying being a beginner at. Put different levels of skilled capoeiristas on a line and let them do a few basic movements: jinga, meia lua de frente, martelo… Would you see the difference? Easily. Watch a drummer on video, but switch off the sound. Beginner or expert? Easy… Someone doing parkour for the first time, or an experienced traceur doing a simple precision jump? Easy…

Humans are good at taxing other humans move. There’s something in the quality of the mover that is easily noticed by others (take a look at this webapplication * ), and tells you about the level of expertise… Many patients I see are surprised by how good others notice them having pain, making them move different, even if the limp is very small, even if the change in posture is only minor.

I admit, the difference between the good and the really good is more difficult to see, and I’ve seen enough basketball players with a strange, stiff and not so beautiful style that excel on the court.

Beautiful. That’s the word that almost everybody uses when asked how they see if someone’s good or bad. Beauty, grace, elegance, flow, fluidity. These are the kind of terms that come to mind when you ask this question, and believe me, I’ve asked this question to a lot of people… Of course, in dance, circus, gymnastics, or figure skating where beauty is one of the most important goals, this is obvious. But even in the more utilitarian movement forms, like walking up a hill, throwing a stone, hitting a nail with a hammer, cutting a carrot, standing up from a chair etc. the beauty is visible.

This is also what I’ve noticed when reading anthropology and ethnography of hunter-gatherers and tribal societies. Time and time again, the western visitor is amazed by the movement qualities of these people, not only strength, endurance, stamina, etc. but especially so for grace and beauty.

“The ethnohistorical accounts present us with multiple images of humans constantly in motion: as long distance runners capable of sudden burst of speed, as burden bearers carrying heavy loads over difficult terrain, as hunters mimicking animals by creeping on all fours, as climbers of trees and cliffs, as racers and as messengers on long treks, as swimmers, as graceful walkers, moving almost as if in dance, recollected and with a high degree of self awareness.” Devine (1985) The diversity of human locomotion. American Anthropologist

‘Moving almost as if in dance!’ Surely, not only anthropologists have noticed this. Chow and colleges, in their 2016 book ‘Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: an introduction’, note that: “[…] research has shown that skilled athletes are able to: (1) integrate different limb movements into an aestetically pleasing pattern, (2) produce functional, efficient and effective movement patterns that appear smooth and effortless.”

Ah, besides beauty, good movers make it also look easy, make it seem effortless. The beauty and sense of ease of movement are strongly connected, and both are the result of movement efficiency!

“[…] more fluid movement […] is highly energy-efficient. Hence, intuitive comments, often based on subjective observation, that describe the execution of actions by elite athletes as appearing effortless, may be closer to the truth than might be imagined.” Handford et al (1997) Skill acquisition in sport: some applications of an evolving practice ecology. J Sport Sciences

And of course, movement efficiency, from a biological point of view, is what matters! You do not only have to be effective, you have to do it in a way that uses the least amount of energy.

“Over the span of evolutionary deep time we have evolved from single cell entities, to dexterously skillful masters of our physical universe. At every step of this journey Nature’s blind tinkering has persistently been pressurized by Darwinian imperatives to save energy; simplify control; avoid damage.” Kiely & Collins (2016) Uniqueness of human running coordination: the integration of modern and ancient evolutionary innovations. Frontiers in Psychology

So beautiful movement means efficient movement. This is all well, but what’s the point of these more or less obvious things? Well, I’d like to suggest using beauty and effortlessness to enhance movement quality, by using a principle put forward by William James:

“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”

If you want good movement quality, act as if you already had it. How? By making your movement more beautiful. By performing even the simplest exercises as graceful as you can.

Although this may sound a bit woolly, it is a ‘concept’ the patients and people I work with easily understand. However, this does not mean that they can easily change their movement behaviours and make them more fluid and graceful! It is a goal, that requires work and play to achieve.

A few things I like to say:

  • Try to do that movement as if a dancer, as if a tai-chi master, as if a good gym teacher showing you how to do it.

  • Try to exaggerate the gracefulness (without adding arabesques of course).

  • If somebody would watch you, try to make them think that you own that movement.

  • Make it look easy and effortless.

  • If the movement is not high in intensity, relax your face and smile, relax your breathing.

Again, in certain movement areas, these suggestions will be obvious and even superfluous. But in physical therapy, movement is often done in a mechanical way, without appreciation for the more subtle qualities. And trying to make the movement more beautiful, often helps improving the wanted mechanical properties.

The gracefulness of the movement is difficult to define, to quantify, but it is something easy to see and easy to grasp by patients or people learning a certain movement. If you really want a few specific things to watch for, here are some cues for the therapist/teacher:

  • Look at the face, check the breathing, listen to the sounds made by the feet. Face, breath and sound should all be appropriate: in low load situations, you don’t need to grind your teeth, block your breathing or make a lot of erratic sounds with your feet.

  • If the movement task allows it, slow it down, and make the person prove that he/she can keep the quality.

  • Can your patient relax a body part that is not engaged in the movement task. Can he/she relax the legs while doing an active hang? Relax the arms while balancing? We don’t want too much tension (think efficiency), we don’t want co-contraction rigidity. By the way, this is probably more or less the same as with the face and the breathing.

Beauty, grace, relaxed face, appropriate breathing and body tension, quiet movement are results of good movement quality. But my suggestion is to somehow reverse this, and use these properties to achieve good movement. Not as a panacea, not as a cure-all-miracle-treatment-hack, just as a nice tool in you toolbox.

Oh, and there often is a third category, besides beauty and effortlessness: fun. Good movers make it look like fun. You get a feeling of wanting to do the same: it looks so beautiful, easy, and enjoyable (that is, until you try it yourself). If it looks like fun, that can only be a good thing, no? Could we also reverse that and use the same principle: if fun is the result of good movement quality, can we make our exercises more fun to achieve good movement? You bet! It’s called play…



* I can think of two ways to test movement quality in an objective way. The first would be to test the efficiency of a movement task (variables like oxygen and what more), of which I know nothing. The other way, I also know nothing about, but seems interesting: movement variability…

** at first look, you may not understand the significance of it, until you realise they are just some points dancing around on a screen. Our brain automatically, maybe even compulsively, recognises the patterns of humans moving! My favourite: the heavy, relaxed and happy male, I can almost hear him whistling the Laurel and Hardy theme…


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