Movement Training: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The following is a guest post by Ben Cormack.

Over the last few years we have seen the rise of ‘movement’ training. You could say a movement of ‘movement’!

We have many more people calling themselves ‘movement’ ‘experts’ or ‘specialists’ and so I wanted to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of this area of training.

Whether this is a good term is a whole other subject and certainly open for debate. One of the main drivers behind this could be the desire to differentiate from a more traditional gym training approach. After all you would not expect to get bodybuilding style training from an S & C or athletic coach.

This piece is not about which approach to training is better or replacing one with the other but instead about the benefits and pitfalls of ‘movement’ training. It is also not about disregarding the need for hypertrophy or strength training. In this case that would be a straw man fallacy!

In fact this article maybe about how we can achieve a well rounded program by adding in many aspects across the training spectrum including strength and movement.

The concept of ‘movement’ training, as I see it, is about looking at enhancing someone’s movement capacity and overall movement skill or for a specific sport. These movements may look quite different from the set of exercises that we traditionally associate with the gym and muscle and strength building.

Whilst undoubtedly a traditional gym exercise approach will benefit muscle growth & strength are they all encompassing qualities to be able to fulfill all the requirements someone may need from their training?

What is Movement Training?

It could be described as moving our bodies freely through a variety of movements with differing angles and forces across multiple planes and in some cases with a target movement in mind that relates to the goal of the client.

This can be augmented with increasing loads, speeds, ranges & changes in stability to improve our physical capacity for moving.

This maybe the opposite to the controlled and specific gym based exercises that often take a more one size fits all approach.

Lets first look at the good in training movement!

The Good

We will all probably agree on the importance of a general strength base for both our clients and ourselves. Strength is a good thing, no doubt. How much we really need is another question for another day.

An area we think about less is the need for a general movement base. In fact I will go out on a limb here and say we need an ability to move well more than we actually need strength (unless you are a manual laborer of course).

Most people move through a fairly wide variety of movements on a daily basis. Therefore a capacity to be able to do so is important. I can already hear a little voice screaming, “Well if we already do it, why bother training it?” and it’s a great question.

Just because we do something does not mean we do it well. A sports person may go through landing mechanics hundreds of times in a season. It does not mean that that they get better at them in fact it may mean more risk.

That’s why we screen and subsequently train these movements to improve them. We can achieve many things with our current capacity it does not mean our current capacity or skill at doing them cannot be improved or need to be improved.

The point of training is to improve capacity. Strength is the capacity to lift more weight. Movement capacity is the ability to perform and tolerate better a wide range of movements, a quicker side step or a larger range of movement or capacity available at the hips to reach the ball for example.

An argument against training a wide variety of movements is that we should look to train the movements that we perform 99% of the time on the pitch rather than the 1% we may get each time with variety of movements.

Well which ones give us 99%?

Think for a moment about the movements a player may go through on a football pitch. How many could you count? Personally a hell of a lot!

Lets take a lunge. There are lunge like movements that happen all the time on the sports pitch so we could say that it is a fundamental movement for the sport of soccer for example. If we look a little more analytically though we start to see huge variation in the way it is performed.

The use of a traditional ‘gym’ style lunge may actually be a bit more like a 1%er that a 99%er when analysied. Moving vertically down with a neutral spine and feet in the ‘correct’ place etc etc may really happen vary rarely outside of the gym. Neutral spine is probably the absolute opposite of what happens on a sports pitch, especially if it involves running.

Instead we see different trunk leans, angles of lunge and horizontal ranges of movements, foot/knee/hip positions, spinal rotations. In fact we may have to think about 99 1%ers to actually encompass 99% of the movement variety.

We have to have good movement capacity to be able to tolerate and excel at that variety. Now that does not mean that you will get injured because who knows. It’s just that I want to help create the best capacity as a component of my training for any eventuality.


Lets think for a moment about overload. Overload accounts for a great deal of sports injury in my opinion. Overload may come from simply doing too much too soon and often in exactly the same way.

Think marathon training. People can cram training in before the event so that they do not get a gradual increase in distance and frequency that their tissues can adapt to without problems. This could also happen in response to a badly designed and implemented weight training program.

If we look at running injuries then how many of these injuries are caused by repetitive running in the same way, same trainers, same surface, same speed etc.

No variation = consistent overload and can eventually add up to a greater overall overload. This has been termed a supraphysiological load above the envelope of function of the individual. (1)

Can we offset these stresses through increasing movement capacity, skill and variety?

Strength training by definition is repetitive overload to create a training effect. Should we also off load the system in different ways? Would we advocate runners to change it up a bit? I certainly would.

A lack of movement capacity can account also provide overload. Stress to a tissue is Force X area. The less area of a joint or tissue we move over/through the more stress is applied to the area that we do. This could be around one joint/tissue or one joint/tissue in a chain of joints/tissue dealing with more stress that could be spread over the kinetic chain. (2)

If we are dealing with hypertrophy then that is awesome as the overload to the specific tissue promotes growth. If we are trying to improve or change the body’s ability to deal with overload stresses that may prove to be detrimental then the opposite could apply.

We have to think about health as much as aesthetics and strength. If we can achieve both then we have done a great job. A good base in movement capacity is about creating the ability to perform many different exercises and also off setting the decrease in variation we may see with increasing loads.

Decrease in variability has also been implicated with pain states such as lower back pain that many of your clients will have experienced. (3,4)

3D Movement

General ‘3D movement’ as it has been termed certainly can form part of a program. With this type of training the aim would be to increase the general capacity for moving. So we get a specific training effect of improving our general variety of movement.

This would not be specific to a sport or activity but improving general capacity to move and be able to have the movement vocabulary and capacity to run many movement specifics. That is what capacity and variability are about.

Strength training is offered up as having general crossover to lots of other situations such as sport. The same logic then must be applied to movement training. A good program would therefore probably encompass both approaches.

Our motor learning experiences diminish as we get older and our training is an opportunity to increase those experiences. As our lives become more structured we may see a decrease in our capacity for movement and ability to adapt to new skills.

Play is movement variety, we simply just don’t do the same level of play as adults. Our work and training can often limit our movement experiences if they do not include an element of variability. Your clients will want to do things such as play sport or DIY or gardening and often have limited capacity for these things and boy can they feel them after!

Higher movement variability has also been implicated in facilitating motor learning. (5)

Training is hopefully structured around increasing our readiness to do the things that we want and need to be able to do without being crippled for days after.

A criticism of using movement as a variety approach is the use of light loads and therefore the inability to create a strength or aesthetic training effect. This would be true if the training effect was to be able to move load or look better rather than having the ability to navigate the sports pitch better.

Being and having the ability to be variable, especially when someone is not, IS the training effect and in my opinion this can be large. If we also think about the law of diminishing returns then we will possibly need much less load and overload stimulus in untrained positions and movements.

The video below demonstrates a few 3D exercises I like to use to add some variability to a training program.

The Bad

Movement Is The Only Way To Train

That is simply not true. I am not sure there is a best way to train or any of us have it right, especially if we adhere to one modality.

Movement will only form a comprehensive training program if the only requirement is better movement. In a rehab setting this may well fulfill the aims of the session or the overall goal.

In a training setting this may not be the case especially if the goal is not actually moving better. Whilst we could argue it may have an impact on injury prevention/overload , tissue health etc the goal of increasing muscle size, moving more weight or reducing fat/mass will not be accomplished. Therefore it has not achieved the aims of the program which of course will = fail.

Variety For Varieties Sake

Anything that goes in a program should be well reasoned to fulfill the overall goal. We should always start with the end in mind.

Just moving in lots of different ways can appear random and it may be just that. Random. If you randomly throw in exercises you will get…wait for it…random results. If you do achieve what you are setting out to it may just be luck.

Using a general template of a movement or a consistent movement used in a sport and then varying that movement in a thoughtful and systematic way can be defensible and beneficial as a component of a program. Just moving randomly for the sake of moving probably not so much.

Just throwing your hands and legs about in random ways does not fit the model of thoughtful and systematic

The Ugly

Attempting To Be Too Specific

This kind of comes back to what we discussed earlier. Are their many movements we can pin point as being major movements in a sport. Well yes, squat & lunge variations happen all the time for example.

But which ones specifically?

That is a tricky question. Can we just pick one to form a specific model? I would struggle to. So rather than one ultra specific movement it maybe best to just have fundamental movement templates we can adapt and vary rather than rigid and strict models.

Just recreating is not changing or improvement training its just recreating. The golf swing is a great example. Golfers probably hit too many golf shots already, adding in biomechanically authentic movement for golf could simply be just more overload.

Although the end point of the skill should be specific, the way in which we internally execute the movement is far less specific. The less we stress the same bits again and again the less chance of specific overload, especially in repetitive situations such a sport and its training.

If you do want to replicate so specifically you may just want to play the sport. Increasing variation, variety and capacity for a sport is something different entirely than just recreating a set of biomechanics.

Creating better management of forces within the body or increasing physical capacity that is hindering the execution of skill is a more measured approach for specificity rather than simply replicating the hypothesized ‘correct’ biomechanics and then attempting to overload them.

Just adding increased weight (a training overload) to a rotational movement such as a baseball or golf swing to improve power may not do that at all and in fact it may actually negatively affect the skill.

This could be because of the precise muscular timing and coordination used to generate the right force built through relevant practice is now altered.

We see an inverse relationship between load and velocity, basically the higher the load the lower the velocity (8). This appears to not lead to a subsequent increase in velocity post exercise (acutely in this case) according to the previous studies. And no evidence I am aware of for longer term adaptation (I am happy to be corrected here)

Training adaptations to this approach to overload maybe creating a new skill of being able to swing a weighted version better than being able to better perform at baseball or golf.

The same could be true of various tools that alter momentum that they simply do not add direct crossover to the specific skill. It could be better to load general movement templates if this is a desired training effect.

Training to improve force production through various vectors with different loads and velocities is good training. Tying this into ultra specific biomechanics maybe unnecessary or even detrimental.

One of the other problems we discussed here is what are the ‘correct’ biomechanics to base the training on in the first place?

We see here that the joint mechanics actually changed with different clubs, as did the velocities. Add in variations in task performance, surface incline, surface stiffness, weather & fatigue and suddenly the ‘correct’ and specific biomechanics become a pretty grey area.

We see variations in the way that golfers perform the movement biomechanically and it actually has no effect on the actual execution of the skill. Showing that the mechanics are individual in the first place. (10)

It appears the movement from the proximal segments is much higher in variability than the arms still with little effect on skill execution:

It is apparent that the priority of skilled golfers is to progressively minimize hand and clubhead trajectory variability toward BC (Ball contact), despite the individual motion or coupling of the thorax and pelvis.” (11)

This is much like a blacksmith would raise the hammer variably but hit the metal in the target place when executing.

Here we also see gender differences so your mechanical hypothesis would have to take into consideration if you are training a man or a woman.

The body of evidence points to the fact that movement happens differently each time internally even if the external execution remains the same and if we did just repeat the same movement time after time what would that mean for the body?

Spending hours on working out what these specific mechanics for a movement also seems a little bit of a waste of time. We really don’t know what is occurring inside the human body, its exceptionally complex. That’s why people perform studies such as the ones above in a methodical and controlled manner rather than using the naked eye and a pen and paper.

The study of biomechanics is about actually scientifically quantifying movement not trying to guess what is happening from looking from the exterior. It requires expensive equipment and extensive training.

Any other form of analysis is nothing more than a guess. We hypothesis about muscle firing patterns and they turn out to be both variable between individuals and variable when repeated by the same individual. I see our mechanics as no different to this and this appears to be reflected by much of the research base.

Although the end point of the skill should be specific the way in which we internally execute the movement is far less specific. The less we stress the same bits again and again the less chance of overload, especially in repetitive situations such a sport.

There cannot be a movement ideal if movement is ideally able to be variable. This is down to factors such as our individual anatomies and motor learning experiences.

Think of the mechanics of running, they will be affected stride to stride by surface stiffness, incline, speed & shoe.

Taking that concept of recreating the mechanics and then throughout a session adding them into other exercises such as trying to turn a press up into a ‘golf’ press up as far as I can see it just is not specific. It certainly does not fulfill the requirements of specificity or movement variety, it is just moving.

The motor pattern, orientation against gravity, deceleration and summation of force, velocity & use of the kinetic chain are all just completely different. This is much the same as just adding load to a sports movement; it changes the execution of the skill. In essence it becomes another unrelated skill.

Training joint mechanics of a specific movement outside of the whole motor pattern for specific crossover is a lot like isolating a muscle and then expecting crossover.


Author Bio:

unnamedBen Cormack owns and runs Cor-Kinetic an education provider teaching training and rehab methodologies based in modern movement, pain and neuro sciences. 

Ben has been involved with training & therapy for the past 15 years originally from a sports perspective but now pretty much for anyone!

Cor-Kinetic are regularly invited to educate and work with elite sports teams in both the UK and Europe including many English premiership football and rugby clubs. Ben has worked with Champions league and international footballers, title winning boxers and elite endurance athletes.

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