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Variability – Movement is not a software program

Movement is not a software program

Often in scientific literature the brain is compared to a computer. However this scientific analogy of the brain leads to the misconception that movements are stored as programs. This is a very common thought process that there is a motor program, some kind of pattern in the brain that will execute in your body when you think “squat”, and that the better you get at movement the more tightly honed that program gets.  Now if you look at the more recent literature you realize that “the movement” doesn’t actually exist! [Horan 2011, Farina 2008, Davids 2004].  So there isn’t a squat program waiting in your brain to get run.

Every time you squat, EVERY single rep is different.

What that means is if I squat once and I am somehow able to read all the EMG output of the muscles – there might be a certain firing frequency/ firing order that allows me to squat, but if I squat a second time the order will be different, (which is really against what most people are taught.. ). Now to make this even more confusing, the better someone is at a movement, the more variability in the way they accomplish that movement. So take a skilled mover and you get him to squat ten times. The change between every single rep in order of muscle activation, the number of neural discharge, the impulse, all of it! will be dramatically different. And this will become even more true as his skills develop.

Variability is essential noise

When first encountered in research, we used to think of this variability as noise. Now we look at that “noise” and we see it has great benefit! It is essential noise because the “noise”, the alterations means that person has a greater amount of freedom, endurance and resourcefulness to accomplish a particular exercise or specific pattern. As you can see in the figure below higher variability equaled longer endurance during static contraction [Farina & Madeleine 2008], and it is the current belief that variability is a key factor in avoiding muscoloskeletal pain and to  offset negative effects of losses in sensory sensitivity through ageing, disease, illness, or injury [Davies 2004].


It was concluded that the changes in spatial muscle activity distribution play a role in the ability to maintain a static contraction.
[J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2008 Feb;18(1):16-25. Epub 2006 Oct 16. The change in spatial distribution of upper trapezius muscle activity is correlated to contraction duration. Farina D1, Leclerc F, Arendt-Nielsen L, Buttelli O, Madeleine P.]

Good movement is not just about harmonious interaction or coordination between the different parts of the body.

It is most fundamentally about how the system interacts with the environment, particularly in response to unexpected changes. In other words, good movement implies a quality of adaptability and responsiveness to a changing environment.

There is no corrective exercises for movement, Movement corrects movement. – Dr. Andreo Spina

We would not say that someone is fluent in a language if they have only one way to communicate a particular thought, regardless of how perfect that particular communication is. Similarly, one is not fluent in the language of movement unless he/she can accomplish the same goal in many different ways. A person who can move from standing to sitting with perfect smoothness, but through only one particular trajectory, has less resourcefulness than someone who can modulate their descent to the floor in many ways. The power lifter who can perform a squat with perfect form is not necessarily prepared for a day of gardening, where the squatting movements need to constantly adapt to the environment – slightly off center, with the feet in different positions. (To be fair, the gardener is probably not prepared to squat 300 Kg either.)

Thus, we cannot always measure good movement by its adherence to some ideal form, but rather in its capacity to adapt to many different situations.

This capacity for adaptability and resourcefulness does not apply only to competitive sports. Our everyday lives constantly present unexpected movement or postural challenges.

  • A long plane ride in a cramped seat
  • A night on the couch or in a strange bed
  • Walking in shoes that are uncomfortable
  • Carrying groceries in one hand while loading a baby into a car…

In each of these situations, solving the motor problem might require a departure from what is normally considered “good” posture, proper form, or the most beautifully harmonious way to move. The ability to find a motor solution to all these unexpected problems is part of what we should consider to be motor intelligence.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

One take away is that motor intelligence is developed through facing a variety of motor challenges.

This is true even in sports that involve almost no element of unpredictability, randomness or variance during actual competition. The lesson – find a way to challenge your movement variability and resourcefulness. Use it or lose it!


[Farina et al. , 2008]
The change in spatial distribution of upper trapezius muscle activity is correlated to contraction duration.
Journal of electromyography and kinesiology, 18(1), 16–25.

[Davids et al. , 2004]
“essential noise”–enhancing variability of informational constraints benefits movement control: a comment on waddington
and adams (2003).
British journal of sports medicine, 38(5), 601–605.

[Horan et al, 2011]
Horan SA, Evans K, Kavanagh JJ.
Movement variability in the golf swing of male and female skilled golfers.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Aug;43(8):1474-83. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318210fe03.

Movement variability is a key factor in avoiding muscoloskeletal pain, and the negative consequences of ageing. Which is why training to increase your movement variability is a key part of Partner Acrobatics prehab program.  Join us in Thailand this January for the Teacher Training and learn more!


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