5 Tips for Mastering the Human Body through Movement

In 2012 I travelled with a dance group to Livingstone, Zambia, with the goal of teaching the children of the SOS Children’s Village how to dance; a rather ironic notion coming from a group of Norwegian teenagers. The trip completely changed my view on physicality, socializing and play.

At the end of our first day with the kids my ego had been completely smashed by their seemingly natural skill at what we were supposed to be teaching them, and I realised just how physically and mentally handicapped I had been my entire life. These people had no fear of being judged by the way they moved. Without the modern entertainment tools we rely on so heavily in the west today, the kids had grown up using movement and their imagination to keep themselves occupied. What we saw was a lively group of people with excellent control over their bodies, and a unique ability to connect with their surroundings in a confident manner. This experience drove me to pursue a similar kind of freedom of movement, and I have taken much inspiration from the ideas and techniques of MovNat and Ido Portal, in particular.

Over the past couple of years I’ve helped many people get started with a proper training routine and become more comfortable using their bodies. Some met the challenge with more enthusiasm than others, but they all gave the same reasons for not having done anything sooner:

  1. Lack of time.
  2. Lack of confidence
  3. Lack of motivation

I have found myself quoting those exact same reasons many times before, and these times have never been high points in my life. By pushing myself to play with movement I’ve not only been able to overcome these obstacles, but also found the practice cultivates the points where I, and my friends, used to be lacking.

In this post I’m going to share with you my learnings in the form of 5 tips for mastering the human body through movement. You will learn how to gain confidence through physicality, get in great shape for the long run, maximize your use of time and rid yourself of unnecessary worries by approaching life with a ‘playful mindset’.

1: Play with movement in everyday life.

Our bodies are made for action but we very seldom do them justice. Instead of viewing physical activity as a necessary evil to justify slouching and procrastination, challenge yourself to play with points of your day that would otherwise be spent in unproductive inactivity. Using your body regularly will improve your mental and physical health, freeing up energy to focus on what you really want to be doing. Enough small slots of spare time filled with exercise could even constitute what many would call a good workout.

Here are seven activities you can start doing immediately:

  1. Get down into a squat while waiting for the bus.
  2. Balance on the curb, or a hand railing while taking a walk.
  3. Climb a tree for the heck of it.
  4. Hang from the overhead railings (if there is space) when stuck on the underground. (Variations on hanging are a great base for many movements and can do wonders for your spine.)
  5. Take the stairs as often as you can and challenge yourself to vary your tempo, fluidity, number of steps at a time etc.
  6. When suffering from lack of motivation or imagination when doing work, give yourself a few minutes break, find a private place and see how many pushups you can do in a minute, or enjoy some light stretching. Anything that gets your blood pumping and stimulates your breathing helps.
  7. Exchange what would otherwise be 15 minutes of procrastination watching youtube or navigating the treacherous waters of facebook, with an exploration of movement. Turn on some music in the private safety of your room, and see what you can do. Move your hips, crawl, jump, try to pop like a hip-hop dancer - it’s a game for yourself, and it’s all OK; nobody can see you.

Don't forget to give yourself credit for all physical activity you do. By acknowledging vacuuming the house as a game that can be done in numerous different ways, I try to finish the task as quickly as possible, without compromising the quality of movement, and get a pretty good cardio session done as a result. With a funky tune on the stereo, and a specific set of rules, you’d be surprise at how many seemingly mundane tasks can suddenly become exciting.

HeiaHeia is a great website for keeping yourself motivated in your training. It does this by allowing you to set goals and keep track of your workout history as well as all the other physical activities you do. It even has “shopping” on the list. Carrying bags of milk and potatoes up the stairs with perfect form; buying groceries has never made me feel more awesome.

2: Practise movements you will actually use.

When playing with different movement patterns or working out to build strength, figure out which movements are most applicable in real life. Spending most of your sessions doing bicep curls will give you large biceps for sure, but this muscle is hardly the most useful one if not being trained in conjunction with the major muscle groups of the upper body.

Variations on the following exercises will keep you pretty well covered:

The pull-up

Not only does it work your biceps, but it focuses on the core, grip, and entire upper body. This exercise builds strength for any movement involving pulling, such as climbing, hanging, rowing and lifting. And let’s not forget, boys, it’s one of the best ways to achieve that V-shape so many of us long for.

Watch this playlist to learn how to do safely.

The squat

Our leg muscles are the strongest in the body, and probably the ones we rely on most. Squats will strengthen your legs and core, and increase your jumping power. If you have a heavy bag or a partner to lift, being able to squat, walk and run with weight on your shoulders with correct form is a valuable skill for everything from carrying a keg to a party, to rescuing a person from a burning house. It’s also surprising how few people actually use their legs to lift properly, so squatting with good posture is vital for preserving your back.

Practise sitting in a squat (heels on ground and back straight) as a resting position. Time spent living in China has made me a solid supporter of squatting toilets. Proper bowel alignment and good squat training; people should be paying for this stuff!

Watch this playlist to learn how to do safely.

The push-up/Crawl

These exercises are great for core, chest, tricep and shoulder strength. Most people are familiar with the push-up, an exercise that can easily be adapted from beginner to elite, but crawling is often neglected. Variations on the crawl is great for maneuvering in environments where different levels are necessary, and is an important transition point between a standing and prostrate position. These exercises are an essential part of locomotion training and can easily spice up any workout.

Open spaces are ideal for crawling, but if you find yourself in a small room, concentrate on taking singular steps in all directions with slow, deliberate motions to compensate.

Watch this playlist to learn how to do safely.

Throwing

Trying to throw heavy objects as far as you can, with either one or two arms, is a awesome way of building explosive strength. Squat down (with good form, naturally), pick something up, raise it to your chest and throw it as far as you can. This exercise can easily be done outside with stones or logs, and, combined with squatting with good form, is one of the best compound movements you can practise.

Watch this playlist to learn how to do safely.

When practising calisthenics, there are 3 main ways of varying the difficulty of a technique:

1. Increase the angle - put your feet on an elevated surface during a push-up.
2. Balance - one legged squat on a log, or push-up with hands on basketballs.
3. Single limb - one armed push-up.

If you’re having difficulties with the exercises, try focusing on the negative movement until you’ve built up enough strength. E.g. Jump your chin up to the bar in a pull-up, and lower your body slowly in a controlled fashion.

Always make sure to warm-up properly and choose suitable variations for your current level. General rule of thumb is to work up a sweat, and make sure you run through some mild variations of the movements you will be going through later. Remember; quality over quantity, and you’ll be making progress in no time.

3: Join a group

Being able to push yourself to fulfil your goals, and be comfortable when going against the norm by yourself is great, but it often helps to be a group of people who can keep each other motivated.

When setting out on any kind of life changing endeavour the odds are that other people have been wanting to do the same thing. Share your ideas with friends, or search for groups in your area to find people to train with and join you in playing with movement. When getting into parkour I was by myself, and had a really hard time finding the motivation to go out and train alone. After a while I found the value in not being afraid of doing something unusual by myself, and viewed parkour as a personal practice, but for me, the most inspiring sessions have always been done in a group.

Couchsurfing.com is great for arranging events and getting in contact with likeminded people in any given place.

Freeletics.comis also a good, growing community for people wishing to do some hard-core bodyweight training in a group environment.

4: Be a generalist

Professional athletes strive to perfect one set of movement patterns important for their discipline, but this training doesn’t necessarily give them the healthiest and most capable body. A footballer will have good endurance and explosive leg strength, a climber might be able to lift his entire weight with one arm, but put in each other’s shoes they will probably not be that good.
As a mover in general, not specializing in any sport, it’s important to keep trying new things, and find ways of increasing your movement skills. At this point I feel it necessary to do something truly original, like quote Bruce Lee -

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”.

Following his advice it’s imperative to not be discouraged by failure. Most people complain they can’t dance, but never even try. Go to that dance class. You may not be very good in the beginning, and sometimes you might even find yourself being rather shit, but that’s a sign you need to persist. If you keep working you will improve, and the more skills you encounter and practice, the easier the next one becomes because your focus is on their interconnectivity through movement.

5: Let kids be your role model.

One look at a young child in the park, squatting down to pick up a ball, standing still, or running around will most likely show you correct posture and a healthy way of moving.

When going to an Alexander technique class for the first time, most of the lesson will be spent sitting down and getting up from a chair, and it’s usually not until you’ve gone through this process that you realise how bad you are at doing just that. Even the most basic of movements that you’ve done every day your entire life like sitting, walking and standing may carry a lot of tension and actually be bad for your body.

Children learn by imitating their elders. Unfortunately for them, modern day society in the west carries with it so many bad physical habits that the children’s use of their bodies degrade year by year until they become just another copy of the hunchbacked, motionless John on the street, ready to influence another generation. Social expectations as to how you behave and use body language have created a culture of movement that goes against our anatomical architecture. Chairs ruin our backs and supported shoes take away the natural musculature of our feet. If we could let ourselves be inspired by the freedom of body and mind a child enjoys, we would be a lot healthier and happier for it.

You are your own Master

Practising some of these tips might strike you as rather odd or simply as unacceptable behaviour, but being able to do unusual things with confidence is a great skill to have. So many of our mental and emotional inhibitions manifest themselves in the restricted way we carry ourselves and move that by being adventurous with our physicality we are effectively creating elbow room for our mental state to evolve. This practice in confidence will inevitably show in the way you view yourself, and therefore also in how you are perceived by others; that job interview is a lot less intimidating, you’re pro-active in pursuing your goals, and people find you more attractive. You are in control.

Our physicality and mentality definitely influence each other, but the physical part of our being is the easiest to start working with. By striving to master your body you become the master of your own life.

Welcome to the movement.

Do you have any other tips as to how we can improve as movers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!