Romeo, Juliet and robots - a better way to gain strength and mobility.

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  • Strength - Power - Agility - Speed - Flexibility - Mobility

Humans love categories and terminology, and rightfully so - words matter, simply because they allow us to communicate in a clear and efficient manner. This, of course, depends on a common understanding of the words used by those communicating.

Speaking of communication, I'd like to indulge in my own pretentiousness and quote some lines from one of my favorite dialogues:

"What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

These lines are from the famous scene in the second act of Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet argues that it shouldn't matter that Romeo belongs to the house of Montague (the rivaling family of her own house; the house of Capulet), simply because: "That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet".

Put in a slightly less poetic way:

The names we give things do not change their nature

You could call a rose a "Bleupfneep". It would still be that which we know as a rose.

Why is this important?

If we were to make the perfect body/body-part, with the time, resources and knowledge that we currently have, it would probably look somewhat like this:

The master swordsman, Isao Machii, is beaten by a landslide.
The robot is more agile, accurate, stronger and more  endurant than the human.

It is, in terms of the physical qualities needed for the assignment given, superior.

But before we make any hasty decisions and insert our consciousness into the first robot we can find, let's compare this with another video - also showing off the physical prowess of robots:

What happened?

Before we go on, it's worth mentioning that there are many robots who are a lot less motorically challenged than the ones in the video above, and I´m not trying to instigate robot hate (all robots are beautiful).
But the questions still remains; why are these robots suddenly failing - miserably at that?
Do they lack the strength and mobility to not malfunction?

The answer´s probably no. The movements themselves do not demand large amounts of torque or range of motion, and I would imagine that the engineers would be pretty damn good at their job to dare to enlist a competition hosted by DARPA.

The most probably reason is that, unlike the robot in the first video, these robots have not been pre-programmed with a set of moves. These robots had to manage in a setting where they were introduced to "noise" in the form of sensory input and motor feedback and had to calculate how to solve the assignments provided while simultaneously interpreting their external and internal conditions.

In other words: They lacked the skill to produce the necessary movements in the specific conditions.

This is why we have no problem creating software that can beat any world champion chess player, but we've yet to produce a robot that can move chess pieces with the speed and precision of almost any two year old kid.

(..How cool is human movement?)

How does this apply to our practice?

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet


The fact of the matter is that our bodies have no idea what strength and mobility is. 

Even though we have given names to these qualities, it does not change the nature of our bodies and how we react and adapt. Our bodies' primary concern (and what it does at any given time) is to make an estimate in which it evaluates our memories and our external and internal (this includes the structural state of our bodies - tissues and such) conditions to solve a problem/movement. 

As an example:
When we pick up a glass of water, our bodies need to estimate the distance/height of the glass in relation to the body, the shape of the glass, the surface material of the glass, the weight of the glass, the structural integrity of the glass, the current condition of your body, the position of the different parts of your body in relation to each other and a host of other factors.. At the same time it tries to figure out how you can move in a way that minimizes the amount of negative consequences (don't hurt yourself, don't overexert yourself, don't drop the glass etc).

When looking at movement like this, in all its complexity, it becomes apparent as to how we can and should maximize the probability to solve a given problem/movement:

By having attempted to solve that specific problem at an earlier time

This is one of the governing principles of how our bodies adapt:
SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands).
We become better at a specific move by practicing that move in a specific manner. That way we don't only build the specific physical qualities, we also create the specific and necessary skill.

This is why I, in my own practice, do not categorize the stuff that I do or label them with common conceptions of mobility work, and strength work:

  • What is our idea of strength?

    • To make our muscles contract in such a way that they create large amounts of torque in one or more joints.

  • How is this most easily achieved?

    • By reducing range of motion.

  • What is our idea of mobility?

    • To actively move our joints through large ranges of motion.

  • How is this most easily achieved?

    • By reducing resistance.

  • How does our ideas of mobility and strength influence the way our bodies adapt:

    • We can exert strength, but mainly through smaller ranges of motion.

    • We can move through large ranges of motion, but mainly if the resistance isn't too great.

Practical applications

Let's use a cossack squat, as an example:

  • Increase the range of motion of your cossack squat by cossack squatting.

  • Increase the weight you can manage in a cossack squat by cossack squatting.

  • Improve the control of your cossack squat by cossack squatting.

  • Don't think of a cossack squat as a strength exercise or as a mobility move.

  • Think of it as a skill, and develop it in the way that is necessary for you as an individual.

You may, of course choose to use leg-extensions as a way to increase the cross-sectional area of your quads in order to increase your squat numbers, or start doing mobility drills for your ankles to increase the depth of your squat. It will, to a small degree, help. 
But the fact of the matter is that there's absolutely nothing that will improve your squat, regardless if your goal is mobility, strength or control, better than.. Squatting. 

Another positive side to this is that if you eliminate/minimize these redundancies you also get more time to practice other specific skills, and if your ultimate goal is to be able to move in more ways, with more control and freedom, your primary concern should be how to manage your time in such a way that you get to move in more ways.

That's why the primary quality of a great movement program is not how it focuses on making you "stronger" or "more mobile". Rather, it's how it manages your time (more squat = less something else) and effort (only training heavy singles = potentially too challenging to overcome) in such a way that you get to develop more skills.

- Jon