Exercises are specific movements that yield specific results.
Most workout routines focus too much on specific results and, as a result, consist of a small selection of movements.
Improving general movement quality and repertoire requires you to move in a focused and less monotonous manner.
Tasks are problems that you can solve in several ways which in turn allows for more variety while allowing you to strenghten and mobilize specific body parts in a structured way.
Task Oriented Training
«If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,» - Henry Ford.
Ford never actually said that.
At least there doesn’t seem to be any records to prove that he did. Nevertheless, «maybe-Henry» makes a good point; If you believe that there only exists one tool for a given job, you’ll only look for a better version of that tool while ignoring other and perhaps better options.
In the pursuit of better movement, our «fast horses» are «better exercises».
The very nature of exercises is also why they’re so popular: They allow us to target specific body parts by moving in a specific and somewhat measurable way.
Because of this:
We feel a bit safer (I know what I’m doing)
A bit more productive (I know what I’m supposed to do)
And just a bit smarter (I know the consequences of what I’m doing).
As mentioned in the previous article, the biggest benefit to this approach is that we get to focus and improve the limiting factors. We can target that which we feel we need to improve, whether it be overall strength and mobility or the size and extensibility of a particular body part.
The downside of this approach is that in order to adapt in a specific way, you also need to move in a specific manner. If you take a look at most people’s workout routine, you’d be hard pressed to find more than 20 different movements that they routinely practice.
You can create a remarkably strong and supple body with a small, well curated selection of movements. But as previously mentioned; your resources do not matter if you do not know how to apply them, and 20 movements alone does not an adept mover make. You’re going to need a lot more exposure to more movements and consequences if you wish to improve the deciding factors; your physical skill and bodily intelligence.
A better problem
Creating a more holistic approach to movement is simple, but challenging:
You need to be less specific.
You can do this by adding another perspective to how movement can be practiced.
A shoulder press as an exercise is executed, improved and allows you to adapt in one specific way.
However, if we look at a shoulder press as a task, we give ourselves a problem that we can solve by moving in several ways. Instead of trying to replicate a technique, you try to solve a puzzle:
«In how many different ways can you get object X over your head?»
I would argue that the options you have, the adaptations that might happen and the lessons you learn from the task are more suitable for anyone who wants the challenges and experiences necessary to move better.
Just imagine if there were two groups; one that trained the shoulder press as an exercise and another that approached it as a task. The latter would in all probability prove to be generally more useful. At least outside the competition that tends to take place inside the gym.
Despite this tasks are unfortunately not favored by the current training culture. Approaching movement as a problem is for now not as appealing as looking at movement as a solution. Especially if the problems seem too vague to be beneficial.
A better design
You rarely get decent answers if you ask the wrong questions.
This also applies to task oriented training.
You need to formulate a problem that you can solve in certain ways. You want to address certain body parts, qualitites and ways of moving. Not all of them.
If you are free to do whatever you want, you tend to either repeat what you find most comfortable or, worse, do nothing at all.
Here’s an example of a task that has been carefully designed to make you improve your mobility, stability and strength in a squat, while making sure that you target your feet ankles and knees as they move within a specific context.
By taking away the ability to bend the hips/move the torso forward and moving in certain direction, the movements are easily improved upon and repeatable. The very same things that makes exercises appealing. However there’s also:
Sufficient room to explore variations of the movements.
The opportunity to experience the consequences of several choices.
Conditions that allow you to discover and improve your strengths and weaknesses at the same time.
For the next two weeks, include the Barrier Squat into your program or practice it as a stand-alone movement.
By routinely solving the task, you'll not only improve your ankle mobility and strength, you'll also learn how to apply these resources in a more skillful manner.
Teach the task to someone else - preferably someone who's stuck in a squat pattern or who's perhaps a bit too focused on a particular physical resource. You can learn a lot from observing how others decide to solve a problem you've presented to them.