I've written quite a bit on this blog about the benefits of moving slowly for improving coordination. One of my favorite movement practices, the Feldenkrais Method, relies to a great extent on slow mindful movement as a primary means to develop coordination. Many people will look at very slow and gentle movements and think - how can these possibly do anything? Isn't harder and faster better than slower and softer? This post is an answer to that question.
There are several excellent reasons to use slow and gentle movement as a means to develop coordination. Probably the most interesting reason (I'll start with that one) is based on an obscure principle called the Weber Fechner rule. The Weber Fechner rule describes the relationship between the magnitude of a particular stimulus and the brain's ability to sense differences in the amount of the stimulus. The basic rule is that as you increase the stimulus, the ability to tell a difference in the amount of the stimulus decreases. This is a very common sense idea. Imagine you are in a dark room with only one candle lit. It will be very easy to sense the difference when one additional candle is lit. But if you are in a room with two hundred candles, you will have no idea when an extra candle comes on.
This rule works for all varieties of sensory perception, including sensations of muscular effort. So, imagine you are holding a one pound potato in your hand while blindfolded. If a fly landed on the weight you would not know the difference, but if a little bird landed you would know. Now imagine holding a fifty pound potato. You wouldn't be able to feel the little bird landing. It would have to be an eagle. The point is that when you increase the weight from one pound to fifty pounds, you become about fifty times less sensitive to changes in the amount of muscular force you are using to lift the weight.
Why do we care? Because if you want to make your movement more efficient, you have to be aware of when you are working too hard. If you slow down and thereby increase your ability to sense differences in muscular effort level, you increase the brain’s ability to sense and correct any potential excess and unnecessary effort. Imagine that every time you try to extend the hip, you are at the same time slightly contracting the hip flexors instead of relaxing them. This means that your muscles are cross-motivated - the flexors are fighting the extensors a little in their effort to extend the leg, making them work harder. You will be much better able to sense and inhibit this inefficient co-contraction by moving very slowly and easily. By contrast, if you move fast and hard, you will never be able to sense and correct the problem.
Here's another way to look at it. In an earlier post I discussed how accurate movement depends on a good proprioceptive map. When I say map I mean the physical areas of the brain responsible for controlling and sensing the movement at each body part. These brain areas or “maps” develop their neuronal linkages in response to physical practice and the sensory feedback that occurs as a result. So, for example, if you practice the piano for years, the part of your brain that senses and controls your finger movement will start to become more intricately and efficiently wired, and will even grow larger.
Applying the Weber Fechner rule, we know that gentle movement leads to a more accurate and discriminating perception of the mechanics of the movement. In other words, there is more detailed and refined information available to the brain to build the movement map. The map becomes clearer with greater resolution. It’s like clicking the zoom button on google maps. There’s more detail, more side streets are revealed, more information about how to move around that joint.
So, slow gentle movement will make your movement map clearer. It can also help make it broader, covering more territory, because slow movement is the best way to explore new movement territory. Your Central Nervous System (“CNS”) is inherently threatened by new movements, or moves you haven’t performed in years. It’s not going to let you go there unless you go slow and easy. In the Middle Ages, maps of the world included most of Europe, and then on the corners of the maps were serpents with the phrase – Here Be Dragons. Your brain’s map of movement starts to look similar as you age. The safe and familiar areas become smaller and smaller, while the unknown territories become bigger and bigger. Watch a kid playing at a playground for ten minutes and you will likely see many movements that are now off your movement grid. If you want to revisit these areas, you better start slow and easy.
This rule applies not only to difficult and potentially dangerous moves like a cartwheel or back flip. It also applies to everyday movements like simply turning your head to look behind you or sitting into a full squat. There is a huge variety of ways to do these simple movements, hundreds of different angles for the joints to assume and literally millions of different muscle activation patterns to execute them. As you age, you will likely use less and less of these movement possibilities until you are stuck in a narrow range of options. For example, there’s a good chance you have one or two thoracic vertebrae that almost never turn to the right. Or maybe there is a certain hip angle that you always unconsciously avoid – let’s say 30 degrees of flexion plus 10 degrees external rotation plus 15 degree of abduction. Maybe this angle became a problem after a knee surgery ten years ago. Your CNS learned to avoid it, and this became a habit. Now, because of sensory motor amnesia, it has effectively become a dead zone or Bermuda Triangle on your movement map. If you want to even find this spot, you will need to move slowly and mindfully, because any fast movement will simply activate the habitual way of moving and skip right over it. And when you do find the dead zone, you will want to be going slowly, because the soft tissues related to that area might be a little stiff and crusty after years of non use.
Another reason to move slowly and gently is to allow yourself time to approach movement in an exploratory and curious manner, and to put a great deal of attention on the subtle details of the movement. Becoming more coordinated is essentially a matter of rewiring the neural circuits that control movement, which is an example of a very fashionable process called “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity simply means the brain’s ability to change. According to Michael Merzenich and other prominent neuroscientists, attention and awareness are major preconditions for neuroplasticity to occur. In other words, your brain is much more likely to get better at a certain activity if you are paying close attention while doing it. Slow movement can help your ability to pay attention to exactly what you are doing when you are doing it.
It’s worth noting that the greatest leap forward in anyone’s movement education takes place in the first two years of life, a time when all movement is very slow and gentle curious and exploratory. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais based much of his Method on his study of infant movement and motor development.
It is also significant that a great many elite athletes, musicians, and martial artists have used slow motion practice as a means to develop their skills. Ben Hogan, Monica Seles, and I’m sure many others who I don’t feel like looking up right now use slow motion movement as an important part of their practice routine. Probably Tiger Woods used slow motion practice too, and maybe even for his golf game. Even Olympic lifters, the most powerful athletes in the world, will spend substantial time improving their technique using only a broomstick.
Of course, at some point you will have to speed things up to use your skills in a more real world application, but it should be clear that slow movement presents some huge advantages that are not present in any other form of practice.