This is a guest post from Ryan Hurst of GMB Fitness.
GMB do things differently. Borrowing from their experience in martial arts and gymnastics, they help people reach their true physical potential with unusual – yet highly effective – methods.
If you want to change your body (and life) for the better, their website is one of the best resources out there. You won’t find the same old, rehashed information you see everywhere else. Instead, you’ll find insanely useful advice and tutorials, including detailed guides to master the pistol squat, muscle-up and handstand.
I’m a huge fan of their work, so when Ryan (one of their co-founders) agreed to put this article together for me, I was super-excited. The 3 full-body exercises he is sharing will help you move better, remain pain-free, and seriously strengthen your core.
Fair warning: this article is a little technical in parts. Don’t let that put you off.
We all want to make sure that we get the most out of our workouts.
We only have so much time to train, so it’s important that we use exercise protocols that give us the biggest bang for our buck.
There are four primary attributes that can be improved by exercising. They are Strength, Flexibility, Cardiovascular Conditioning, and Motor Control.
Almost everyone is familiar with the first three, as they are easy to define and are addressed in most standard exercise programs.
- For Strength, whether with weights/machines/resistance bands, or bodyweight exercises, the goals of building muscle and power are pretty universal.
- The same goes with Flexibility. From touching your toes to doing the splits, getting limber and mobile makes sense and you can gauge progress pretty easily.
- In Cardiovascular Conditioning workouts, you expect to see improvements in your endurance and keeping your breathing steady.
But what is Motor Control and what does it have to do with your physical fitness? And how do we know if we’re making improvements in our overall body control?
Motor Control: Why You Should Care
Motor Control is a technical term referring to how our bodies move when performing a particular task or skill.
It involves the interaction of sensations within the body and outside of it, and our initiation and continuation of a movement based on the feedback we get from these sensations. There is a lot of science exploring the details and specifics of what’s happening when we learn and perform physical activities.
But you don’t need to read complicated journal articles to understand what good coordination and body control means and looks like. We all intuitively sense when someone seems more “put together” than others in the way they move.
It’s not only an athlete performing well that catches our attention, but a woman on the street that walks with a graceful gait, or a waiter that seems to move without wasted motion. And perhaps it’s not something we consciously think about at the time, but just a sense of knowing when a person is moving well.
There are various ways to talk about control and coordination, including hand-eye and leg-eye coordination when manipulating objects, such as throwing, juggling, and using implements like baseball bats, tennis rackets, and golf clubs as extensions of our extremities.
But we are most concerned with having control within ourselves and in moving our body through space.
Body control at its simplest is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease, with no wasted energy.
More specifically, with a good level of motor control, you are able to manipulate your joints and limbs in distinct actions to create your desired movement pattern. Whether it’s something vigorous and powerful like a twisting backflip, or precise and coordinated like a cartwheel on a slack line, you are demonstrating an adeptness in that skill.
And this is not just something you are born with, it is trainable and you can get better at it.
Exposing yourself to different stimulus, exploring new patterns, and figuring out what idiosyncrasies within a movement work best for you are the best ways to develop your skills practice.
There are several disciplines that devote a large portion of their method to body awareness, including Hatha Yoga, Feldenkrais, martial arts, and dance. What the best of them have in common isn’t just a consistent performance of the chosen activity, but also the incorporation of a mindful and thoughtful process.
Going through the motions isn’t helpful for most things, and it’s especially harmful when working toward improving control over your own body.
And what’s interesting about it, is that when you work on it correctly it helps all the other aspects of physical fitness. Being able to control your body requires strength and flexibility. So those are built up accordingly.
This is especially true with the deeper muscles along the spine and core. Moving your body well necessarily means having a strong core and the ability to connect your entire body with this foundation of strength at your core.
Rather than working on your body as a collection of parts, you are learning how to move as a cohesive whole, with everything coordinating together to move with control, grace, and ease.
How to Start Working on Motor Control
Our main goal is to improve how we control our own bodies, so it makes sense that the training will focus on bodyweight exercise, rather than barbells, kettlebells or other equipment.
The trick then is to emphasize bodyweight exercise that is distinct from the usual calisthenics generally practiced, such as push-ups and sit-ups. While these are great for general conditioning and strength, they become too simple after you’ve learned correct form and don’t provide the novelty needed to stimulate improvements in motor learning.
You’ll need to work on movements that are amenable to progressively challenging you, so that you can adapt and grow with each training session.
Full-body locomotor patterns provide this stimulus while being easy to incorporate into your routines immediately.
Often seen in children’s martial arts classes and in old physical education and calisthenics warm-ups, locomotion exercises such as the crab, duck walk, bear crawl, and other such ‘animal’ named moves are a great way to start your body control training.
There are three fundamental locomotor patterns that I teach people – the Bear, Monkey, and Frogger – which I will describe below.
There are of course many others and all provide benefits, but these three full-body exercises are a great foundation for this type of training, and they provide the template for a wide variety of variants. These variations can emphasize components of strength and flexibility in the upper and lower body, as well as the overarching cultivation of improved body control.
Again, this is another significant benefit from body control work. The movement patterns can be changed and varied to place specific stresses on different body areas so as to work on strengthening or encourage flexibility.
Simple changes such as bent vs. straight elbows are enough to shift forces that are then used to address other areas of concern. Adjustments in center of gravity, bodyweight distribution, and intent of action create so many different variations of stimuli that the options are nearly endless.
1. The Bear Walk
The bear walk is a classic movement exercise, where you ambulate on straight arms and straight legs with your hips up high in the air. It requires good shoulder strength and flexibility, as well as hip and calf flexibility.
The reciprocal gait pattern stimulates the nervous system response along with core control and timing.
As you walk forward, the pattern should be alternating the contralateral arm and leg (i.e. right hand goes forward with left leg, then left hand goes forward with the right leg). This patterning, along with keeping your butt up high stimulates a fundamental core muscle contraction that transfers well to a lot of different activities.
Here’s the bear walk in action (click to play, click again to pause):
Changing your speed, direction and where you shift your weight gives a surprising amount of variation with just one movement pattern.
Along with the motor control benefits, partially weightbearing through your hands and feet gives your wrists and fingers a controlled experience of increasing stress, which will prepare you for further handbalancing training.
2. The Monkey
This lateral traveling move emphasizes trunk rotation, coordination, and strength, along with shoulder stability and hip and lower leg flexibility.
From a deep squat, you’ll bring both your arms around to the side of your legs, then placing your hands down you’ll bear all of your weight into them as you lift your lower body up and over to the side. This activates the core from the top down, from a stable upper body to a moving lower body.
This is quite different than most of our daily activities and is a great new stimulus.
Here’s the Monkey in action:
As you gain strength, balance, and control, your hips will eventually “stack” up over your hands and you’ll find yourself being able to slow the movement and even pause at some points.
That is a tremendous example of great motor control!
3. The Frogger
This bilateral forward movement pattern requires wrist, shoulder, and core control from a deep squatting position, and is another excellent precursor to handbalance practice.
Distinct from the Monkey, the Frogger involves traveling forward (and sometimes backward), rather than side to side. Because of this, there is immediately more weight on your hands than in the previous two movement patterns, and with both feet leaving the ground at the same time there is a stronger core contraction.
Here’s the Frogger in action:
A video posted by GMB Fitness (@gmbfitness) on
The variations here involve slowing your travel and increasing the height of your hip movement. The slower you go, the more you have to use your core to control your lower body movement, and by lifting your hips higher you’ll be increasing your strength and balance onto your hands.
Getting Started with Motor Control
You don’t need to create an entire program focused on motor control. It’s just a matter of working different movement patterns than you’re used to into your current routine.
The easiest way to incorporate Bear, Monkey, and Frogger – or any other movement patterns like these – into your program, is to start with just 5 minutes of these exercises as part of your warm-up or cool down, without changing anything else in your program.
Even just 5 minutes a day will make a big impact if you haven’t worked with these types of movements before. You can work on emphasizing different parts and variations of these movement patterns for an added challenge.
If you enjoy this type of work, you can gradually work up to about 30 minutes in total.
Where Solid Motor Control Can Take You
When you train your body to handle different ways of moving, and you build up your ability to control your body through unique ranges of motion, you can move in ways you couldn’t even imagine before.
This video demonstrates some of the ways you can play with movement exploration once you’ve built a solid level of motor control:
You can see that the simple movements I described above – the Bear, Monkey, and Frogger – can be taken just about anywhere, as long as you have a foundation of control.
For instance, the Frogger can be used as a transition into a handstand, which can then transition to a bridge or a cartwheel. With improved control, the only thing really limiting your movement is your imagination.
Spend a few minutes daily (or at least a few times a week) working on improving your motor control, and eventually you’ll be able to move more fluidly and creatively. You’ll also be stimulating muscles and actions that are hard to access with other types of training. This works your whole body from your core outward and will help you in everything you choose to do.
Ryan Hurst is a co-founder of GMB Fitness with many years of experience in strength and movement coaching. Ryan makes sure that everything we do has an emphasis on purposeful movement for optimum health and fitness. He holds black belts in Kendo, Judo, and Shorinji Kempo and practiced 10 years as a competitive gymnast. This background along with his explorations in all movement disciplines and developing programs gives him a unique perspective for improving client’s strength, flexibility, and body control.