In a class where you are trying to learn a new movement, what actually do we emphasize. Do we highlight the doing, ie the motor output? Do we highlight the sensory input? I’d like to discuss the strategies of doing and sensing. Of course we are involved in both. When your fingers are numb it is difficult to feel the buttons and button holes. This lack of sensory feedback of course makes dressing for some very difficult and clumsy. This sensory deficit is readily understood in people who have had a stroke where their brain has been injured. In this case, there has been a loss of sensory feedback because of a central nervous system injury. This same sensory feedback deficit is apparent, though differently, when working with learning a new movement pattern. Therefore, do we need to emphasize feeling position, spacial relationships and movement parameters to improve acquisition of new motor patterns. I think we do.
Let’s just pick one example to speak to some of the ideas that I would like to address at this point. Raising the arms overhead is an easy warm up for any overhead pushing or pulling movements. The idea of having the arm extended fully overhead without the elbow flexed would allow better bony support of any weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, another body, etc). So if one instructs another to raise the arms overhead keeping the elbows straight, it is interesting to note what happens in a class. What do people look like when they do a simple, fairly habitual movement.
Let’s just look at this one factor of the elbow in relation to the arm being raised overhead. There are many other factors to pay attention to. I would like to narrow down just this relationship in order to discuss some of these ideas of movement learning. Are we focused only on doing the movement or are we also paying attention to the proprioceptive and kinesthetic information of position and movement respectively.
Let’s come back to this above example of raising one’s arms overhead with a straight elbow. Often I see several people with their elbows bent. Maybe they are tight and or weak, etc. (This elbow flexion is just a substitution for a problem in shoulder flexion) My interest now is to ask if they know that there elbows are bent. So you could say, a little louder maybe, keep those elbows straight now! I’m not sure if yelling helps them or me, but it sure doesn’t help the movement awareness. Often we just try harder and bring in more tension and move deeper into our habitual patterns. This trying to do something better isn’t necessarily doing it better. Certainly this cueing and coaching technique works for some who have a large enough of a movement repertoire and have healthy normal movement patterns. I find this trying to do doesn’t work for others though.
An additional strategy would be to have someone move based not on just doing what they think or can see someone else do but on their own sensory input. Simply put, one might continue with saying to just pause at the top of the movement and visually see if the elbow is straight. Then ask them if they see their elbow straight. Now it gets interesting, because someone who has their elbow bent at this stage will sometimes report that it looks straight. So they feel and see that it is straight to them but to everyone else looking in they see it bent.
Now is the person wrong in what they feel? I would say no. (Because they are feeling it the way they are feeling, though not the same as we are seeing it.) Are they wrong in what they see–I would say, to myself, just inaccurate in noticing the relationship of the lower and upper arm bone. The rest of this lesson in learning would be to helping the person notice some of the things they are unaware of vs just performing the movement better by only repeatedly grinding away at the motor output. At this stage you might need to teach them what is a straight elbow vs what is a bent elbow. Emphasizing the positional “feel” of these two states.
Let’s say you guess that the person is basically tight. You find that as they move their arm in the lower end of the range that their elbow is straight and then at higher in the arc it begins to bend. Also you notice a lot of tension in the shoulder, hiking of the scapula and neck tension, etc increasing as they try to do it correctly. This other strategy could have the person then notice that the arm is straight in the lower ranges. Once they have this sense you have them move only as far in placing the arm overhead as they can keep the elbow straight. Simple have them notice when it starts to bend and then stop the movement. Repeat this several times. Often they begin to raise their arm farther in the arc of movement before they find their elbow bending. This is a common finding. It may suggest that a person who is tight is straining a lot more and substituting elbow flexion vs shoulder flexion to raise their arm overhead.
Once they pay attention to the proprioceptive and kinesthetic information in these ways, their movement patterns changes. Often I see that their movement quantity and quality improves. Sometimes they just breath better and enjoy the movements more. Usually all these results happen to some degree. (although those allergic to exercise may still find the enjoyment allusive).
I find that this type of emphasis on feedback of sensory input, takes a bit more time for some. So you might just try it out selectively. Maybe you are already doing these things. I just don’t find this approach utilized that much in the classes. I do find people saying to feel how you move, etc. But this saying “to feel” vs coaching/teaching to focus on the sensory inputs of the relationships and the movements seem different to me.