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Perfecting Movement: At What Cost?

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways:
  • There’s no universal definition of perfection when it comes to movement, and context plays a pivotal role in shaping how we move.
  • Imposing rigid ideals of perfect movement creates a metaphorical “movement jail” that hinders individuals’ freedom and can lead to increased fear and anxiety and even injury.
  • Setting high standards raises the barrier to entry for physical activity, ultimately deterring people from pursuing healthier lives.

Striving for perfection in the movement and musculoskeletal world is seen by some as the ultimate answer to all of life’s problems. From curing musculoskeletal disease, to avoiding any and all injury risk, even going as far as to reach for the pinnacle of physical performance. Optimization, if you will. But the road to perfection is littered with bodies that have tried and failed to reach the ultimate level of human motion. In this article, I’m are going to give you three of the reasons that no one reaches perfect movement alive. 

A Constantly Moving Field Goal

Discussing any topic requires a list of definitions to ensure everyone is on the same page. Speaking the same language. The task seems simple enough: define what makes a movement a movement. Many have tried and believed to have succeeded. We see movement definitions in sports like CrossFit, Powerlifting and Olympic lifting. So why don’t those count? 

Well, they kind of do, but not for the context we are hoping to apply the definition to. Movements are simply attempts at completing the task at hand. If the task at hand is to meet the standards that a governing body is setting as criteria to consider a movement to have been done, great. We are on our way. But when the judges are removed and the arbitrary goals are lifted, we are simply left with people moving their bodies through space around equipment (or in the absence of equipment). 

The idea that movement is arbitrary comes from the understanding that not only are there a million ways to skin a cat, but the cat looks different depending on who is thinking about it. Not to mention who is skinning the cat and what their skinning skill level and approach are. But the problem of a moving field goal when it comes to defining movement is that, outside of the rules of competition, 10 different people can define movement 10 different ways. To claim that there is 1 way to perfectly squat, for example, would be accepting the idea that everyone has just agreed to what a squat is. For funsies, go on youtube and look up “how to squat” and see how many different types of squats and ways to coach those squats as well as definitions of when a squat has been achieved exist. It’s a lot. 

Now we can sit here and all agree that if the feet are flat on the floor and the greater trochanter drops below the tibial plateau that would constitute a squat. Right? Perfect for whom, I would ask. So coaching definition out of the way, what other field goals make up the constantly moving context? What about equipment? What about the person performing the squat? Surely the criteria for a squat must apply to everyone in every context to be considered perfect. 

The same critiques of the one who is doing the defining apply to the type of equipment being used as well as the user of the equipment. All of these factors (and a substantial number of others) constitute the context of the situation. They all have the ability to influence the performance of the movement itself. Does the squatter have long or short femurs? How’s their dorsiflexion? What about their past squatting experience? Do they know what they are doing?

This is not to say that the movement itself cannot become more efficient or move closer to something that would, by any physics standard, be called an efficient motion, but getting hung up on the idea of perfection within motion doesn’t add much to the situation. We need there to be an ability to be fluid and flexible with the constantly changing environment, lest we promote rigidity and an inability to roll with the punches. 

Put In Movement Jail

The idea of movement jail was new to me in 2019. It wasn’t until I saw Jarod Hall post about it on his facebook page that the idea of setting people up for movement failure was close within the physical therapist’s grasp. 

The idea is simple: picture a scenario where we imprison people within the restrictive walls of “movement jail.” In this metaphorical cell, there’s only one way to perform an exercise, and all other methods are deemed incorrect or imperfect. If they stray outside of the definition or movement passed down to them by their clinician or coach, they are wrong.This mindset can have significant repercussions. When individuals believe they are moving wrong, they begin to attribute a host of negative outcomes to their imperfect movement – from increased injury risk to excessive wear and tear and even the onset of pain and symptoms. 

Picture some of your patients who have taken the initiative to seek help with their symptoms and/or rehab. They look to you to provide feedback and information that will free them of the fear and constraints they have imposed on themselves. They go through your initial evaluation and examination, and you find a long list of things to “correct” about they way they are living their lives. Whether that’s how they sit, how they walk, how they bend over or even how they sleep. They leave with more issues than they showed up with.

If they’re constantly told they’re moving incorrectly, it not only stifles their freedom to move as they need to in the ever changing landscape of life but also fosters fear, altering their perceptions of resilience and self-efficacy. As healthcare providers, our goal should be to empower individuals to make healthier choices, both in terms of movement and overall well-being. When we emphasize rigid ideals of perfect movement, we inadvertently contribute to their decline by fostering unnecessary fear and anxiety about their own capabilities. Not to mention the increase in injury risk that comes with perfectionistic tendencies[1].

So, what? We just embrace anarchy and chaos? I mean, kinda. Allowing some grace in what you point out and what they demonstrate allows room for approval to exist. They are likely already moving differently secondary to any symptoms they have and are likely already paying extra attention to their symptomatic area. Adding insult to injury and telling them that they should stop limping as soon as they can so they don’t screw up the other side of their body isn’t going to add a whole lot. 

Barriers To Entry and Physical Activity

If this blog is your first introduction to us here at Across The Continuum, you probably don’t know that our main goal is to get as many people as active as they can tolerate. How does that play into perfect movement? Someone who is very conscious and careful about the way they are moving so they don’t “do it wrong” is unlikely to be moving at as high of an intensity or as often as they would be if they cared less.

The pursuit of perfect movement can significantly elevate the barrier to entry, dissuading individuals from engaging in physical activity altogether. This is a crucial point, especially when we look at the alarming statistics of physical inactivity around the world. According to the National Center For Health Statistics, in 2020, only 24.2% of adults aged 18 and over met the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities[2]

These guidelines are put out by the Department of Health and Human Services and recommend a minimum level of physical activity to reap health benefits. These minimums include two or more days of muscle strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups and 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (steady-state cardio) per week[3]. However, if we set high standards for perfect movement, many individuals either won’t be as active as they could be or won’t even attempt to be active. As a result, they’ll be at a higher risk of developing serious health conditions like obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, not to mention a shortened life expectancy.

Our role as healthcare providers should be to make physical activity accessible to as many people as possible, not to create unnecessary barriers. By focusing on perfect movement, we inadvertently dissuade people from engaging in physical activity that could vastly improve their health.

In a nutshell, the pursuit of perfect movement can do more harm than good. There’s no universal definition of perfection when it comes to movement, and context plays a pivotal role in shaping how we move. Imposing rigid ideals of perfect movement creates a metaphorical “movement jail” that hinders individuals’ freedom and can lead to increased fear and anxiety. Moreover, setting high standards raises the barrier to entry for physical activity, ultimately deterring people from pursuing healthier lives.

So, let’s shift our focus. Instead of chasing an elusive ideal, let’s encourage individuals to move freely and safely within their own contexts. By doing so, we can help more people embrace physical activity, improve their health, and lead longer, more active lives. 


References:

  1. Madigan et al. (2018) Perfectionism predicts injury in junior athletes: Preliminary evidence from a prospective study, Journal of Sports Sciences, 36:5, 545-550, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2017.1322709
  2. Elgaddal N, Kramarow EA, Reuben C. Physical activity among adults aged 18 and over: United States, 2020. NCHS Data Brief, no 443. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2022. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.15620/cdc:120213
  3. Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, Carlson SA, Fulton JE, Galuska DA, George SM, Olson RD. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018 Nov 20;320(19):2020-2028. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.14854. PMID: 30418471; PMCID: PMC9582631.