One pattern that has stood out to me recently is related to the idea of movement quality. The term gets thrown around a lot, but how exactly is “movement quality” exploited by expert performers? How can a skills coach teach better skills? How can a strength and conditioning coach have gym “movement quality” transfer to performance?
One answer is: teach the “proximal to distal gradient”
WTF is the “proximal to distal gradient”?
Proximal: Close to the centre of the body
Distal: Farther away from the centre of the body
Proximal to distal gradient: Read On!
Proximal to Distal Gradient
Expert performers make smaller movements at the proximal joints than distal joints. Imagine their movement to be whip like, with very small, precise, timed movements occurring at the proximal end of the whip, with smooth, higher velocity, larger movements occurring at the tip or distal end of the whip.
- Soccer player kicking by bending and extending their knee, rather than twisting through their core and using their hips
- A baseball pitcher using their elbow and wrist to throw, instead of legs, hips and trunk
- Cellist moving their shoulder, but not moving their wrist and elbow for bowing movements
- Hockey player stick handling with large shoulder movements, but no elbow and wrist movements
Dissection of Examples
The first two examples show what happens when the primary source of movement occurs from a more distal joint. That distal joint has to generate more movement than it normally would, and because it doesn’t start as high up the chain, it cannot generate as much force or velocity at the end point. Think: soccer player could not kick ball as hard/fast, baseball player could not throw as hard/fast. If a more proximal joint is responsible for the movement, the more distal joints can take advantage of the whip effect, and do not need to move as much. This means that the proximal joint should also initiate the movement.
The second two examples show what happens when too much movement occurs at a proximal joint. (This has to do with a term called “degrees of freedom”) Novice performers who are learning a skill use gross, unrefined movements. Essentially what happens is that distal joints do not move fluidly, or are locked in the same angle. The novice performer uses their proximal joint to generate all of their movement. This results in less precision. Think: kindergarten painter – moving entire arm, expert painter – small controlled movement at shoulder, precise, fluid movements at elbow and wrist. As performers gain expertise, their “open up degrees of freedom” and their distal joints are able to move independently.
Expert movers therefore combine:
- controlled, subtle movements that originate at the most proximal joint
- degrees of freedom, or the ability to individually, independently and fluidly control distal joints
The Importance of Stability & “The Core”
With two much movement at proximal joints comes decreased precision. If the most proximal joint moves too much, distal joints are not as free to move “intersegmentally” or independently. There is co-contraction of the musculature of the distal joints, resulting in inefficient movement, increased energy expenditure, and less precision. This shows that if there is lack of stability around proximal joints, and inability to precisely control those proximal joints, everything down the kinetic chain will go out of whack. Inability to have stability within the core, and to maintain controlled movements causes every other muscle in the body to “tighten up”, move with less freedom and fluidity. (Co-contraction at distal joints when proximal joint moves too much) So a mover that has large movements through the core because they are not able to brace their spine under load, now sacrifices movement quality in any aspect of their performance that causes this movement through the core. A mover that has large movements in their shoulder and is unable to stabilize it, will require co-contraction of their arm musculature to do movements and thus reduce their fluidity, efficiency and effectiveness.
Ahh, but the Hips!
You may argue that the hips do not follow this rule, since they generate large movements. But I argue that if the hips move too much (too much flexion), that the knees are required also required to flex (too much), and it requires more movement to take advantage of the whip like kinetic chain involved in triple extension. No mover generates large amounts of speed and power from a deep knee bend that comes from overly flexed hips, rather from an expert hip hinge. So if you have stable hips that function well, tighten up your hip movement in sport. On the other hand, if a mover lacks the ability to stabilize through the hips and generate the necessary movement, then a more proximal joint, the spine, will have to move. This violates the proximal-distal gradient, and causes a reduction in movement quality all throughout the kinetic chain.
What to do…
In the Gym:
Keep the proximal to distal gradient in mind when choosing and performing exercises. I see the best strength & conditioning coaches preaching the importance of spinal stability in all manner of movements, conditions and contexts. This makes sense, because spinal stability is the first piece of the puzzle for establishing an effective “proximal to distal gradient”. Next is learn to move fluidly. Maybe tai chi, and qi gong are necessary for this step? I dunno, but many movements in S&C programs are based off of powerlifting, olympic lifting, or track mantra, with very little time spent on moving fluidly. Practice it, train it.
In your Sport:
Play with different ways of performing common skills. For example, to improve my stick handling, I have reduced movement in my left shoulder by placing it in a better position. I’ve found that this has given me more stability overall, and also more movement variability. In my golf game, I’ve gotten better at keeping a tighter range of motion through my backswing, so that my hips and spine don’t go all over the place. By reducing motion at the proximal part of my body, I’ve learned to generate more club speed, with more consistency.
How to do this:
The best way to develop your sense of your proximal to distal gradient is to feel your way through the movement. Video feedback can be good to see what parts of your body (kinetic chain), are really out of whack. But to find the optimal way to move, you need to experiment with what feels best. Try moving certain parts of your body less, and then pay attention to how it feels. Is it easier to move? Are you more balanced? Did you get more speed on your throw/kick/strike/shot? Did the movement “feel right”? Aim to replicate this feeling.
I feel that the idea of a proximal to distal gradient gives coaches a good framework to understand the purpose behind what they are doing in the gym. I also think that the proximal to distal gradient provides a good objective measure or description of what movement quality looks like.
For more reading, look up this article here. It is responsible for some of my views on this matter.
Happy Moving (proximally to distally),