Modern Approach to Acquisition of Motor Skills: Dynamic Systems Theory

Previously movement scientists believed that we had motor programs encoded in our brain, and essentially a button would be pressed and out would come a gross motor pattern.  This led to the prevailing thought that the expert athlete had less noise when completing movements.  Training resulted in what you normally see at any big gym.  Static exercise with isolation as ideal and a bodybuilding mentality.  Recent research has now shown the expert has more noise when performing a particular task. Essentially they have more degrees of freedom to complete a specific task and more ways of solving a problem.  SO… the Dynamic Systems Theory states that there are multiple subsystems that go into movement output.  This includes the environment, psychological constraints, anything in the peripheral system, and the list goes on.  The old way of thinking was a top down approach.  We now know anything can affect the system and the expert has more ways of solving a movement problem depending on which subsystem might be the confounding factor.  This leads to the Premier Fitness Systems approach, which includes increasing movement bandwidth, increasing transferability of training and decreasing reliance on specificity of sport specific skills.  Why would we want to do that?  Because sport by nature is very asymmetrical and leads to imbalances.  By training with a Dynamics System Approach in mind we can train the human body to increase resiliency and teach it more ways to solve a motor problem.

Movement Bandwidth

What is movement bandwidth and why do I care if I can squat butt to floor?  I get this question all the time.  Especially when the respective movement is not seen in their sport.  Think of each joint complex in the body as a pendulum.  If the central nervous system can only communicate with a portion of the joint complex then the center or equilibrium changes and length tension of surrounding muscles will be down regulated.  So… can you still move like crap and be good at your sport?  Sure.  We work with some of the best golfers in the world and some of them move terribly.  This hasn’t stopped them from making millions of dollars.  The bigger question is how resilient is their tissue and how will they feel in ten years? Our goal is to make you more human and move more efficiently.  This will allow you to continue to train and play your respective sport.

Principles in Action

So how do we influence this in our training?

Create and control tension, joint centration, joint segmentation/dissociation, and breathing. These are the biggies. Every exercise, drill, or circus act should respect these principles.


This ties it all together. If you cannot cycle a breath in these “stretched out”/tensioned positions then you will never have ownership. Gray Cook talks about hitting SAVE on the document with proper breathing. This is a great analogy and makes perfect sense. By breathing at end range positions we are decreasing the threat the central nervous system feels, and this allows for true changes to occur.

Creating and Controlling Tension:

Tension is a bit of a loaded word. I’m not talking about the tension you feel in your shoulders or lower back. That is uncontrolled and more due to overuse or poor attractor states (dynamic systems model language). The tension we are speaking about is the ability to connect with the ground, create torque, and move purposefully. The reasons we want to control tension are…

  • Increase body awareness
  • Store potential energy
  • Influence how our bodies lay down regenerated tissue
  • Allow for relaxation

Joint Centration:

The ability to keep a joint in its maximal point of congruence with greatest ability for proper length tension from surrounding muscles. Which brings up another important point…

  • Muscles are never weak. Unless you have a neurological condition or have been sitting in a hospital bed for an extended period of time. If you can lift your leg against gravity then we’re not dealing with a strength issue… I promise.
  • The “weak muscle” is a proper response from the central nervous system from poor joint positioning, lack of joint range of motion, or crappy soft tissue integrity.
  • Once again muscles are never weak (this can be a little controversial) and I can guarantee your glutes aren’t weak or turned off (Tiger Woods).
  • The larger problem is that your joint range of motion is limited, and your system has no idea where the center of the joint is. It’s all about survival for the body and the next logical step is to decrease the neural drive to a certain group of muscles in that position.
  • I’m not saying that you cannot benefit from strength training. That’s a ridiculous statement. Another ridiculous statement is that single limb bridges are going to make you sway less on your takeaway. Not happening… no way, no how. I promise.

Joint Segmentation/Dissociation:

The ability to move one joint or part of body independent of another.

  1. For a joint to work properly it must operate like a joint. Right? Seems to make a lot of sense. Get on all fours and try a yoga cat/camel pose with a mirror on your side. Unless you have been actively working on segmenting your spine, or you swing from trees and hunt your own food, then 90% of you will have a poor distributed curve. Therefore by the definition of a joint you are missing segments in your spine. So probably not a good idea to load those joints.
  2. Get joints to work independently of one another and that stiffness/tightness you feel will probably decrease rapidly.
  3. If the athlete can create more separation between moving body parts while controlling the motion, they win. Simple as that.
  4. At this point the athlete can be molded to fit any type of swing their coach might want.