Being liberated from movement 'control'

This past week I heard a great term from the mighty David Butler, “motor freedom”. After years of hearing the term ‘motor control’ it felt very liberating and strongly resonated with me.

Now control of our motor system is a powerful thing to have, especially when we look at poor control of knee abduction as a risk for ACL injury for example.

The question is have we become to controlling though?

If we look at chronic back pain sufferers we don’t see motor freedom but instead more control. These people need liberating from both the fear and reality of pain they suffer. One of the ways they choose, consciously or subconsciously, to do this is through the motor system. Slow, stiff and over controlled movement is characterized by repetitive motor strategies and decreases in range, positions and speeds.

Current theories on motor adaptation to pain highlight these changes in stiffness and movement with the goals of increased predictability and protection.

These people do not then need to add even more control but liberating from the shackles of maladaptive beliefs and motor & pain responses.

We have somehow come up with many theories on the ‘right’ way to ‘control’ the motor system. Do we actually know the right way to control the motor system beyond theory? Has firing the proposed ‘right’ muscle at the ‘right’ time given us the results that we desire? Certainly in some cases if it was ‘right’ for the individual. However the search for the ‘right’ way to activate a muscle or movement across many individuals seems to remain elusive, perhaps because this concept of ‘control’ is secondary to the concept of freedom. I discuss this in more detail here in a blog on joint 'centration' *Click Here*

Not only do people become imprisoned by their own movement but also sometimes have movement constraints and restrictions placed on them by those charged with helping them too. In fact it may be part of the issue that modern life imposes motor restrictions on us in the first place by decreasing our movement experiences.


We can often do a similar thing with exercise promoting specificity over variety in execution. We make exercises strict, contrived and sometimes impossible for the individual to fit into a movement ideal beyond their structural or current skill capacity.

There is space for both concepts dependent on someone’s goal and the load being used. Do I really need to maintain a neutral spine all the time?

Certainly promoting self-mastery of movement is a good thing. This is very different to mastering a specific movement ordained by a trainer or therapist though. This specificity is  something specialised in when we look at many motor ‘control’ methods.

Mastery of a language is about having a wide vocabulary to work from rather than limiting it to a handful of the ‘right’ words.  Our movement vocabulary must be similarly large to allow us to carry out our movement desires that our everyday habits may limit. If our routines demand only a small vocabulary then our health may demand more.

‘Self mastery’ of movement is about having the movement freedom to safely and effectively perform the movements that maybe required of us outside of our normal at the ranges, speeds and intensities the situation demands. It maybe be the threat of harm of moving outside of the perceived ‘safe zone’ the body reacts to with protective pain and movement responses.


A primary component of this concept is the ‘self’ part. This mastery has to transfer to individual away from the controlled environment of the gym, clinic and therapist/trainer.

My three tenents of ‘motor freedom’ and ‘self mastery’ of movement are those of capacity, variety and variability.

Capacity allows us the ability to carry out many specifics with the required level of control. Variety exposes us to a wide variety of different movement challenges. Variability affords us the adaptability to vary within a specific movement or between different movements. Collectively we could see these components as introducing robustness to our movement and pain/threat response systems. Hopefully this results in a calibration between the actual and perceived levels of threat to the organism.

By exposing the in individual to varied movement challenges and intensities we can both assess and enhance the motor systems responses. This process must happen in a graded and progressive way to allow time for adaptation.

Rather than helping ‘control’ the individual’s movement instead we should think about these components of the ‘self mastery’ of movement to liberate.