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The Lost Art of Relaxation: What Elite Athletes and Manual Laborers Teach Us About Sustainable Effort
Principles of Natural Movement: Dosing, Rhythm, and Flexibility
This is part 4 of an ongoing series bringing the Georges Hebert’s “Natural Method” training protocols to an English-speaking audience for the first time. In this installment, I present sections 7 - 12 of Chapter 1: Principles of Natural Movement – dealing with the topics of Dosing, Rhythm, and Flexibility. First is my commentary. If you just want to read the translation, you can skip ahead.
Optimal muscle tension and relaxation are core skills in natural movement training. You must learn to recruit specific muscles while slackening others in order to move fluidly, explosively, and efficiently. Relaxation takes as much practice as tension, and in some sense, even more effort. Whether in the eccentric phase of a lift or midair during a jump, it’s the timed release of tension that generates power. I liken proper jumping form to a rubber band snap— where the energy behind the motion comes from the sudden “release” of potential energy stored in the arms and legs.
Watch elite parkour athletes transition explosively yet gracefully between obstacles by relaxing the right muscles at the right moments. When your neuromuscular coordination is dialed in like this, you can accomplish superhuman feats.
However, you don’t need to be an extreme athlete to benefit from this kinesthetic sense – the awareness of the optimal amount of effort for various tasks. I try to be especially conscious of it when doing multifaceted chores like doing the dishes.
How many plates can I balance?
How much force do I need to use to close the dishwasher door with my foot?
Not only does get chores done more efficiently, it also makes them purposeful.
Moshe Feldenkais was a brilliant engineer, martial artist, and somatic educator who understood the links between nerves and muscles better than anyone before him. He created the term ‘acture’ to describe posture-in-action. Having good ‘acture’ in his view, was about being able to activate the right muscles in the right sequence, without any conflicting internal motivation. This means minimizing unnecessary “parasitic” movements that might operate at cross purposes to your goals. Good acture depends on having purposeful and single-minded motivation. All action is mediated through the muscles, but it originates in the psyche. A disordered psyche produces poor acture.
When we are learning something new, or are conflicted about our actions, we tend to awkwardly tense and relax the wrong muscles. The most common error is to have too many muscles in tension. But this is unsustainable, and you get injured when you are forced to relax at the wrong time or haven’t developed the musculature and neurology necessary for the activity.
I experienced this recently while learning to wakesurf in the Pineview Reservoir in Utah. Wakesurfing requires a certain amount of tension and exertion to stand up on the board as the boat initially tows you in its wake. Once you get up on the board, the slope of the wake of the boat itself allows you to perpetually surf downward, using balance and gravity to keep moving forward. The goal is to let go of the towing rope. But at first, you are extremely tense as you are trying not to overcorrect. Eventually, you get a subconscious feel for the small movements that can keep you in balance. This balance of tension and relaxation allows for the smooth and rapid micro-corrections necessary to keep the board in the sweet spot of the wave without rushing headlong into the stern of the boat, or falling too far behind the peak of the wave, where you will lose contact with the boat.
In these sections of the guide, Hébert broadly describes this balance between tension and relaxation as “flexibility,” and is careful to distinguish is from joint flexibility (although the latter may help with the former).
He also talks about the importance of periods of rest and relaxation to getting a good workout. The “rule of alternation” specifies working different muscle groups – alternating between more cardiovascular activities and more muscular acitivies. In this way, you can repeatedly walk up to the point of fatigue, kiss it, and then back off before you reach the point of failure or exhaustion. Incorporating all of the families of movement into a single workout enables more frequent ‘fatigue kissing’ – forcing your entire body to adapt, without brutalizing it or coming away with extreme soreness, never wanting to do another workout again.
Hebert makes a point about “ouvrier manuel,” who are able to work for long periods of time. I was unsure if he meant literal manual laborers (as a basic translation would suggest), or just people doing physical work – such as his subjects in a workout. I chose to keep it as manual laborers, to make the point that these principles are highly practical. This speaks to Hébert’s mantra, "be strong to be useful," but also reflects skill enabling incredible endurance, not just brute strength. Like manual laborers, the best distance runners learn to relax unnecessary muscles. So do top tennis players, wake surfers, parkour athletes, craftspeople, and even dishwashers.
So sit up straight, relax, and enjoy this installment of the Concise Guide:
5. Development of physical fitness and the necessity of producing natural work.
To ensure the development of overall physical fitness, especially cardiovascular endurance and stamina, we must generate sufficient exertion through diverse activities within a set time frame, as previously stated.
The execution of exercises in a proper training session should therefore represent sustained, continuous exertion—not fragmented by continual stops, stationary rest periods, or other inactivity.
Natural exertion, meaning locomotion or movement in all its forms (walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal crawling, climbing, balancing, carrying loads, and when possible, swimming) is the most effective way to develop overall fitness. Such full-body movement should be the dominant type of exercise in each session. Complementary exercises consist of stationary lifting, throwing, grappling, and other non-locomotive crawling, climbing, balancing, and jumping.
For natural training, time sprints represents the most important and strenuous activity.
6. Developing Agility. The Need for Timed Training.
While strength builds somewhat automatically through sustained effort, developing agility depends on the student's willpower and the coach repeatedly pushing them.
The coach should demand improvements, even small ones (seconds or fractions thereof), in executing various exercises, explosive movements (jumping, throwing, defensive maneuvers), starting acceleration in sprints or speed walking, and reaction time between the command to start and initiating the movement (sprint starts, sudden stops, changing positions).
The coach needs a stopwatch or timer to check intervals and document gains. Otherwise, they cannot measure or demand specific results.
7. Developing Muscular Power. The Need for Repeated Exertion.
As with overall endurance, increased muscular power naturally comes from sustained training and practicing diverse exercises, especially quadrupedal movements, climbing, lifting, throwing, and grappling.
To remedy weakness in particular body parts, simply emphasize exercises using those muscles.
For optimal strength gains, repeat lower to moderate intensity exercises sufficiently in a row, rather than doing high intensity once. In other words, prioritize number of repetitions over strain intensity.
Core power stems mostly from abdominal and lower back strength, not limbs alone. So focus on those areas.
8. Developing Agility. The Need to Refine Technique.
Agility shows in gracefully executing both complex exercises and simple movements, which conserves energy better than brute strength alone.
Agility is largely neurological. It comes from honing coordinated motion, an efficient exertion rhythm, and increased flexibility, finesse, and precision when performing component movements. A higher skill level naturally flows from improved technique.
9. Joint and movement flexibility and Combatting stiffness.
Natural movements are inherently supple. Flexible form is the optimal form to strive for.
Joint, muscle or nerve stiffness hinders technical development. It must be detected and broken down by all means. Any unnecessary tension squanders energy to no benefit. This is why it is necessary to relax every muscle that is not essential to the action – to release the parts of the body not being used in movement or effort.
A distinction should be made between joint flexibility and the flexibility of movement.
Joint flexibility is the ease with which the joints bend. It develops by performing the movements of a given exercise at all ranges of motion and by specifically seeking the maximum range (allowed by the normal play of the joints).
Flexibility of movement means executing perfected motions without wasted tension. It depends on joint flexibility but more on muscular and neurological finesse. It is one of the elements of efficiency and is acquired by eliminating stiffness, seeking suppleness in the movements, and finally by relaxing muscles and nerves appropriately.
Mechanized or geometric movements of military drills and bodybuilding (often called “loosening”) can improve joint flexibility when you push them to the limit. However, their artificial stiffness hurts full-body flexibility of movement. Natural motions from foundational exercises are better for flexibility gains. Seeking maximum range of motion makes all exercises more limber.
10. Primary Focus of a Session - Overall or Specific Effects to Target.
Depending on their type, practical natural exercises can produce general effects like developing endurance, strength, speed, and efficiency. They also have specific benefits like joint mobility, postural correction, and strengthening weak areas. A well-designed complete session can deliver all these effects together. Or you can emphasize one particular effect. Simply choose suitable exercises from each family to produce the desired effect, and stress those moves during the session. This gives the training a dominant focus - like cardio, flexibility, correction, or fixing a weak spot.
The standard locomotion-based session intrinsically builds cardio capacity first and foremost. Adding extra quadrupedal crawling, climbing, lifting, throwing heavy objects, and grappling makes it muscularly dominant. Seeking maximum range of motion across exercises stresses flexibility. Repeating specific corrective drills targets posture and coordination.
11. How to Catch Your Breath and Replenish Energy During Training.
To recover breath and restore energy while maintaining continuous, sustained exertion, use one of these methods:
Walk slowly or very slowly, relaxing muscles and especially nerves.
Take long forceful exhalations (to fight or prevent shortness of breath).
Switch between basic exercise types or variations on a type.
Reduce speed, intensity, or difficulty of the current exercise.
12. Rule of alternation. Workout and movement pacing.
Any sustained workout, especially a training session, depends on continually alternating the intensity and nature of efforts and movements. This fundamental rule provides the necessary periods of relative rest for the body and its parts. It prevents or delays overall and local muscle fatigue and shortness of breath.
Note that relaxation has two opposite meanings. On one hand, it signifies complete relaxation, effort reduction, or rest. On the other, it characterizes the sudden exertion after slackening and inaction - like the burst of a jump, throw, or punch.
The repeated alternation of an intense and a lesser effort, of an active and passive movement, of an impulse movement in one direction and of a contrary movement returning to the original position, and, more generally, the alternation of action and rest, or of two opposite actions is what we call a rhythm.
In training, distinguish between:
The overall workout rhythm determined by alternating movements, changing exercise families and types, and back-and-forth movement patterns during field drills (see below, Ch. II, no. 1).
The secondary rhythm within each exercise, based on the relative duration of active motions versus recovery and repositioning motions - like cadence when marching, stride intervals when running, or juggling throws.
These respective rhythms enable a manual laborer to work long periods without stopping. Likewise, proper training can only be sustained and continuous if rhythmically structured at both levels.
Rhythm, along with dosage, is crucial, with the two being nearly synonymous. The degree to which a session has rhythm, overall and secondarily, reflects the instructor's quality and teaching ability.
"Souplesse nerveuse" - I translated this as "neurological flexibility" rather than just "nerve flexibility", as neurological more clearly conveys flexibility of the nervous system.
"Amplitude maximum" - I rendered this phrase as "maximum range of motion" rather than just "maximum amplitude", using the more common English term.
"Mouvements d'assouplissement" - I translated this as "loosening movements" rather than literally as "movements of flexibility"
"Somme suffisante de travail" - “adequate exertion and effort" rather than literally as "sufficient sum of work"
"Souplesse générale d'exécution" - full-body flexibility of movement