Saturday, 29 March 2014

Embodied knowledge and bodyweight training

Long Jump, 1887, Eadweard Muybridge

As I walked down the street, the stranger nodded at me almost at the same time as I nodded back. There was a moment of instant recognition, the way riders usually acknowledge each other when they come across another motorbike on the road; a shared experience.

I am no great fighter, but I have trained in boxing and a few other martial arts, and I can usually recognise a fighter, less by the distinctive marks their face sometimes carry, but rather by the way they move, and look at other people and gauge and assess them… This particular guy was clearly a boxer.

Similarly, a dancer will move in a particular, almost inexpressible way that makes them easy to spot: a certain poise and grace. Long distance runners, sprinters, gymnasts, climbers… all have distinctive movement patterns honed through countless hours of drilling the same motions. A tacit knowledge that is carried within the body, and constantly accessed even in the ordinary movements of daily life.

They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle: this is a knowledge that exists within your body, evolved from specific motor skills and proprioception.
But what is tricky about embodied knowledge, is that it is very difficult to verbalize. How can someone teach you balance, coordination or even movement, using words? These are all experiences, not utterances.

Historically, embodied knowledge is perhaps less important than it once was, because it can now be documented: through photos, videos, and written description. But think of a kata in martial arts for instance: an intricate set of movements, each with a practical application, which would have been passed from teacher to its students through generations. Knowledge of martial arts once was –mostly- embodied through the practitioners of that art.

When it comes to training and performance, embodied knowledge is unlike other kinds of explicit knowledge: whilst you might be able to perform very well at a given sport or physical activity, you do not necessarily need an in-depth intellectual knowledge of it. You might not be aware of the historical background of that sport, of the physiological principles at play, or how to coach it. But without an embodied knowledge of it, you will never be good at performing it.

Embodied knowledge is not even recognized as ‘knowledge’ most of the time. Yet it is intricate, in-depth, and often very subtle. It is a deep understanding of their sport or activity which athletes carry within their body.

Now, take your average internet forum warrior: they will often possess a good knowledge of their subject, gathered from different sources (some of which less reliable than others!), but the image we have of them, is that whilst they talk a good game, they can’t do the things they speak of. They might even be able to analyze a movement (think ‘form checks’), but without a tacit understanding of what it is like to train and/or perform that movement, what they can tell you will always be limited.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you find the natural athletes and the performers: those who can do, but struggle to verbalize and share how it is they actually perform.

So why does embodied knowledge matter you ask, beyond that it can point to a shared experience of the body in motion, and beyond these moments of recognition that emerge from encountering someone who ‘moves the same’.

Well, for a start, if you are trying to improve in a given discipline, you should seek a trainer or coach who possesses not only an intellectual understanding of the activity, but also embodied knowledge of it, which they can verbalize. These are the rare people who can truly accelerate your progress in your chosen field. They are in a sense, well-rounded scholars.

Head spring, Muybridge, circa 1884

In the context of bodyweight training, the concept of embodied knowledge is also particularly interesting. All the common bodyweight exercises we see included in training programs stem from embodied knowledge: they are as old as man’s first attempts at improving himself through physical training. The different mechanics of push ups, squats, pull ups, etc, are knowledge transmitted through the bodies of men and women from generation to generation.
But the way these exercises are trained and performed is also evolving rapidly, with the resurgence of bodyweight training in recent years: protocols now draw heavily from weight training; detailed bodyweight progressions are being designed which did not exist 20 years ago; there is a heavy borrowing from other disciplines and cross-pollination –from circus and hand balancing arts, to gymnastics, martial arts, dance, parkour, yoga, etc.

A new embodied knowledge is emerging, which has more to do with the art of movement at large, and less with that of simple bodyweight exercises. Callisthenics competitions for instance, reflect this variety of movement.

I recently attended an aerial skills workshop (static and flying trapeze, corde lisse, and silks). Warm up consisted of –among other things- coordination exercises, such as circling one arm in one direction, while the other followed the reverse motion. The rationale behind those simple coordination/warm up exercises was that the skills transferred directly to the far more complex motor skills involved in aerial moves.

And therein lays the true importance of this discussion: the total of your whole embodied knowledge is greater than the sum of its parts.
The more you use your body in new and foreign ways, the easier it becomes to acquire new skills.

Here are a few tips, which will help you become a better bodyweight athlete, and increase the knowledge bank that exists within your own body:

-          Make sure your training program includes all planes of motion: do not shy away from certain exercises, just because they feel uncomfortable, or because you are not very good at them.
-          Practice balance and coordination training.
-          Devote sessions to playing, and experiencing what you’ve learnt: explore new ways of moving your body around, try new apparatuses (dip bars, ropes, rings, new things to vault over), take up new activities with ties to your practice (climbing, parkour, gymnastics etc).
-          Try to verbalize what you are doing, and try to teach it to other people. This will greatly help you consolidate your movement patterns.
-          Seek coaches who possess not only an intellectual knowledge of their discipline, but also deep embodied knowledge of it.


  1. Really cool concepts here. I've been very interested in coordination lately in particular, and while sometimes frustrating, its so important to work on "stuff we're not so good at (yet)". I think your article really communicates that well. This kind of training/thinking/diversification seems to keep us young in body and mind.

  2. Excellent, thank you. In our work, we continually bemoan the lack of vocabulary in English for anything to do with the most important question (when try to learn a new skill): "How does that feel?" Embodied knowledge, IMHO, is the only true knowledge. In the West, we usually know a lot *about* something, and prefer that to actually being able to *do* it (ref. the "average internet forum warrior".

    It's also one of the reasons I don't post much on other blogs/forums: I am either too busy truing to learn something new, or writing my own stuff. Great article.