The Workout Manifesto Part V: Big patterns, small patterns
There are only so many ways the human body moves. There are also infinite ways. This combination of limitless variation and structural boundaries can be grouped into large motor patterns.
Squatting and vertical jumping
Horizontal jumping and hip-hingeing
Locomotion (crawling, walking, skipping, running, swimming, climbing)
Anything you might do in the gym—or in sport—will fit into one of these categories. Each category then fractals more deeply into specific subcategories. For example, a new boxer’s punch combines a horizontal push combined with a throwing movement. Or maybe a locomotive one. With practice, it becomes a distinct motor pattern. There’s no longer any point to calling it a push when it is clearly a punch.
By the time a boxer is getting competent, they will jab, cross, and throw both hooks and uppercuts from both sides. Each punch becomes distinct. With progress, further changes to their hippocampus and motor cortex will create dozens of subtle variations of each—many invisible to the beginner’s brain. A guitarist’s sense of touch or juggler’s sense of timing progress in similar ways. You can’t just mimic mastery; you first have to build the neural real estate to house it. You build it so that more subtle skills will move in. Here comes the neighbourhood!
A deadlift or kettlebell swing is introduced as a hinge. That’s the large pattern. In time, though, the constraints of the equipment and task begin to lead—creating specific adaptations and variations. A horizontal press becomes distinct as a push-up or a bench press. A squat becomes a barbell squat—and then multiple variations of it.
Here, Bruce Lee describes going from the explicit to the implicit. When you’re learning something new, you max out the use of your frontal cortex. Full attention is required. Conscious intent builds new patterns or overrides old ones. In time, this process changes. It evolves from software into hardware—from mental into physical. A number of things make this possible: Myelination of neurons; buildup of supportive glial cells; epigenetic changes. All of these allow for less thought to be devoted to the original task. You’re building an autopilot function. Here, the body transforms skills into structure. It’s like digging gulleys into a hillside. When water pours down, it will pool into these gulleys naturally. Structure is a system. It’s what frees up your mind for other tasks.
Armchair quarterbacks sometimes forget that the athletes that they’re shouting at onscreen have a lot going on. Maybe they’re performing a similar tactical calculus. But they are also going through the physical actions of playing under stress, fatigue, and pain. They are juggling information and communication from multiple sources. And so much sensory data! It’s like making fun of someone for poor penmanship. Except that you’re seated at a desk with a nice Mont Blanc and they’re using chewed-up Bic... While riding a unicycle and juggling torches.
It is no coincidence that the automaticity that you build skills on top of is described as your Default Mode Network (DMN). That’s your autopilot. It is what allows you to daydream on top of driving or walking. When you’re motivated to improve, your DMN frees up room to develop new insight and awareness.
There’s no shortcut to the implicit. But there is a way to get lost in the desert and wander for way too long. You can do that by not paying attention to the details of your movement experience. Or by rushing forward before you’ve mastered a simple step. How you build structure and default behaviours matters. That’s because it takes much longer to undo bad habits than to cultivate good ones from the beginning.
When you move, your experience is a combination of implicit and explicit. Your attention dictates what you layer on top of your existing structures. And it matters.