Efficiency is an excellent measure of how coordinated any action is. In other words, the higher the efficiency, the more coordinated the action is and vice versa. In fact, I would argue that the optimal way to do anything, whether it is breathing, walking, standing or playing sports, is the way that maximizes efficiency. This remains true whether your goals are oriented towards performance, reduction of pain or just feeling at home in your body. Conversely, inefficient movement will always compromise performance and create the potential for pain and injury. Here’s my explanation of how to define efficiency, why it’s important, what it looks like, and how to develop it.
As applied to the body, efficiency means the ratio of useful work performed compared to the energy expended to do the work. Put another way, efficiency determines how much of the energy you expend by muscular contraction creates a successful movement, such as running, kicking, throwing, standing, walking or breathing. For example, if two people who weigh the same run the same distance in the same time, but one burns 1000 calories while the other only 500, the second runner is twice as efficient as the first. To use an example from everyday life, one person might be able to sit comfortably at a computer for hours with a minimum of muscular work, while another may get exhausted from trying to “hold” good posture after just a few minutes. The first person has a more efficient posture, and wastes little energy in maintaining it.
For example, consider the two rowers where one was using twice the energy to do the same amount of work. Where does all that extra energy go? It goes into making ugly movements that are irrelevant to or directly contrary to the forward movement of your body. And, a great deal of the energy won’t translate into any movement at all, it will just stay in your body in the form of creating friction, heat, and tissue damage. I’ll say that again – if you create energy that doesn’t turn into useful movement, that energy is basically just used to rip your body up. It’s like driving with the parking brake on.
Since efficiency necessarily implies a minimum of effort, we can recognize efficient movements by their apparent ease. In fact, one of the main impressions you will receive from watching a great athlete or dancer in person is that they make it look so amazingly easy. After I go to a major sporting event I usually leave with the illusion that the sport is actually pretty easy, and that next time I play it I will be near the professional level. Needless to say that does not happen because I don’t have the necessary skills. But the appearance of ease that the pro athlete creates is not an illusion – it is actually easy – for them. If you are very graceful and smooth in your movements, you don’t need to produce very much effort or strain to produce them.
First is to recognize that your central nervous system (CNS) is always trying to get more efficient at whatever you do, even beneath your awareness. This is a natural process that improves with repetition. In fact, the way the CNS gets better at anything is probably to compare the relative ease of successive attempts at doing something and then select the easier way And so you learn to be more coordinated in what you do, unconsciously, whether you are trying or not. But what you do with your conscious brain as you practice can either help or hinder, or maybe even reverse this process.
Neuroscience reveals that the quality of your attention as you practice will affect how productive the practice will be. The best way to get better at a movement is to practice with the correct attitude, which would involve the following. Try to make the movement as smooth and easy and effortless as possible. Listen carefully to your body’s feedback to see whether there is any strain, pain, excessive effort or unnecessary tension. Don’t just focus on the movement goal, pay attention to the process as well. Be intensely curious about the way you are doing something and explore alternative ways to do it and compare how they feel. Make sure that there is nothing threatening or stressful about the movement because this will distract the attention of the CNS away from learning and towards protecting. This will almost always require slowing the movement down and reducing the force of the movement from time to time. If you practice this way you will make the job of your CNS easier, and it will learn faster to be more efficient and coordinated in movement.
Thank you to Todd Hargrove from Better Movement.