How To Unlock Rigid, Stiff, Movement With Self-Regulation

Knowing how to be a Good Mover is one of the most important things I want you to understand. Because when you’re a Good Mover, your whole world improves. To help teach this, I’ve asked good friend of FFRL, Dr. Seth Oberst back to discuss one major factor you must learn if you want to be move well and feel great. Over to Seth…

As a physical therapist, many of the clients who come to see me are unable to see reality as it is.

They perceive the environment as the controller of their behavior and they are reactive and unable to cope with life’s demands.

They want to be able to move fluidly and efficiently as they did during childhood, but are unsure how they’ve lost this ability and how to get it back.

What they’re looking for, though they may not know it, is the ability to self-regulate.

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Self-regulation is the ability to inhibit one’s automatic, compulsive response reinforced by the immediate environment.

In other words, it’s our ability to inhibit a conditioned habit that enables people to have options, a choice, in how they move and behave.


Normal self-regulated behavior involves balance in which the autonomic nervous system (ANS) rests primarily in the parasympathetic rest and digest state with quick forays into the sympathetic fight/flight stage when necessary (such as the middle of physical training, competition, short-term concentration, and obviously a bear attack).

The ability to inhibit unnecessary or excessive muscular tension is a true marker of self-regulation.

How do you lose self-regulation?

It’s become quite apparent to me that so many people have lost their ability to self-regulate particularly in regards to movement. They become one-trick ponies in which they use the same habitual muscular and mechanical patterns to move.

Portobello Aquathon_2031

Why is this the case?

Well, with repeated stressors (threats) that our brain determines we cannot handle by using untested behaviors, we revert to more primitive, known movements like:

As I wrote in my previous post for FFRL, humans are unique in that we can mentally simulate the future and thus instate a stress response without an actual present threat.


With such stress over time, we begin to predict more and more inputs as threatening, and thus are more reactive to the environment rather than being active participants in it.

We are moving without internal awareness, without choice.

Evaluating yourself for lost movement self-regulation

Often people who are unable to self-regulate their movement move quite rigidly and lack the ability to move in all three cardinal planes of motion.

These people use the same amount of tension for a bodyweight squat as they do for a one rep max back squat.


They don’t allow their spines to flex and often move in blocks rather than fluidly. This is a lack of variability likely due to over-excitation. The person is unable to inhibit or relax competing movement pathways in the brain – they’ve lost self-regulation.

This is typically evident to oneself when movements feel highly effortful with lots of internal resistance – a task feels harder than it should. Often we feel a sense of fatigue long before the muscles themselves are fatigued.

This is likely because the brain is experiencing a higher than necessary amount of excitation and determines that continued excitation may exhaust resources or otherwise damage the body.

People who feel tight or “locked up” are often lacking the ability to regulate the amount of tension they are using because they know of no other way.

In The Potent Self, Feldenkrais put it this way: “in the long run the pattern becomes habitual, semiautomatic, and familiar to the point of being considered as one’s own nature, but only at the expense of strain and nervous exhaustion

Physiologically, there are numerous variables that can indicate a loss of self-regulation including:

  • a reduction in heart-rate variability
  • changes in brain wave frequency/amplitude
  • high galvanic skin response
  • even some forms of high blood pressure

All of these variables, which are outside the scope of this discussion, indicate an autonomic nervous system that is dysregulated, excessively sympathetic, and outside of our control whether directly or indirectly. Readers enthusiastic for more thorough fare are encouraged to check out this fantastic article.

How you can regain lost self-regulation

I think science will continue to demonstrate that we have much greater control over our own system than we have been led to believe.

Here are a few ways in which we can regain self-regulation of our movement systems.

Play/ exploratory movements

From a motor learning perspective, our brains are designed to move us through, and interact with, the surrounding environment. Using our body helps us learn more quickly.

The more sensory inputs that people experience through free-play and free-movement, the better they understand this interaction.


Kids who move well and move often throughout development have accelerated cognitive abilities and improved academic performance – with adults it’s no different, whether it’s improved work performance or improved cognition.

Just because you aren’t a kid anymore doesn’t mean you can’t play and learn to move. Don’t be a rigid caricature of a human!

Slow movements

Moving slowly and with minimal muscular tension has several benefits.

  • Moving slowly increases the time allowed for the brain to process sensory information – how the floor feels, where the joints are in space, etc. This helps us because the brain makes movement decisions based on the sensory information it perceives – so more sensory information may allow for better movement choices.
  • Moving slowly lowers threat of the movement because the brain has time to allow access to ranges of motion it may otherwise feel unsafe in – this is why you slowly lower into the splits rather than dropping into them off of a plyo box. 😉
  • Moving slowly also improves self-awareness which allows us to disrupt our habitual, compulsive movement patterns that are the bane of self-regulation. Awareness itself is an agent of change.
  • The increased attentional focus of a slowed movement may allow the brain to more accurately interpret the movement feedback and maintain a healthy body map within the cortex. Furthermore this allows for inhibition of unwanted motor pathways in the nervous system which gives us improved self-regulation, in other words only recruiting the muscles we need.

This system of slow, controlled movements with minimal tension is a principle of the Feldenkrais Method which you can read more about in his book Awareness Through Movement. If this is an aspect of movement training that interests you, you can check out some Awareness Through Movement lessons here.


Emotional states are constituted, in part by how our body feels. And with stressors, which confer a high emotional tone to the situation, we associate emotions with bodily patterns.

Those with high self-regulation are able to dissociate their emotional states from body patterns, which allows a greater sense of ease and efficiency with movement, as our perceptions are not colored by our expectations and emotions.


For instance, I will move very differently if I am nervous about injuring my back because a doctor once told me I could hurt my disks if I round my back, versus exploring the movements from a place of security without labeling and judging how it feels.

Kate has an excellent review on the book Dissolving Chronic Pain, which instructs in how to modulate one’s own attentional focus, which helps self-regulate our focus and corresponding muscular tension.

These are excellent places to begin improving your movement self-regulation, and there are many more paths to self-regulation. But regardless of how we regain it, without the ability to control one’s own movement there is a ceiling on our experiences and performance.

Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT, SCS, CSCS is a residency-trained, board-certified specialist Doctor of Physical Therapy and strength & conditioning coach. Currently practicing in Atlanta, Georgia, he works with a diverse population of clients from those with chronic pain and fatigue to competitive age-division, CrossFit, professional, and Olympic athletes. Dr. Oberst specializes in optimizing movement and behavior to reduce dysfunction and improve resiliency, adaptability, and self-regulation.

For more from Seth check out his website and follow him on Twitter at @SethOberstDPT.

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