Movement Strength and Skill - Freestyle
| June 18, 2018

Movement Strength and Skill

Focus on being movement strong, not numbers strong.

How strong do you need to be to squat 500 pounds? We could study this movement and talk about contractile forces at muscular level, but we can also simply say, “Strong enough to squat 500 pounds.” This may seem like circular logic, but strength is where we can really get lost in fitness, and where I find my task-focused definition of fitness especially useful for keeping me on track. After all, what is a better measurement of how “strong” someone is than the accomplishment of an amazing feat?

To perform a 500-pound Squat, you need to have the skill to perform the style of Squat required to lift 500 pounds as well as the physiological capacity to support this movement.

I define movement strength as the physiological capacity to support a movement and skill as the ability to apply this capacity to your performance.

I think it’s important to separate movement strength and skill because in the gym we are always working to understand our current ability in terms of adaptations that we know how to progress. For example, knowing that you ran a marathon in three hours is a fantastic measurement, and a well-known way to improve your performance is to start with physiological adaptations. But what are these physiological adaptations, and how do they relate to your ability to move?

Movement Strength

I believe that the physiology underlying an individual’s current capacity to move, or movement strength, is best described by four of CrossFit’s ten aspects of fitness:

  • Strength is the contractile potential of muscle and its application to moving the skeleton for the completion of a task.
  • Stamina is the ability to sustain muscular strength.
  • Endurance is the cardiovascular system that allows us to perform for long periods of time.
  • Flexibility (also known as mobility) is the physiological capacity to move the body with minimal restriction at joint and muscular levels.

These physiological aspects are important for improving performance. They can be observed, measured, and repeated, and many formal methods for creating these adaptations already exist in fitness and athletics. Unfortunately, the fitness community often gets lost in the most obvious measurements—for example, adding one more pound on the bar. If this training does not translate to actual progress toward your goal, then it is useless. Just because something can be measured doesn’t mean that it is the most important measurement.

My job as a coach is to identify specific movement patterns in life and sport and bring them into the gym to train and progress them. I enhance performance by challenging those movement patterns in different ways. To translate the gains from these challenges back into real life and sports performance, I need to understand the language of human movement as presented in chapter 1 of Freestyle, The Book. If you stop and think about it, the data you collect are products of how you move and therefore are extremely important.

Movement strength is about not just developing the physiology, but also developing the movement quality that then allows you to tap into the physiological adaptation you truly want, the one that supports quality movement.

The concept of being movement strong, as simple as it may seem, is about having the physiological capacity to support the highest-quality movements. Measuring your movement strength progress based on the quality of your movement will help you maximize your efforts to train your body in a way that will be most transferable to other aspects of life and sport.


As stated earlier, I define skill as the ability to apply movement strength to perform a task. This definition of skill is easily confused with the term “technique,” which describes a way to carry out a particular task.

A Carl Lewis long jump and a Parkour artist’s jump from one building to another share similar mechanics that make them both jumps, and the approaches in chapter 1 enable you to identify those shared mechanics. I define being good at jumping as skill and the specificity required to perform each style of jump as technique.

To further understand skill and technique, it is helpful to distinguish between the general and the specific mechanics of a movement. Take, for example, a Squat. You can perform a Squat in many different ways according to your purpose, even though squatting is a general movement pattern that involves lowering your center of mass toward the ground by bending your hips, knees, and ankles. We can say that squatting is general, but the style of squatting is specific. Skill refers to general squatting mechanics, while technique refers to the specific requirements to perform a certain style of Squat.

skill diagram

This diagram illustrates how I view movement ability. Each node represents a specific movement technique; clusters of techniques can be considered skills; and the lines that connect one technique to another are what I like to think of as skill transfer. Notice that the diagram takes the shape of a pyramid, representing how building a strong base of realized movement ability will determine not just the height of the techniques you can reach, but also your ability to transfer the skill gained from learning one technique to other unrealized, yet close, techniques. Also notice that the pyramid is not limited to one direction, but instead creates an infinitely expansive movement ability blanket.

There are an infinite number of styles of every general movement pattern. Think about throwing an object: All styles of throwing involve similar mechanics, but their differences have important implications that define them. For example, pitching is general throwing mechanics in baseball, but the styles of pitches (curveball, knuckle ball, and so on) require different techniques.

The difference between skill and technique can get even more confusing because the most straightforward way to assess skill is to observe the performance of various techniques. So keep in mind that technique is the specific details of each individual style, while skill is the general mechanics.

As for movement strength, it is important to identify the physiological foundation of skill in order to train it. Again, I find CrossFit’s definitions of fitness aspects useful, and I believe that four of them represent the basis of skill:

  • Balance is the ability to control your center of mass or combined center of mass while moving or lifting in relation to your base of support.
  • Accuracy is the ability to move exactly or correctly.
  • Agility is the ability to change the direction of movement.
  • Coordination is the ability to perform complex movement patterns in a way that flows.

These fitness aspects allow you to mechanically perform complex movements in an accurate, balanced, smooth, and sequenced fashion. Skill is what brings the complexity of human anatomy to work together in a way that makes the extreme complexity of the human body seem simple.

Although understanding movement strength and skill separately is important for understanding the roles they play in the development of progressions, they can never be separated during actual movement. The magic of training the human body is that when you develop and progress movement strength and skill, you see an increase in your ability to perform basic movements, which increases your capacity to perform in specific life and sport scenarios. Furthermore, I believe that an understanding of skill as the application of movement strength to a specific task is crucial for understanding how to optimize your performance in order to see progress.

Watch this video with Carl Paoli discussing Movement Strength in the Freestyle Connection Framework.

Watch this video with Carl Paoli discussing Skill in the Freestyle Connection Framework.

For more information, you can reference Freestyle the book, Page 60-63, Chapter 2, Part 1.

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