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A Short Introduction to Self-Limiting Exercise

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become really interested in the concept of self-limiting exercise as a way to injury-proof athletes.

Introduction

I first encountered this concept when reading Gray Cook’s excellent book, “Movement” as part of my FMS certification.

Coming from a world where we do our best to outwit our weakest links using technology (think stable, cushioned running shoes, wetsuits with extra hip buoyancy, ovalised chainrings etc) and having started to seek ways to get back to the reason I started all this endurance business in the first place, I was intrigued.

In essence, the idea of self-limiting exercise is that we should include exercises and activities in our training that are limited by our weakest link. Using the self-limiting exercise as well as some extra work specifically targeting the weak link, that weakness gets stronger over time.

As a result, not only are our prime mover muscles capable of doing more, but they are amply supported by all the ancillary muscles that are involved in performing whatever task it is we wish to undertake.

This is important because often our ability is not limited by the strength of the big muscle groups, but rather by those that assist in getting us in a position to use the awesome strength we have developed.

Your body is a wonderful machine and will do all it can to allow you perform the task you set it. The problem is that this often results in low-level niggling injuries due to some or other small supporting muscles not being able to cope with the load placed upon them.

The good news is that, although it takes longer to get there, by allowing your weakest link to limit what you do, you not only become injury proof, but you become much stronger and much faster too.

Here are a few ways you can make your exercise self-limiting...

Run barefoot 

Anybody who has tried this has realised very quickly just how much of the cushioning and stabilising work their shoes were doing. You both have to slow down and reduce your running volume. Many people aren’t brave enough to do this, but for those who are, it’s a revelation.

It’s purely anecdotal, but people report that many of their injuries vanish soon after giving up running shoes.

I’d further suggest that you spend as much time as possible without shoes. I’ve become “that guy” who walks his kids to school without shoes on in the middle of the winter!

A word of warning though: Start small and advance slowly. Listen to your legs, if they don’t want to run today, don’t do it. Self-limiting exercise requires that you do this sort of listening.

Ride a fixed wheel bike

I thought long and hard about how to put self-limiting exercise into a cycling context because cycling is really efficient and removes many limits.

What I settled on was a fixed wheel for the simple reason that the only way to ride faster is to pedal faster. For maximum benefit, either ride on a velodrome track or ride a track bike on a closed road circuit (e.g. Torbay Velo Park) - the lack of brakes will mean you have to be so much more aware and you are constantly “riding the bike” rather than simply coasting.

[DO NOT ride on the road without brakes, it’s not only illegal, not being able to stop quickly is dangerous to your health.]

For those not in the know, a fixed wheel bike has a single gear and has no freewheel. In other words, you have to pedal constantly. Riding a fixed wheel is the only time on a bike when your muscles lengthen under tension in a similar way to running - if you’ve never done it, expect sore legs the day after.

If you’re not so sure about riding a fixed wheel, the next step down would be a single speed bike. You can improvise this if you’re disciplined, by simply selecting a gear before the ride and remaining in that gear no matter what.

In both cases, choose your gear size wisely. You must be able to complete the practice session without your technique falling to bits.

Much like with running, listen to your body and stop when it’s telling you that you’re on your limit.

Swim outdoors without a wetsuit, pull-buoy or any other aid

Swimming is a self-limiting activity just by virtue of it being in an alien environment (to humans anyway). However we have managed to make it much easier, both by heading to the swimming pool and by using all kinds of swim tools, pull-buoys being top of my hate-list.

Take a few friends along for company (and safety) and just go swimming in a lake or the sea, without a wetsuit, on a regular basis.

Be brave, be mindful of what you’re doing as you swim and your swimming will improve.

Do most of your weight training standing and with free weights only.

The only kit you really need for an effective strength session is a barbell, 3 kettlebells of different weights and somewhere to do pull-ups. You don’t need a squat rack, a rack full of dumbbells or a room full of weird and wonderful machines.

Learn to generate whole body tension to support your joints and your lower back and you can do away with those silly exercises on a Bosu ball.

Here are some more...

  • Farmers Carry
  • Yoga
  • Climbing (climbing wall or rope)
  • Skipping (jump rope)
  • Surfing or Stand-up Paddleboarding
  • Turkish Get-up

A few important notes:

You should perform all of these for technical correctness, not to failure. In fact, when you sense fatigue, it’s probably time to stop.

You won’t automatically gain better movement quality by doing these, they require that you are constantly mindful of how you are moving when you do them.

Instruction from an expert coach will always be of benefit in getting the most from self-limiting exercise.

Summary

We all have a choice to make. Either we're only interested in being the fastest we can be, even if that involves buying large amounts of expensive technical equipment or we want to be the best and most well-rounded athletes we can be.

If you're in the first group, it's simply a matter of spending money.

If you're in the second group, self-limiting exercise is an excellent vehicle for getting there.

Have a go and let me know what you find in the comments below.

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Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, Will has coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. His interest in getting the best results for athletes who compete for the love of the sport, rather than as professionals, drives him to find the most effective ways to get results.

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