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Principle Training Versus Technique Training
by Alvin Tam
When I train my students, my number one goal is not to help them lose weight, show them different exercises, or improve their endurance. My main goal is to cultivate in them a mindset of principle based training. Training from principle is understanding how the body works, versus how to physically copy and execute a movement.
Many exercise forms focus on technique. Yoga focuses on postures, bootcamp runs you through circuit drills, and swimming makes you do laps. In most classes, you follow the instructor move for move, copying as closely as you can the form of the exercise. You imitate the placement of the toes, the fingers, the arch of the back, and depth of the squat. Unfortunately in many classes, it resembles a factory production line where student after student forces herself into a carbon copy of the instructor.
Learning technique is important but only if it is accompanied by principle training. Learning the principle of a movement frees your mind from training by rote and teaches you to develop self-awareness and creativity. Here are a few examples of the principles behind the technique:
Handstand Placing your center of gravity over your foundation
Tree Pose (yoga) Placing your center of gravity over your foundation
Warrior Pose Placing your center of gravity over your foundation
Punch Generating power by rotating your center of gravity
Kick Generating power by rotating your center of gravity
Running Off balancing your center of gravity
Squats Compressing and expanding the body
Crunches Compressing and expanding the body
Back flip Compressing and expanding the body
There are thousands and thousands of movement techniques but only a few principles. Once you begin to understand how the body moves, you can begin to apply the principles across multiple exercise forms. For example, my two main movement specialty areas are acrobatics and martial arts. How do principles cross over between the two?
Martial arts is based on two primary principles: generating power by rotating your center of gravity and compressing and expanding the body. The speed and power behind any punch, kick, knee, or elbow comes from rapidly torquing your waist – your center of gravity – and extending a limb. As you extend your punch, kick, knee or elbow, you expand your body, then quickly compress it again.
Acrobatics is based on two primary principles: generating movement by off balancing your center of gravity and compressing and expanding your body. A back handspring requires you to fall off balance first, then rapidly expand your body backwards in an arch, while firing your legs. You expand to your maximum range and then return to a normal range, standing.
Other exercise forms may have only one main principle. Running is the act of constantly falling off balance and catching yourself. You move your center of gravity, the waist, forward and wait for your feet to catch up. Then you repeat over and over again – and suddenly you’re running. Your speed is not determined by how quickly you move your feet, but by the degree to which you’re willing to be imbalanced.
Benefits of Principle Training
When you begin to actively seek to understand the principle behind all your movements, you increase your body awareness. Instead of being distracted by techniques, you become much more in tune with what you are doing and if you are overdoing a movement, or if you can go further with it. You learn faster because you see the similarities across multiple moves and you become more creative as an athlete because you can make up exercise routines instead of following rigid programs that lead to boredom and chronic injury.
Once you understand movement based on principle, you also learn faster. Instead of dissecting a technique, you seek automatically to understand the physics and dynamics of the movement. The technique happens to be the specific requirements of that sport or exercise form, so your learning accelerates because you already understand what 90% of your body has to do.
On a spiritual parallel, principle training is like having a clear set of values versus a rulebook to dictate your actions. For example, you might value kindness, courage, and community contribution. All your actions stem from these simple values. You’ll choose to help people instead of hindering them, encourage others in need, and volunteer your time, money, or expertise to your community.
On the other hand, if you haven’t identified your values, you’ll struggle with your daily choices because you won’t have an internal compass to guide your actions. You’ll rely instead on a rulebook, which by its very nature is inflexible and can’t adjust to new circumstances. For every new situation or variable, you’ll need a new rule. That’s why life gets laborious when you don’t have clear values – there are too many rules to remember and some of them will end up contradicting each other!
For example, I used to have a strict rule that I should never drink alcohol. It was a belief I inherited from my upbringing, and I applied it dogmatically to my life without question. I thought I valued health but I was really locked into a rule that I had never thought to ask it if served me.
My non-drinking rule probably saved me from a lot of heartache, nights of regret and an overtaxed liver. On the other hand I missed out on a lot of fun as well. If I had defined my value as enjoying life through healthy moderation, then I would have made choices that allowed me to drink when I wanted to, but not overdo it to cause long term damage. I finally replaced this rule with a value at the age of 33, when I finally had my first hangover.
So any rule, when not backed by a value you truly care about, results in rigid, robotic behavior. You end up enforcing your rule with aggression because you don’t really have options, unless you write more rules to accommodate a changing situation. Then you end up with a personal rule book thousands of metaphoric pages long, and, instead of aggression, you experience exhaustion.
Physical training is the same. When your mind is flooded with thousands of techniques without principles, you become overwhelmed with the choices and you simply shut down. Perhaps you stop training, or resort to the boring forms of training, like watching the same video over and over again because your entire program is dictated to you and no thinking is required. Without principle-based training, the attrition rate on an exercise program is high because you don’t have variations – you can’t slow down on a long day, or speed up on an energetic day. With principle-based training, you have the knowledge to show you how to make a movement easier or more challenging, apply it to another form of movement or another sport, and even create your own form of exercise.