Few real-world functional movements consist solely of simple single joint actions. Other than doing a bicep curl to grab bags of groceries, how many isolated movements occur in the real-world? Most functional movements involve motion at several joints and the coordination between different groups of muscles, between flexors and extensors and between contraction and lengthening. This joint and muscle coordination can be understood in terms of yin and yang. Learning functional movement then becomes an exercise in harmonizing the yin and yang.
To illustrate this point, we can examine a few physical activities as examples. One example I like is the simple bench press. Ok, it’s arguable whether this is truly a functional movement, but bear with me. Every guy in the gym is familiar with this exercise. For many, it’s the vanity exercise of choice for developing chiseled pecs. While it is primarily a yin movement (the pecs draw the arms in towards the front of the body), a properly performed bench press is actually an exercise requiring yin-yang balance. At the gross level, you can say that the tricep extension movement during the press is the counterbalancing yang movement. If you delve further, you can see that the lats and upper back (both yang) need to engage to stabilize the shoulder joint against the pull of the pecs. Though not typically thought of as a pressing muscle, even the biceps (yin) play a role in executing the bench press. If you exhaust your biceps and then immediately do some heavy full range-of-motion benching, you will feel weaker on the press–especially at the bottom of the press–since your tired biceps will be struggling to stabilize the elbow.
With March Madness in full swing now, you have plenty of opportunities to watch for harmonized body movement on the basketball court. Next time you watch sharp shooters spot up for a three-point shot, pay attention to their body mechanics as they spot up and launch the shot. A good shooter will spot up for the shot by bending the knees, folding the hips, slightly closing the front of the torso, and slightly opening the back to stack up the body over the feet and prepare to shoot. As the player launches the ball, the calves (yin) flex the ankle, quads (yang) extend the knee, hamstrings (yin) and glutes (yang) extend the hips, triceps (yang) extend the elbow, and the muscles of the forearms (yin) flex the wrist. To accurately get a ball through an 18 inch hoop 10 feet in the air from 20 feet away requires harmonized body movement through several joints.
As a final example, running is also an activity that requires balanced movement. Despite the groans of hordes of the weekend warriors and treadmill gym rats, the human body is actually well-suited for running. In a simplified analysis, running can be broken down into the calves (yin) controlling ankle flexion, quads (yang) straightening the leg during the push off, glutes (yang) and hamstrings (yin) driving the foot back and pushing the hips forward, and the abs and hip flexors (yin) pulling the body forward to keep the torso aligned over the hips.
Proper joint coordination (i.e. yin/yang harmony) makes body movement graceful, efficient, powerful, and easy. When we struggle with an activity, be it a sport, chore, or daily life, we often assume that it’s because we’re not in good enough shape. While that can be true in the modern sedentary lifestyle, it’s not the whole story. It’s just as often the case that we forget how coordinate one joint with another and move the body efficiently. When the harmony of yin and yang is manifested in the body movement, functional body movement also happens.