Using Momentum and Control in Movement

“Drop your chin to your chest”

“Throw your arm over your head”

“Swing your leg as high as you can”

We’ve been told these prompts in plenty of athletic contexts throughout our lives whether in a dance or circus class, sports practice, or in a personal training session. Practicing dynamic movements can serve many goals, but sometimes we get so used to using momentum for things like dropping our chin to our chest, throwing our arm up or swinging our leg, that it becomes our default movement habit. If we use dynamic approaches for movements over which we don't yet have control, that can be a recipe for injury. How are dynamics and control different? Why is this important?

Let’s unpack a bit how and when dynamic movement is helpful:

Warm Ups

Most frequently I find that dynamic movement is used as a way to warm up: increasing body temperature and blood flow before attempting specific complex movements.  I’ll also point out that there is a difference between dynamic movements like swinging or bouncing, which use momentum and gravity to facilitate fast movement, versus explosive movement, which tends to include an element of impact.

**Just a note about that: Explosive movements aren’t warm ups; just in case you like to do burpees first thing when you get the to gym before assessing how well your joints are working that day. I recommend moving without impact/load a bit before adding that element of stress to your tissue.

Advanced Joint Control

Last week, my colleague and fellow FRC mobility specialist, Chris Ruffolo of Post Competitive Insight published her own blog post titled: “Dynamic Movement as an Extension of Control." She talked specifically about the difference between control and momentum and distilled the goals of each kind of movement really clearly, “Less time and more momentum assesses how the tissues can be used in a more dynamic capacity.  The goal would be to match the range of motion found/ gained under slower, more cautious and calculated conditions.” That goal is way more challenging and nuanced than just using momentum to generate large but vague movements for a warm up.


In aerial work and acrobatics, momentum is essential for certain movement pathways through space. It’s simple physics: you need to generate a certain amount of energy through momentum in order to complete a skill. On the rope, which is my specialty, dynamic swinging is a prerequisite to lots of complex “release” moves where you let go of the rope and re-catch it. Trying to do those moves statically would be dangerous, let alone impossible.

Now a look at "Control" in movement

Last week I said I would talk about pros and cons of momentum versus control. Really the question becomes: in what scenarios is momentum more useful than control, and in what scenarios is control more useful than momentum? The reason I wanted to write this post is because the average person uses momentum for daily movements that don’t require it. Whether a it's hoisting yourself up from a chair, plopping onto a couch or jerking up a bag of groceries onto the counter- if these kinds of daily movements are the only movements we ever practice, we reduce our body’s instinct and ability to move with control.

In the Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) world, the progression of movement training begins with the prompt: control. In fact that's their hashtag: #controlyourself. Just consider the difference in how you might understand those prompts I mentioned at the beginning of this piece if you were told:

“Control the descent of your chin towards your chest”

“Control the reach of your arm over your head”

“Control the flexion your leg as high as you can”

SO MUCH HARDER!! Why? Movement isolations require us to abandon the compensations that arise in general day to day dynamic habits and get honest about how articulate our movement really is.

This is where FRC’s CARs (Controlled Articular Rotations) vocabulary is a really valuable tool. Take the arm car (for the glenohumeral joint): you might find your torso twisting when you circle your “arm” because on its own the arm doesn’t make much of a circle, but your focus is on making a circle in space rather than isolating your joint. Or maybe your elbow bends mid circle because you lack the mobility to keep it straight. I'm gonna say it, (no judgement, but) I think these compensations are an ego thing. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. When we learn movements, it is very tempting to let our egos motivate us to make a bigger movement than our bodies can actually handle. If you are honest about controlling that arm circle, you may find that your arm even feels heavy at certain points, maybe you can't even bring it all the way overhead properly without compensation from other parts of your body (most people can't).

CARs benefit us in a multitude of ways. One benefit is simply the hydrating and oxygenating of tissue that movement provides to an otherwise static area, which is essential for tissue health. Another benefit more related to the points here, is that they train our brains to communicate two important and subtly different messages to our bodies simultaneously:

1) Keep tension everywhere in the body...

2) Use that tension to prevent compensations as you control the movement of only one joint

My understanding is that on a neurological level, this creates a foundation of connections in the brain that allow for multiple commands to happen at once: "Stabilize here, move there." The more we practice this kind of thinking/moving, the more repeatable complex movements can become in our practice.

It can be very humbling to go back to square one and explore where you find ease in your body's understanding of your commands and where you find difficulty. In aerial, people always joke about having a "good side" and a "less favorite side" of their bodies. One side just gets the complex movement. One side needs things broken down into smaller learning pieces. By training ourselves to be able to control small movements, our potential for complex dynamic movements increases dramatically, even on the less favorite side.

Moral of the story:

Next time you go to "drop your chin to your chest," "throw your arm over your head" or "swing your leg as high as you can," consider the application, do you have control as well? Practicing both dynamics and control are great, but practicing the one that is more difficult is key for successful, healthy movement and advancement in training goals.

Special Thanks to Emily Rubin SPT for proofreading and edits!

Next Week: Push Through It or Change Focus? Reconsidering how to navigate pain