Dynamical Systems Theory is the concept that the human organism has an inherent tendency for coordination and that movement patterns emerge through constraint-led self-organisation.
Now that is a mouthful, so let me break that down into its components. First constraints:
Constraints are barriers that limit the system from engaging in optimal organisation. The three types of constraints are: constraints of the organism itself, of the environment, and of the task being performed. A common example that everyone can understand is that of balance. Balance includes the physical components of joint mobility, muscle strength, tendon stiffness and subsystems such as the vestibular system, somatosensory system, proprioception, and sight. The constraints that affect our balance as organisms could be anthropometrical such as height and weight, environmental such as weather or surface, or task oriented such as side stepping or landing on one foot.
Now an important side note:
The way we determine an appropriate movement response for a given context is through something called “perception-action coupling”. Keeping that same example of balance, you may visually identify a patch of uneven ground approaching while walking then your perception of that information constrains your movement response i.e., potentially to adjust course and walk around the hazard, or step over it. That chosen movement response then generates new information to be perceived and subsequently acted upon, this process continues cyclically, constantly. See the depiction below.
Now, the second part of that “constraint-led self-organisation” thing:
Self-organisation is the process of these constraints allowing a movement pattern to form. When information cannot be properly identified it will place an inappropriate or false constraint on movement. For example, if an individual misperceives the height of a step on a staircase, their subsequent action will be inappropriate and cause them to catch their toe on that step.
This leads nicely into a key idea of “functional variability”:
Functional variability is critical for regular people and athletes to have, as it allows for adaptation to these unexpected constraints that stem from misperception or misinformation. Functional variability allows for effective movement patterns to still emerge from those situations. This is one of the most important “X factors” for an athlete to possess as it allows them to thrive in situations where someone else may fail purely because they misperceived the information presented to them.
So how does any of this relate to strength training or coaching?
Coaches are responsible for manipulating these constraints to provide the required stimulus to facilitate desired adaptations. A reminder that the three forms of constraints are constraints of the organism, environment, and the task at hand. For ballistic or traditional resistance training, environmental constraints are controlled by well, the environment. The environment typically remains constant in a gym, especially during a given movement. The athlete then has their own inherent organism constraints that a coach would be unable to manipulate effectively. However, coaches can manipulate constraints of the task at hand. Manipulating these constraints is particularly useful when regressing or progressing movements. For example, when teaching a squat to someone who can’t place their centre of pressure within their midfoot, using a box or wall in front of their knees or behind their back can force the proper shift of centre of pressure by constraining the movement by using the environment. Now it could be debatable whether this example is an environmental or task constraint. However, I argue that we are actively constraining the task as an environmental constraint typically encompasses the uncontrollable such as weather, surface, opposition etc.
So next time you’re struggling for inspiration when coming up with an exercise or training plan. Think about the goal of the movement. What is the purpose? Why are you doing it? Then consider how you can constrain an existing movement pattern to best achieve that goal and purpose.