You’ve probably heard it before, from fitness blogs, health-related social media or the occasional smug trainer: children squat perfectly. They’re also natural runners and climbers. They’re fearless movers who instinctively demonstrate correct alignment and adults should strive to be more like them.
This implies that you came into this world a blithe, elegant creature of preternatural grace—and then went and ruined it by growing up.
Let me be perfectly clear. You came into this world as a pile of goo with the consistency of a gummy bear on a warm day, with a few decades between you and anything resembling decent quality of movement.
Kiddos are born with 96 extra pieces to their little half-baked skeletons. Fewer than half of those are actual bone; most are cartilage. The ossification process that turns those squishy little nubbins into fully formed bones won’t be completed for years.
How many years, would you guess? 5? 7?14?
Try 25. At best.
This is not an accident. Kids’ rubbery skeletons protect them against all the stupid s**t they do. Like a sapling in a storm, a kid will bend where an adult might break. That’s a good feature to have when you’re a 7-year-old with a bold heart, a high roof, and a Superman costume.
When a child drops effortlessly into a squat position, or calmly clambers up walls and over furniture, it’s not because they have better biomechanics; it’s because they squish. Being squishy gives children the luxury of being fearless, and fearlessness encourages kids to move in new ways. They are programmed to recklessly endanger themselves in a quest for information about their environment.
Adult’s brains have organized all the information gained from their childhood years of reckless endangerment into a system of predictable consequences. A child burdened with that awareness would seize up and learn nothing; an adult unburdened of it would die young, probably doing something that any respectable adult would know better than to attempt. For example:
Adults, don’t freak out because you can’t move like you could when you were a kid. You have a better-developed sense of consequences than you used to—and that’s a good thing, too, because now you are much more powerful.
And I don’t just mean in a “greater wisdom, fine wine, been around the block” kind of way. The fully ossified skeleton carrying you around conducts a lot more force, a lot more effectively. Bones that used to flex under pressure now absorb and channel impact as usable energy. The adult skeleton is not a tool for experimenting with the environment, but conquering it.
The trade-off is that you don’t get to squish. Your quality of movement matters now, as your joints become the sole sites of modulation. Adults have to be more cautious with their movements. Let’s remember that “caution” isn’t only used to handle the fine china; you also need it to wield a fire hose.
The adult musculoskeletal system is a precision machine. The greatest advantage it confers is its ability to develop skill, not strength. This is your way forward. When considering how to stay active, look for activities that emphasize and enhance your skills.
Skill development shifts the focus of your physical activity away from your what your body looks like and onto how you’re using it to affect your environment. A rock climber doesn’t care what she weighs if she makes it safely up the wall. A salsa dancer’s bicep circumference is irrelevant if he’s a snappy dresser and a good lead. Most importantly, the aches and pains that we all experience at one time or another can be viewed for what they really are: guidelines for improved performance, not failures in the system.
Contrary to the popular fitness refrain, your body is absolutely not designed to succeed at all costs. Your body is designed to optimize performance while keeping you safe, because you’re an adult and you have s**t to do, which is different than having something to prove.
Be safe. Do well. Have fun. The strength will come.