Freezing TimeThe scientific method has always been limited by our ability to make observations. Muybridge expanded his observations to get a better picture of what was happening in real-time. When we perform our own movement experiments in the gym, learning to lift correctly at heavier and heavier weights, we would be remiss not to take advantage of the same technology, freezing time to help us become better lifters.
Freezing Time: How Galloping Horses Changed How We See and Learn Movement
In 1878, twelve sequential pictures would help propel forward the study of human and animal motion, pictures that were the culmination of a five-year project to answer a question that sounds like it began as a pub argument: Does a horse completely leave the ground when it is running? Simple human observation had proved inadequate to answer that question, and technology had yet to provide the means to change what the naked eye could see, at least clearly.
The question was being asked by former California Governor and future US Senator, Leland Stanford. To answer it, he hired Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge had been known for his photography of the American West, his free-lance photography business (complete with a mobile, horse-drawn darkroom) “Helios’ Flying Studio,” and his government-sponsored images of the Tlingit native peoples in Alaska.
Muybridge’s first photograph, a single fuzzy image of Stanford’s horse Occident, was notable for the technological achievement. A photograph in the 1870s was considered “instantaneous” if it took anywhere from a one second to a thirty-second exposure, a duration that was no match for the galloping Occident and his flying legs. The resulting image no longer exists, but Stanford was excited by the achievement, and both men agreed that a clearer picture would be needed to settle the debate. Four years later, Muybridge produced a clearer photograph of Occident, using new technology and employing a retouch artist to enhance the photo. The retouch brought into question whether this was truly a photograph, not an artistic depiction, of the horse in a gallop. So, Muybridge and Stanford planned a public experiment that would put the question to rest.
On June 15, 1978, Stanford invited the press and spectators to observe. Muybridge had fixed twelve cameras in an almost Rube Goldbergian setup. The twelve cameras were attached to tripwires that would complete a circuit and snap a picture; the twelve wires were strong across the horse’s path to be tripped by the wheels of a cart, the cart pulled by “Sally Gardiner,” one of Stanford’s horses. As the horse galloped and the cart tripped the wires, Muybridge’s cameras produced twelve clear images of the horse galloping, taken all in less than a second.
He later presented this and other series at an exhibit, reported on below:
“An interesting exhibition of photographs was given by E. J. Muybridge, at the Rooms of the Art Association, last night. The series of twelve photographs of ‘Abe Edginton,’ recently taken, while that horse was trotting at a 2:24 gait, were first shown and explained by Mr. Muybridge. The pictures were thrown upon a screen, where they appeared of life size. The singular fact that for at least one half of the time occupied in making a stride the trotter is entirely off the ground, was demonstrated beyond dispute. A series of views of “Occident” were then exhibited, showing that horse trotting at the rate of a mile in 2:20. These pictures were contrasted with an ideal view of the famous trotting horse “Judge Fullerton,” as represented in a popular engraving. The action of the running horse was illustrated by a number of photographs of Gov. Stanford’s mare, “Sally Gardiner.” Several of the positions which the horse assumes while in rapid motion were so comical as to excite the risibilities of the spectators. By these lightning photographs, taken in less than the two thousandth part of a second, Mr. Muybridge has completely exposed the fallacy of all previous ideas on the subject.” (Daily Alta California, Volume XXX, Number 10315, 9 July 1878, accessible at https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DAC18780709.2.15&srpos=16&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-muybridge——-1)
It is interesting that the spectators thought the images were comical since they did not show the “flying gallop.” Muybridge’s images showed the horses’ hangtime occurring when their limbs were pulled inward toward the center of their bodies. The images and reactions to them help show that sometimes it is necessary to freeze time in order to understand the dynamics of complicated movement.
Technology and Human Movement
Movement is complicated. Even simple human movement like walking down the street requires an organized collection of forces, sensory input and feedback, and experience. It is true that “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” To walk, your brain sends signals to move your muscles; for your muscles to move your cells have to engage in lightning-fast chemical reactions; these reactions fuel muscular contractions; and those contractions create tension, pulling on the complicated system of levers that is your skeleton, and trading force for movement. Your control over that skeletal movement is mostly unconscious since, even for the simplest stroll down the street, the coordination of each muscular contraction that keeps you moving forward and upright is too much to control consciously. The result, a step forward, is the observable end of a complicated process, producing force against the ground to move your center of gravity forward a little bit, catching your weight on your other foot. Then, you have to do it all over again.
Muybridge and others, along with advancing technology, opened the door to study movement by manipulating time. Muybridge made many series of photographs of people doing things as simple as walking up and down stairs or jumping. While they do not show the internal forces going on inside the body, being able to see every “frame” of a movement has allowed us to apply what we know about the natural world and what we know about anatomy and mechanics to create a more complete picture of human movement. The field of biomechanics has since progressed from observations (Muybridge’s horses and human photography series, allowing us to “pause” movement and study it) to mimicry (animators, programmers, and robotics all try to create realistic movement) to modeling (today movement analysis and modeling helpful for studying disease etiology and making decisions about treatment). The scientific method has always been limited by our ability to make observations. Muybridge expanded his observations to get a better picture of what was happening in real-time. When we perform our own movement experiments in the gym, learning to lift correctly at heavier and heavier weights, we would be remiss not to take advantage of the same technology, freezing time to help us become better lifters.
Using Video to Improve Your Lifts
You develop skills in lifting weights by interpreting how the lift feels against an understanding of how it should look. Because we cannot see inside the body while you lift, we extrapolate the knowledge of what is going on under your skin to what we see happening under the bar. From that, we have developed some models that tell a correct lift apart from an incorrect one. Good coaches spend a lot of time learning to interpret what they see a lifter doing according to what they understand about the forces present on and inside the body during a lift, making biomechanics an important area of study.
The average lifter, however, is more inclined to skip the biomechanics lessons and get down to the business of getting strong. That works fine if you have a coach watching your reps and directing your progress. But, absent a coach, the lifter would benefit from some understanding of the lifts, the mechanics and anatomy involved, and how to troubleshoot problems—from unexpected pain to inefficient form—based on how their lifts look and feel.
Take a page from Muybridge and use video to improve your lifting—video and some intentional feedback loop. If you are already a BLOC client, you started doing this your very first workout. Every time you train, you should be filming and reviewing your lifts. At a minimum, this means that you record every work set and watch it immediately afterward, while the lift is still fresh in your mind.
This feedback loop of learning—seeing the movement, making adjustments, and practicing it—will improve the more you do it. You cannot identify correct movement by feel. Not without significant practice producing the correct movement. You might think you are doing the lift correctly because it feels right. But feel is subjective.
Visual markers are objective, and how you interpret the feel of a lift is learned. An informed and experienced eye can see that a movement is correct even when the person under the bar cannot feel that it is. If you don’t have someone (yourself or someone competent enough to have an opinion) confirm it and say, “That’s the movement,” and if you don’t then practice that correct movement until you demonstrate conscious control over it, then you aren’t using your best tools to learn it. And, along with consistency, form is one of the most important keys to long-term success.
Every time you train, you are practicing the skill of lifting. Resist the urge to “just lift” your warmup reps and light-day reps. You should never just go through the motions—every rep has a goal. Those goals will become more narrowly defined as you become more experienced, and you learn the cues that fix certain errors or best help you focus before each rep. Lift, watch, learn, and repeat.