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The art of doing "just enough"

Originally, this was going to be a "Words I use" post with the theme of "Do less"; partly, I couldn't quite face the fact that I am (or, more flatteringly, have been) this instructor:

I've definitely also said, "YEAH! That wasn't quite it, but we'll figure it out!".

But the other part of the reason I didn't use "do less" is that, clearly, it's not just about doing less. It's about doing just enough. And of course, that is far harder than doing nothing or doing everything all the time.

This concept first planted itself in my head when I was reading about eating disorder recovery, a few years ago. Someone had made the point that the reason it's such a hard addiction to beat - because for many of us, controlling food consumption and/or the feeling of hunger is addictive - because you can't just quit food. Stopping smoking, beating alcohol or narcotics or gambling addictions is undeniably hard, but at least you can - at least in theory - shut the door on those things and aim to stay away from them forever. You can't stop eating to beat an eating disorder, nor can you stop not eating.

As I began to reckon with my own unhealthy exercise habits and beliefs, I discovered how much harder it was to find a healthy balance between hard training sessions, maintenance sessions, recovery sessions, and days off; going to the gym every single day after work, foregoing all social engagements, training in the hardest way I knew (not always that hard, admittedly - and I'll get to that - but it felt hard), was far easier than taking a random day off if and when I felt like it, or doing an easier session. And yet everywhere I looked, "fitspo" (those social media posts and advertising campaigns featuring glistening, determined-looking people with six-packs and perfectly rounded glutes and captions like "Sweat is just fat crying") heralded the go-hard-or-go-homers as the pinnacle of dedication and willpower.

Many of you will have heard the analogy I often use of holding a handful of sand: if you try and clench your fist to hold all the sand in tight, it will squeeze out the sides; whereas if you keep your hand open and lightly cupped, you can hold a bigger handful of sand. If you practise yoga, you should be familiar with aparigraha, the concept of "non-grasping" or non-attachment; if you practise mindfulness or meditation, there is always a component of letting things be the way they are. And if you ever use the internet (!) you have probably stumbled across lists of self-care tips or posts reminding you to "just let it go".

If that all sounds a bit too philosophical and hypothetical, consider the documentary AlphaGo, in which an artificial intelligence programme plays an elite player at the game go. I'm about to spoiler it, so if you haven't seen it and hate spoilers, click away now.

So the spoiler is that the AI programme beats Lee Se-dol, and it does so by just one point. The programme doesn't have an ego; it's not trying to win by giant margins, or to offer itself security that it will win. It just cares about scoring that final point. It is programmed to do "just enough". And we, humans, are not. We like to go big (or at least that's what our current society has conditioned us to like).

What is the relevance of all this to movement?

Well, partly, the frequency and intensity of movement requires a precise balance to be found: many injuries are caused by going too hard, too often, or too soon; some are caused by doing too little.

But what causes me to reference "the Goldilocks point" most often in a movement session are the shapes we make with our bodies, the positions we get into. The pelvis, for example: rarely do we want an anterior pelvic tilt (where the top of the pelvis tilts forward, lifting the glutes and pinching the lower back) or a posterior pelvis tilt (the opposite, where the tailbone is curled under like a dog tucking its tail between its legs); usually, we are looking for a "neutral pelvis", which isn't a particularly helpful cue for people who aren't movement or health professionals. Same with the shoulder blades; we want them slightly retracted and depressed, that is moving towards each other and the back pockets, but despite what many trainers will say, we usually don't actually want them "squeezing" towards each other. We want chests lifted, but not puffed out. Heads high, but chins level with the ground. Feet firmly grounded, but not stuck in place.

Imagine this but with clenched fists; it becomes a very different image, a totally different movement

So how do we find that "neutral" place? The place where we do "just enough"?

Well, we all learn in different ways. Personally the way I learn, is to get things wrong, many many times. I bounce from one extreme to another, until gradually the bounces become smaller and I settle in the middle range. For some reason, I always picture a Newton's cradle (which I had to remember the name of by Googling "office ornament with swinging balls" - the internet can be awful but sometimes isn't it just great?), but I'm sure this isn't actually relevant.

So to use the pelvic tilt example - and many of my clients have been through this process with me - we go to a full anterior pelvic tilt, then a full posterior pelvic tilt (yes, like very slow twerking), then back to anterior pelvic tilt but not quite as far, back to posterior pelvic tilt but not as far, and so on until we're hovering in the middle. At that point, it should feel like both front and back of the body are balanced; lower back isn't pinching, glutes aren't squeezing, everything is engaged but nothing is working harder than anything else. Everything is doing "just enough".

The difficulty with all of this, is that you have to trust yourself. You have to trust that you are doing just enough, at just the right time. As your coach, I can describe the position, but you can still be in the shape whilst clenching something that doesn't need to be clenching, or slowly collapsing into something that still needs to be a bit more active, and I won't necessarily see it until you fatigue. So you need to tune in, trust what you feel, and be willing to readjust as much and as frequently as necessary. If you're holding that sand in your open cupped hand, and there are gusts of wind blowing, you might use the other hand to shield it; but if there is no wind, there's no point keeping that other hand there - but you need to be paying attention so you can react if and when the wind does change.

A lot of people fear that when they start tuning into that "just enough" spot, they will become lazy. That brings me back to the point I promised I'd get back to; when I thought I was working hard in the gym all the time but actually never was. The truth is - and having this pointed out to me was a pivotal moment in my training and my career - that because I knew I had to do the same thing 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year, I was unconsciously holding myself back. I thought I was going hard, but when you're truly going hard, you can't do the same session every day. You can't set a PB (personal best) every week. When you learn to tune in to your body and ease off where possible or necessary, you actually have the ability to train harder (or for longer, or more frequently, or more consistently), because you're not wasting energy on the days that the body isn't at its best.

"Just enough" also implies: "at just the right time". Learning to do "just enough" means learning timing, which is everything in sport - arguably, it is timing that separates the elite athlete from, well, the rest of us - and anything else that requires movement or energy (the right stroke of the paintbrush at the right time, the ability to step back onto the curb just in time to avoid an oncoming vehicle, the ability to catch that glass falling off the table). And because the body and the mind are interwoven, training the body in this way also trains the mind to become more aware and less emotionally reactive - we learn to focus on what's important, and let go of what is just distracting at this point.

I love that this concept applies to every layer of movement and life: do "just enough" to make this action happen, "just enough" to make it through the training session, "just enough" to recover for the next day, "just enough" to beat the opposing team in extra time, "just enough" to not get frustrated when things don't work out how you'd planned.

Ironically, I have several other tangents I could go off on - and I started typing some of them out - but I think, right now, this is just enough.

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