As the worst member of the third grade soccer team and someone who manages to trip and fall frequently (even on flat ground), I’ve long considered myself a pretty uncoordinated person.
It’s something I’ve learned to accept—and even laugh about—yet it’s still frustrating when I realize my natural klutziness holds me back, especially when it comes to fitness. I avoid trail running because I know there’s a high likelihood I’ll wipe out, I’m hesitant to try mountain biking for fear of crashing, and I decided I’m not Zumba material after several painful (emotionally) attempts.
But while my innate clumsiness and its impact on my life is obvious, what’s less clear to me is what coordination, as a skill, actually is and how it’s developed. Unlike other components of fitness—like strength, balance, and flexibility—coordination is a bit nebulous and difficult to conceptualize.
That brings me to several coordination conundrums. Why are some of us seemingly less coordinated than others? (It feels downright unfair.) How do your coordination abilities affect your performance in the gym—and in life? And perhaps most importantly, is coordination a trainable skill (i.e. is there any hope for me?!). I asked some experts to demystify the topic. Here’s what they had to say.
Here’s what we mean by coordination.
There are many ways to think about coordination, Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., Edmonton, Alberta–based kinesiologist and exercise physiologist, tells SELF. But the most consistent way to describe it, he says, is as “the ability to perform both fine and gross motor tasks with a high degree of success.” And that could mean anything from throwing and catching a ball to playing piano to scratching your nose to something even as simple as walking, he explains.
There are many different forms of coordination depending on which body systems you need to activate to perform your desired task. For example, catching a tennis ball would involve upper-body coordination between your hands and eyes; kicking a soccer ball would involve lower-body coordination between your eyes and feet. In the gym specifically, examples of coordination-focused movements include pressing two dumbbells over your head in a straight line rather than making circles or swivels, or throwing a medicine ball at a target (say, the wall), and actually hitting that target instead of the person doing deadlifts next to the wall, he says.
“A lot of it just comes down to: Are you doing the thing or the skill that you want to do with a high degree of accuracy?” explains Somerset. “That’s essentially coordination.”
Adding more joints, velocity, and/or load to a movement can increase the coordination challenge. Squatting while raising your hands overhead, for example, involves more coordination than squatting without any upper-body motion because the former involves orchestrating more joints. Sprinting, as another example, involves more coordination than walking because the velocity of the movement is much greater, Paul Aanonson, C.S.C.S., and owner of Simple Speed Coach in northern Colorado, tells SELF. And lunging with a barbell requires more coordination than lunging with just your bodyweight because the load is much greater.
When conceptualizing coordination, stability and balance may also come to mind. And while the concepts are indeed similar and often working together to help you move efficiently, there is a difference among all three: Stability is more about maintaining the positioning of a joint or segment, balance is more about keeping your center of gravity over your base of support, and coordination is more about accurately executing a specific movement, Somerset explains.
So why am I, specifically, so horribly uncoordinated?
First, some tough news (at least for me): Coordination, on some level, is innate. Some of us are just naturally more coordinated than others and are able to further develop coordination skills more quickly.
Beyond our DNA, however, our current coordination abilities could also be a product of experience. Somerset explains that some people may have avoided coordination-oriented activities when they were younger, like gymnastics or dance, because they thought they might be bad at them. Thus, they didn’t spend much time training their coordination, and as a result, are probably less coordinated as adults. Perhaps quitting the third grade soccer team after just one (very embarrassing) season might, in some small way, explain why poor coordination has continued to plague me as an adult.
We’re also about as coordinated as we need to be for the activities we do on a regular basis, he adds. If you spend the majority of your time sitting in an office, commuting, running errands, and cooking dinner, (hi, me) you’ll probably be coordinated enough to successfully complete all of those tasks. But if you’re a competitive athlete, or regularly enjoy activities involving more complex coordination, like slacklining, mountaineering, or rock climbing, you’re likely going to have developed a higher level of coordination because that’s what your typical activities demand.
This brings me to the good news: Coordination is a trainable skill, says Somerset. Through consistent, targeted efforts, you can improve it. (More on that in a bit.)
Is poor coordination ever something to worry about?
If you’ve always struggled with poor coordination, it can definitely be annoying (trust me, I know), but it’s typically not something that’s concerning.
That said, in some cases, lifelong clumsiness could be a result of damage to certain levels of your nervous system, Elizabeth A. Coon, M.D., neurologist and movement disorders specialist at the Mayo Clinic, tells SELF. This type of incoordination is typically genetic (i.e. other people in your family would likely have similar coordination struggles), and may progress as time goes on. If this sounds like you, bring it up to your doctor, who may do a specialized test to further evaluate your situation, Coon explains.
Beyond chronic clumsiness, take note if your coordination abilities suddenly worsen or are associated with other symptoms like difficulty speaking, double vision, weakness, numbness, and/or changes with walking, says Coon. In those instances, it’s very important to see a doctor right away, she explains, as this could be a sign of a stroke, or another other serious underlying issue.
Other coordination-related red flags: If you start falling down, especially in situations where you previously would not have fallen, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, she adds. Also, if you’ve dedicated time to improving your coordination but still don’t see any results, you should probably also chat with your doctor just to make sure there’s nothing worrisome that’s thwarting your success, she advises.
Here’s why it’s maybe worth working on your coordination.
Having solid coordination helps you “be more successful at the physical challenges that you’re trying to do,” says Somerset. For example, having good coordination as you attempt a single-leg deadlift will ensure that you’re actually able to complete the exercise correctly and thus reap its intended benefits. In other words, your movements will be more effective and efficient.
Good coordination can also reduce your risk of injury, say Aanonson and Somerset. When your movements are more accurate, you’re less likely to engage muscles and tissues that shouldn’t be engaged, and you’re also more likely to be moving your body in patterns that are safe for your muscles and joints.
And good coordination isn’t just a boon at the gym; it can also make for easier, more enjoyable daily living. Simply having a high enough level of coordination to achieve the tasks you want to achieve—whether that’s playing with your kids, partaking in a game, or walking on uneven terrain without stumbling—can make you feel more successful in your own body.
Beyond that, as we age, our ability to complete physical tasks degrades, explains Somerset. By incorporating coordination-dependent activities throughout your life, you’ll build the skills and confidence to stay mobile, independent, and lessen your chance of injury as you get older.
So, how does one become less clumsy?
As mentioned, when it comes to coordination, “we’re all at different levels,” says Aanonson. Some folks are just naturally more coordinated than others and can master coordination-focused tasks more quickly.
That said, improving your coordination is “definitely easier than doing something like maximum weight lifting, or very long-duration cardio,” explains Somerset, as coordination drills are less challenging—at least physically. The mental component, however, can be tough. “It’s not something where you can just show up and go through the motions,” says Somerset. “You’ve got to pay attention to all of the stimulus coming at you and make sure you can make good decisions and react accordingly.”
In thinking about incorporating coordination work into your routine, it’s important to know that coordination shouldn’t necessarily take precedence over other components of fitness, like strength, cardio, and flexibility work. And, in fact, working on those other things will naturally make you more coordinated, too.
Unless you’re a high-performing athlete or recovering from a stroke that impacted your coordination abilities, coordination isn’t something most people need to dedicate a full training session to, Rachel Straub, exercise physiologist and C.S.C.S., tells SELF. Instead, she recommends focusing more on strength, balance, and flexibility work. Why? If you have poor strength, balance, and flexibility, your coordination is likely going to be poor, too, and “improving all of those is automatically going to improve your coordination,” she explains.
Somerset puts it another way. Coordination, he says, “is one of the more interwoven and involved components [of fitness].” So while you probably shouldn’t swap your strength training or cardio workouts for an hour of coordination drills, improving your coordination will enhance your overall fitness (and vice versa), which is why there’s no harm in adding coordination work into your usual routine if you have the time.
Here are a few coordination drills to try.
If you want to boost your baseline coordination, try incorporating drills into your warm-up or cool-down, or interspering them into your usual strength training routine, says Somerset. However you do it, start small to reduce risk of injury and better your chance at success.
A basic coordination drill would be to bounce a tennis ball against a wall and catch it with one hand. You could increase the challenge by alternating which hand catches it, and then make it even more difficult by having a friend throw the ball to you, suggests Somerset. From there, you can continue progressing it by having the friend bounce the ball to you; then repeat, but stand on one foot; then repeat, but stand on one foot on an unstable surface (like grass or gravel); then repeat while answering questions, he says.
Skipping is another good way to work your coordination, says Somerset. Try simply skipping from one end of the gym to the other, tapping each foot to the ground twice before switching legs. If you can, add in an arm swing. Though skipping may sound like child’s play, “a lot of people do struggle with it,” he warns.
Another coordination challenge: Try jumping and landing on one foot without wobbling or moving your foot. You can also try this single-leg jumping drill back and forth over a line, or over a small hurdle, says Somerset.
Balance drills are another great option. Coordination and balance, though not the same exact thing (as mentioned), usually go “hand in hand,” says Straub. And working on the latter is a good way to train and improve the former, adds Somerset. (Here are a few balance-challenging exercises you can try.)
When it comes to incorporating coordination drills, “the more variety, the better,” says Somerset. This will help you be more well-rounded in your abilities—both at the gym and in life. That said, if you want to become better at one specific coordination-centric skill—like dancing, for example—you should spend time practicing that specific skill. Doing the coordination drills described above, though helpful in improving your general coordination and a good starting place to reduce overall clumsiness, won’t necessarily make a big difference (if any) in ballet class. “There may be some crossover development between skills that are somewhat similar, but the best way to get good at a challenging skill is to practice the specific skill,” says Somerset.
With all of this info in mind, perhaps I’ll start shaking up my usual cardio and strength-focused workouts with a few skipping drills here, a few balance drills there. And maybe—just maybe—I’ll find myself braving some trail running routes soon.