Hold Still, Move Better

Let's talk about what it means to hold strong and hold still. Let's talk about how isometric stabilization is a skill in and of itself. It is a skill required for most complex/challenging/extreme movements in which you must stabilize some parts of your body while moving others, yet it tends to sometimes be overlooked or undertrained.

Isometrics: Defined

From Merriam Webster's website: :

Isometric adjective  iso·met·ric \ˌī-sə-ˈme-trik\ of, relating to, involving, or being muscular contraction (as in isometrics) against resistance, without significant shortening of muscle fibers, and with marked increase in muscle tone

Huh? Basically isometrics are sustained contractions of muscle that do not require much lengthening or shortening of the muscle. Holding a plank is a common (but complex) isometric exercise. Resisting someone trying to push you over is a isometric exercise. This is in contrast to concentric muscle contraction (active shortening of muscle fibers) and eccentric muscle contraction (active lengthening of muscle fibers).

When You Use Them Part 1

In FRC, Isometrics are primarily used in two different applications. One, is the concept of "Irradiation", which is the full body tension held during CARs, that keeps you from defaulting to compensatory patterns during the joint isolations.

Example, if you tend to let your ribs flare open when you lift your arm overhead, irradiation is the plank-like tension you hold while lifting your arm in the CAR so that the CAR targets the shoulder joint specifically. Without irradiating, you might lift your arm overhead, but that action wouldn't be occurring in your shoulder joint, thus it wouldn't be a shoulder isolation. 

Another isometric application is used in progressions from CARs that establish and increase the amount of neural connection you have to specific joints at specific angles. The FRC jargon for the exercises that train this are PAILs (Progressive Angular Isometric Loading) and RAILs (Regressive Angular Isometric Loading).

Example: if you are looking to build stronger shoulder flexion (lifting your arm straight up by your ear while maintaining strong connection through the ribcage and pelvis), your PAIL exercise would be pushing IN to your maximum angle of shoulder flexion and isometrically contracting your shoulder stabilizers at that angle of pushing IN to flexion, and your RAIL would be pulling AWAY from your maximum angle of shoulder flexion  (without modifying the rest of your body position). These exercises help build stability at increased joint angles over time.

PAILs and RAILs are AWESOME (not an acronym). Ok wait, let's try to make it one: Amazing Way Each Stabilizer Owns (its) Maximum Effort. Wow! There ya go. But seriously, PAILs and RAILs are what build control in increased ranges of joint motion.as we work to create more range in our joints. They help us own our muscle activation at our end-ranges so that we can hold stable there. This is important, because we have to hold stable before we can do dynamic or loaded things at our joints.

When You Use Them Part 2

Targeted isometrics are a great way to specifically train movements or skills that require extreme joint motion.

Example: I'm working on active square splits. Splits are about more than just flexible hamstrings and hip flexors. They are actually a super complex coordination of  squaring the entire leg in the hip socket, while the femur is in an extreme relationship to the pelvis, while also stabilizing the pelvis in relation to the spine. So much going on! So rather than try only the splits over and over to improve the splits, I've been working on smaller sections that needs isometric strength first. Since ankle and hip mobility is deeply related (I can only squat as deep as whichever of those joints is least mobile),  I've been training my ankles and hips isometrically in flexion and extension first, so that I have more muscle-firing capacity of each joint told hold me in the full split. When I put weight on my ankles in the splits, I need to be able to isometrically fire my lower leg to help keep my leg actively square in the relationship to the hip. How often in life do we train putting active load on our the front and back sides of the lower leg? Not that much, so by training these specific positions isometrically, I'm able to work more effectively in the split.

Moral of the Story

Whether you're working on splits, pushups, box jumps, or whatever, it's helpful to have isometric control of the joints you are challenging before going for the extreme skill. If you tend to noodle out in a pushup, work on holding a super solid plank first. If your hips collapse open when trying to hold a square split (like mine), work on isometric activations at whatever angle your square split maxes out. Isometrics are essential building blocks for control in dynamic movements, and they can really speed up your progress if you apply them well.

Slow Down and Zoom In...

I have been writing a lot about taking TIME for yourself and your body.  I talked about investigating pain with curiosity (time consuming), showing up to tune into your body each day (schedule that!), and most recently I wrote about taking time for artistic expression and research (only flows when you make space for it). Writing weekly is also a space in which I slow down, take time, and form ways to articulate how and why I work, train and prioritize things the way that I do. I find though that taking un-rushed time to do things, especially things that are not fitness-related, is in fact a really helpful habit to cultivate in service of a stronger, more focused and more nuanced training practice. 

As a teacher, I find that when teaching a movement class it can be very hard to guide students through details of the complex movements I ask them to do.  I was discussing this recently with a fellow aerial instructor: you (the teacher) can offer every verbal cue you have, for every detail you remember, but it's up to the student to follow the cues. Teachers can only get students so far. Teachers are like the flashlight to show you what to put attention on to, but they can't zoom in to the details of your body in a group class. The thing is, big movements are the sum of small detailed movements.  Maybe you just don't know how to follow detail cues, so how do you learn to work on details?

Let's talk about FRC CARs

In Functional Range Conditioning ® (FRC), a foundational recommended practice are Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) for each major joint in the body. Essentially this means make isolated joint circles while maintaining tension in the rest of the body. FRC Founder Dr. Andreo Spina defines CARs as: "Active, rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion."  It's very hard to make an isolated joint rotation or a full end-range joint rotation without tension in the rest of the body, and that's why this specification is key to usefulness of these exercises. 

Why are articulate, end-range joint rotations important?

If the teacher of your group class is like a flashlight, think of CARs like your microscope for seeing how well your body is moving. CARs are your lens through which to zoom in on the details of how and where your body is moving in smooth coordination and where there are hiccups and blocks.

*Important (and maybe not quite obvious enough not to mention)*: A joint is where two bones meet. A good CAR is the slow, controlled articular training of the muscles that promote healthy movement between bones. The focus in CARs is to keep the bones organized and only move one joint through its fullest range of motion. The focus is *not* to make a big circle in space if it is at the expense of your bones' organization.

When you wake up in the morning, maybe there is a general sense of stiffness that is hard to break down and understand. Perhaps there are achy areas but it's hard to know what the culprits really are. Ida Rolf is famous for having said about pain/discomfort, "Where you think it is, it ain't." CARs are helpful way to take the onus off of finding and and identifying discomfort, and instead put your focus on the something more positive: working towards freedom of articulate movement. 

No matter what your level of fitness or mobility, CARs are low-stress (to the nervous system) way to learn about where you have ease of coordination and where you need to put your training/activity focus. 

After the Microscope

Once you have identified your sticky spots, you have useful information for how you choose to spend your training time. This can be very helpful when you are setting goals. Whether the goal is to do a handstand, a square split or 10 pull ups, you'll need to know how all of your bones are moving in relationship to one another so that you can most productively work towards that goal. I recently saw an Instagram post that spoke to this well:

 

If you aren't mobile enough to do the movement or skill, you will struggle much longer to improve at that movement or skill.

CARs are a great tool for assessing your mobility on the day to day (and throughout the day), so that you can best prepare yourself for training and classes. The more you practice isolations, the more specifically you will learn to feel nuance, the more control you will gain over detailed movement, and the more you will get from your teachers in class. 

Moral of the Story:

Slow down. Zoom in. Practice being your own microscope. Becoming more at home in your body will bring you so much more benefit from your classes and training pursuits.  What would you learn about yourself if you just slowed down and practiced listening to subtlety?

Next Week: Holding Still as a Skill: Isometrics and Irradiation

To my art... (a love poem)

 
In a performance workshop on the Globe stage, weeks after seeing aerial theatre for the first time, also at the Globe. 2005.

In a performance workshop on the Globe stage, weeks after seeing aerial theatre for the first time, also at the Globe. 2005.

Only Child Aerial Theatre's "ASYLUM" at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts 2017, after over a decade of trial and error in search of a creative process and movement practice that would result in the kind of work that I love... Photo by Andrew T Foster

Only Child Aerial Theatre's "ASYLUM" at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts 2017, after over a decade of trial and error in search of a creative process and movement practice that would result in the kind of work that I love... Photo by Andrew T Foster

Poetic theatre, you're a minx. You're a wiley smartass of a companion when you hide from me. But you're also a patient sage of a teacher. I love you for all of it. You are the shadow to my Peter Pan, and I lost you for a moment there. I was on a search for Neverland, dreaming of flight and foreverness. What a lonely trek. Yes, we shared some dances when I paused from flying in circles above you, but somewhere in the clouds my eyes glazed over with forgetting and I lost you for a moment there.  

I missed you, and I couldn't remember to say it.

I never fully understood why you needed to be so wordy. You talk too much sometimes. You do. Maybe that's why I needed to get some air from you. Sometimes in your silence you make the most sense to me, but I've also seen you forget to breathe. 

I like you when you remember you're a poet, that's when we hit our stride. I like when you take images and sounds and turn a story into a collage; a beautiful puzzle of clues that guide me like a treasure map. I like creating these maps too, spirals upon spirals that remind other people's hearts that we beat together.

I thought that Circus might have a new clue for us, I thought maybe he'd help bridge our gaps.  I really don't know if you guys would get along though, you're similar but not. I courted him for quite some time, and we definitely have had our moments. For a short time, I wondered if maybe I belonged with him more than I did with you, but he very rarely got me like you do. His words never fit as well with his actions, and he tried either too hard or not enough. I just wanted him to tell me stories, and usually he just showed off.  I tried to change him into you. With foggy, cloud-smudged eyes I still loved you best (even though I couldn't remember).

I do hope someday you both will be friends. He's cool, and hopefully he'll grow out of this weird "bro" phase soon. He's going through an adolescence. Don't worry, I'll help you guys find common ground because I know it's there.

Theatre, you've stood the test of millennia. You manage to stay relevant, even when the fight for you feels impossible against the big guns. You are essential. It's like Eric Liu said in his TED talk: "It's not an accident that democracy and theatre emerged around the same time in ancient Athens. Both of them yank the individual out of the enclosure of her private self. Both of them create great public experiences of shared ritual. Both of them bring the imagination to life in ways that remind us that all of our bonds in the end, are imagined, and can be re-imagined." 

Imagine and reimagine, that's what your stories teach me. Spiral back and remind, illuminate and refine, that is the pattern you've taught me to embrace in life and art and study.

Thank you for always finding your way to spiral back to me. Without you I never would have even looked to the clouds in the first place.

I won't get lost this time. I know the way up now. Let me teach you to fly, and we'll make a map to treasure... 

In addition to being a movement instructor, I'm an artist. Those things feed each other. Without my love for movement as art, my love for movement as science wouldn't exist. All the knowledge that I've gained about movement; the words I've shared over the past weeks about training, are lessons I've learned because of the path my love for this art has revealed. Here is some of what has inspired me most:

 

Pericles, dir. Kathryn Hunter, Shakespeare's Globe

 

Metamorphosis, dir. David Farr and Gìsli Örn Garðarsson, Lyric Hammersmith/Vesturport

 

Brief Encounter, dir. Emma Rice, Kneehigh Theatre

 

The Wild Bride, dir. Emma Rice, Kneehigh Theatre

 

The Hairy Ape, dir. Richard Jones, The Old Vic/Park Avenue Armory

 

 

 

What has inspired you??

Think like a Poet and Move Better

How are you reading this?

If you're sitting on a chair, notice where your hip bones make contact with the chair. Imagine yourself as only a skeleton. No muscle, no organs, just a skeleton. Feel the space between your hip bones, are you clenching it? Imagine that space is filled with light and allow the light to shine out of your body evenly from front to back and side to side of your pelvis. Notice your collar bones and shoulder blades. Create space for light to shine down from your ears, between that space between collarbones and scapulas and let that light create two symmetrical pillars of light- one through each side of your ribcage, pouring into your pelvis and shining out evenly front, back and side to side.

Now feel your head on your neck as a helium balloon pulling your spine up like a flame. Keep that space between collarbones and scapula opening outwards. Feel your feet on the floor, all five toes and heel relaxed under your knees. Feel your thigh bones on the chair resting evenly in each hip socket and surrounded by that light in the pelvis.

How is your posture now compared to when you started reading this paragraph?

There are dozens of approaches to imagery work in movement. Skinner Release Technique, Alexander Technique, Mind Body Centering, Feldenkrais, Axis Syllabus, Laban Movement Analysis... the list goes on. For years now, I keep noticing that these kinds of approaches seem to exist exclusively in the movement arts and not in fitness/gym culture where most people go to move their bodies. Dance, theatre, and circus training often refer to at least one of these somatic systems to complement the rigor of the other physical trainings those disciplines require. In fitness however, which is, let's face it, a very testosterone fueled field, there seems to be a disproportionate emphasis on effort over economy of effort. People in gyms use language from old school lifting to qualify training in terms of "form" more than "feeling" and "gains" more than "discoveries."  Yes form and gains have their place, no question, but....

You guys.

NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE HARD.

In dance and acrobatics there is technique, and technique is sum of BOTH anatomical specificity (form) during movement AND certain "qualities" of movement (feeling). 

This is why despite having zero interest in doing sports, I value strength training in my practice. It's also why a football player with zero interest in Balanchine gets value from doing ballet. I need something more form oriented to support my expression-based theatrical movement work. A football player needs something more feeling oriented to complement the intense effort and impact their body endures on the field. 

Effort is an essential part of training, but it isn't everything. 

Let's try an experiment! Today's blog is interactive. 

Hold a forearm plank right now for 30 seconds. SQUEEZE EVERY MUSCLE YOU HAVE AS HARD AS YOU CAN THE WHOLE TIME. 

Now, rest and read the next part:

Take those prompts I wrote at the beginning of this post. Yep, those floofy doofy words about feeling your skeleton organize with light between your bones. Try doing a plank with those cues. But- don't let your skeleton collapse. You DO have to engage muscles, and it will still be challenging, but keep your focus on feeling an open, organized skeletal structure while you engage muscles. Hold it for 30 seconds. 

How'd it go? What was different? 

Now, if I asked you to deadlift 400 lbs. and you felt for an open skeleton you'd hurt yourself. But if I asked you to do swinging beats on a trapeze and you gripped every muscle in your body while you did it, you'd also hurt yourself. 

This is all to say: different tasks require different energetic movement qualities. Movement quality is best directed through poetic imagery. Eg: Anchor yourself like a tree to the ground to do that deadlift. Be the pendulum of a clock to do that trapeze beat. Sometimes even things like imagining that you are Simone Biles while doing a cartwheel will make that cartwheel WAY more powerful. 

Moral of the Story

There's a reason dancers and martial artists are the most elegant movers: they think like poets when they move. They play with feeling "as if..." when they move.

Exploring and evolving our qualities of movement is what makes us movement artists instead of movement executors. Playing with movement quality in everyday life can also be deeply valuable, especially if you spend hours sitting or standing without variation. You only have one body your whole life.  Keep it open, and keep it light.

 

Next Week: I'm going to take a pause from the training focus and blog about something more artistic! See you then :)

The PAYOFF of Showing Up

This is a continuation from last week's post. I talked about "being a detective" around pain. I talked about 5 steps to consider in the process of navigating and healing pain:

  1. Get a baseline of knowledge
  2. Follow the Clues
  3. Get Outside Help
  4. Don't Stop There
  5. Tune in More

Today, I want to elaborate on the importance of the more elusive later steps: rehab and "tuning in."

Those can seem like vague and daunting tasks if you've never done them before. They require us to forfeit our egos, let go of what we think we know about our physical abilities, and surrender control to our bodies for feedback about what fitness/activities our body needs. It can be frustrating at first, and it can be really easy to distract ourselves from showing up for it. I spoke to my friend and colleague Neil Roberts of Vajra Body Fitness about this the other day. We were discussing how much resistance we sometimes face from students and clients around this kind of "physical homework." He broke it down:

"Add up the total time you spend watching TV, checking facebook, instagram, and your email. Really look at what percentage of your waking hours you spend on those tasks, and then honestly tell me that you 'don't have the time' to spend the 5-10 minutes necessary to work on correcting the dysfunctions in your body that will most certainly express themselves as pain/reduced quality of life someday."

Tough love, and he's right.

That said, if you don't know how to make the most of your 10 minutes of homework, it can feel like a frustrating and useless 10 minutes. How do you go from putting your attention on the external world: responsibilities, the news, relationships, to your internal world of feeling in the body and caring for YOURSELF? It's easier said than done.

 ©Calvin and Hobbes

 ©Calvin and Hobbes

To help keep it a bit more more focused and inspired, here are 3 ways to break down and measure your homework approach:

Time

Start off by asking: Where in your daily schedule each week is there time (10-20 minutes) for a daily practice of tuning in and doing your movement homework? Take note of how much time you have and calendar it.

Focus

With the help of your trainer or coach, make a list of all the things in your body that need regular attention. Eg- if you have low back pain you might identify that daily attention might need to be put on spinal segmentation, belly breathing, hip extension and lateral hip stability. With your trainer/coach, make sure you understand what each of those means and how you can work on them. 

When you get to your 10-20 minute window for tuning in and doing homework, check in with each of those things on the list. Do they feel easy today? Impossible? Slow down and put a little extra time and attention into the things that feel impossible and a bit less time into the things that feel more accessible on a given day. Don't get too hung up on pre-prescribed sets/reps of things. If you feel for how well these things are working, you are tuning in! That act of listening to your body will guide your work for the day and also lead to much faster improvement.

Consistency

This is key. I'm talking daily. Or at least 5-6 days a week. 10-20 minutes. Calendar it. Just check in and move with focus and intention. Feel where you are at, give attention to the weak spots. Daily.

The Payoff

Short, daily practices of checking in with your body and reminding it of what it can do and should be able to confidently do, make all the difference if you only have one or two sessions a week where you really challenge your body in a gym or class.

Example: For the last five years, you never really did activities where you needed to put your arms over your head, but you really want to be able to do a pullup because you want to do aerial acrobatics. You decide to work with a trainer on pullups once a week. But, if you only put your arms over your head once a week during your pullup training session, something vital is missing, and a good trainer will call you out on it and give you homework to to do between sessions.

In fitness, and especially the FRC community, we talk about the "Principle of Specificity"- we are what we do. If we don't practice putting our arms overhead, our arms won't properly go overhead.  If this is your starting point, how do you master a pullup if you are only practicing them once a week?

By showing up for your homework in between. Do your shoulders coordinate properly? Perhaps you need to be spending time working on your scapular mobility every day in order to do a good pullup. Maybe you need to be working on isometric grip strength. Maybe it's breath coordination. Maybe it's all of it. A good coach will point these things out, and help guide you into taking ownership of your progress. 

Trust me, if you are mindful and consistent in doing your homework, you WILL improve over time.

People talk a lot about "optimizing training time" by working really hard for short bursts of time for maximum metabolic impact. The same idea can be applied here, to optimize the long term health and mobility benefits of movement: do short, consistent bursts of work on it.

Moral of the Story

Any change of habit is hard. Give yourself as many support systems as you can: the calendar, the outside accountability of a coach, a journal of your daily work etc. to keep the work part of your daily routine. Dr. Andreo Spina, founder of FRC calls this "kinetic hygiene" - it's like brushing your teeth! Each individual session might not seem like much on its own, but with focus and consistency, the payoff over time is worth it.

Special thanks to Neil Roberts on this one.

Next Week: Think Like a Poet: Tricks for Imagery and Movement

 

 

Pain? "Don't be sad, be a detective!"

An old teacher of mine, Andrew Pacho, said that to me and a friend years ago and I will always remember it…

There's Pain. What do you do?

Last week, I posted on facebook that I was sourcing information on how people navigate pain. I was curious if amongst a variety of responders, there might be any common protocols people took. I got responses from professional and recreational circus artists, runners, somatic practitioners, and a theme did in fact emerge: the more people had invested time into understanding basic body mechanics and combined that with honing their somatic listening skills, the more effectively they could strategize how to navigate pain.  

Since being embodied enough to decipher the body's signals is a skill, and a mental one at that, not many people develop it without practice. I found it interesting that my facebook friends who responded referencing experiences of overcoming multiple injuries, had the most refined approach to pain navigation. They had learned through experience what kinds of protocols might be necessary for what kinds of sensations.

In contrast, for the majority of people with whom I've spoken who don't test their body's thresholds often, who have less experience recovering from pain, have a much more general and less successful protocol. For them: a part of the body hurts. They will likely hope that if they take some ibuprofen and see a professional bodyworker (massage therapist, acupuncturist, etc), that the professional will fix them and the pain will be over and they can go on with their lives as they did before. While this may have temporary benefit, it is an incomplete strategy.

Why? Why are people who have overcome more injuries arguably "better" at recovering?

Essentially training is teaching the nervous system to be more sensitive to feedback and sensation so that the body can do more complex and challenging movements. This also results in a deeper sensitivity to when movement is NOT working. People who challenge their bodies, feel dysfunction, treat it and improve it, are not only healing their tissue in that process. They are retraining how they move by retraining how they think about and feel for proper movement.

Being a "detective" as Pacho would say takes time and practice. Here a few distinct steps that I think are helpful for successful detecting:

1) Get a baseline of knowledge : Take some time to gain a basic practical understanding of physiology. What does healthy movement look like? Do you look like that? Can you understand why you do or you don't? What are the names for parts of the body that you use the most? What injuries are associated with the activities you like to do? How do those happen? Learning these things on an intellectual level will give you a reference point if and when you need bodywork or physical therapy. You will have the vocabulary with which to speak to doctors or therapists about your symptoms and findings.

2) Follow the clues: Example, I am aerialist with a pretty good understanding of anatomy and physiology. I have some neck stiffness and wrist pain right now from overuse on rope recently. Even though my neck is where there is a lot of tightness and the wrist is sensitive, I also can see and feel that my right arm isn't rotating properly in the socket overhead. I know intellectually that the rotator cuff stabilizes the ball of the humerus in the shoulder socket in different ranges of shoulder positioning. Knowing this, I tested rotating my arm in various positions of flexion (working towards overhead position). I discovered my arm barely rotated! When I successfully could manage to externally rotate my arm slightly- with a lot of focus - the wrist pain subsided. Now I know it isn't only a neck problem or a wrist problem. This will be useful information when I see my PT, and when I approach rehab. 

3) Get help from the outside: Fortunately, there are professionals who can put us on the right track. A skilled manual therapist can provide an intervention to a spasming muscle. That is an important part of the recovery process. Having an outside eye asses our movement and offer rehab suggestions is also essential. Unfortunately there isn't much consistency in the PT world in terms of treatment approaches. Finding a physio who understands your needs can take some trial and error. But more informed you are, the more you will know how to discern if the physio's approach is right for you. 

4) Don't stop there: The most important step in rehab is learning what to tell your body to do instead of whatever you were telling it that caused injury or inflammation. This is that training your nervous system piece. Learning how to coordinate your thinking with your movement is a never-ending process. There are two sides to this: the first is simply recognizing how mindful you are when you move. Do you think about how you tell yourself to do a push-up or do you just kinda do it? The more specific your mind is, the more specific your movement will be. The second step is recognizing what kinds of thinking bring out the most effective movement patterns in your body. *Hint* thinking in terms of individual muscles isn't all that helpful. Thinking in terms of actions and tasks is often helpful. Example for isolating hip extension: Instead of "lay on your belly squeeze your butt and your hamstrings off the floor"  try "laying on the belly without arching the back, keep both hip bones on the floor. Then draw the knees towards the midline. Imagine you have a glass of wine on your thigh bone while you lift the entire thigh to the ceiling, and don't spill the wine." See which one teaches helps you find a deeper, more specific body position and muscle engagement in hip extension.

5) Tune in more:  Christine Wright, a legend amongst New York City dancers, talks about the importance of transitioning from being in our (perhaps default) verbal, hyper-intellectual states to being a more physically-driven "animal state" of feeling when we go to train. The more tuned in we are to force on our bodies and sensation within them, the more likely we are to properly interpret those signals to change our movement habits into healthier ones. Make sure you take a a few moments to pause, breathe, listen to the sounds around you, feel the floor beneath you etc at the beginning of your rehab sessions so that your mind can adjust its focus. It's a little meditation - or mind training session- that will help you get so much more out of the work. I work on this vigorously with my students and clients. Training our bodies is also training how we think in our bodies.

Moral of the Story:

Approaching pain, discomfort or injury is a subjective experience, and an outside person alone can't help you for good. Real physiological adaptation takes committed work by you over time. The good news, is that the process IS learnable. Get as much help as you need. Get hands on intervention. Get coaching to learn new approaches to movement.

Remember it is an ongoing process, and enjoy it.

 

Special thanks to Emily Rubin SPT once again for edits! Thanks also to Andrew Pacho for that wise detective insight, Christine Wright for inspiring information in the Fundamentals workshops, and all the folks on facebook who offered insights for this post!

Next week: Making the most of your Training Time

 

Using Momentum and Control in Movement

“Drop your chin to your chest”

“Throw your arm over your head”

“Swing your leg as high as you can”

We’ve been told these prompts in plenty of athletic contexts throughout our lives whether in a dance or circus class, sports practice, or in a personal training session. Practicing dynamic movements can serve many goals, but sometimes we get so used to using momentum for things like dropping our chin to our chest, throwing our arm up or swinging our leg, that it becomes our default movement habit. If we use dynamic approaches for movements over which we don't yet have control, that can be a recipe for injury. How are dynamics and control different? Why is this important?

Let’s unpack a bit how and when dynamic movement is helpful:

Warm Ups

Most frequently I find that dynamic movement is used as a way to warm up: increasing body temperature and blood flow before attempting specific complex movements.  I’ll also point out that there is a difference between dynamic movements like swinging or bouncing, which use momentum and gravity to facilitate fast movement, versus explosive movement, which tends to include an element of impact.

**Just a note about that: Explosive movements aren’t warm ups; just in case you like to do burpees first thing when you get the to gym before assessing how well your joints are working that day. I recommend moving without impact/load a bit before adding that element of stress to your tissue.

Advanced Joint Control

Last week, my colleague and fellow FRC mobility specialist, Chris Ruffolo of Post Competitive Insight published her own blog post titled: “Dynamic Movement as an Extension of Control." She talked specifically about the difference between control and momentum and distilled the goals of each kind of movement really clearly, “Less time and more momentum assesses how the tissues can be used in a more dynamic capacity.  The goal would be to match the range of motion found/ gained under slower, more cautious and calculated conditions.” That goal is way more challenging and nuanced than just using momentum to generate large but vague movements for a warm up.

Acrobatics

In aerial work and acrobatics, momentum is essential for certain movement pathways through space. It’s simple physics: you need to generate a certain amount of energy through momentum in order to complete a skill. On the rope, which is my specialty, dynamic swinging is a prerequisite to lots of complex “release” moves where you let go of the rope and re-catch it. Trying to do those moves statically would be dangerous, let alone impossible.

Now a look at "Control" in movement

Last week I said I would talk about pros and cons of momentum versus control. Really the question becomes: in what scenarios is momentum more useful than control, and in what scenarios is control more useful than momentum? The reason I wanted to write this post is because the average person uses momentum for daily movements that don’t require it. Whether a it's hoisting yourself up from a chair, plopping onto a couch or jerking up a bag of groceries onto the counter- if these kinds of daily movements are the only movements we ever practice, we reduce our body’s instinct and ability to move with control.

In the Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) world, the progression of movement training begins with the prompt: control. In fact that's their hashtag: #controlyourself. Just consider the difference in how you might understand those prompts I mentioned at the beginning of this piece if you were told:

“Control the descent of your chin towards your chest”

“Control the reach of your arm over your head”

“Control the flexion your leg as high as you can”

SO MUCH HARDER!! Why? Movement isolations require us to abandon the compensations that arise in general day to day dynamic habits and get honest about how articulate our movement really is.

This is where FRC’s CARs (Controlled Articular Rotations) vocabulary is a really valuable tool. Take the arm car (for the glenohumeral joint): you might find your torso twisting when you circle your “arm” because on its own the arm doesn’t make much of a circle, but your focus is on making a circle in space rather than isolating your joint. Or maybe your elbow bends mid circle because you lack the mobility to keep it straight. I'm gonna say it, (no judgement, but) I think these compensations are an ego thing. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. When we learn movements, it is very tempting to let our egos motivate us to make a bigger movement than our bodies can actually handle. If you are honest about controlling that arm circle, you may find that your arm even feels heavy at certain points, maybe you can't even bring it all the way overhead properly without compensation from other parts of your body (most people can't).

CARs benefit us in a multitude of ways. One benefit is simply the hydrating and oxygenating of tissue that movement provides to an otherwise static area, which is essential for tissue health. Another benefit more related to the points here, is that they train our brains to communicate two important and subtly different messages to our bodies simultaneously:

1) Keep tension everywhere in the body...

2) Use that tension to prevent compensations as you control the movement of only one joint

My understanding is that on a neurological level, this creates a foundation of connections in the brain that allow for multiple commands to happen at once: "Stabilize here, move there." The more we practice this kind of thinking/moving, the more repeatable complex movements can become in our practice.

It can be very humbling to go back to square one and explore where you find ease in your body's understanding of your commands and where you find difficulty. In aerial, people always joke about having a "good side" and a "less favorite side" of their bodies. One side just gets the complex movement. One side needs things broken down into smaller learning pieces. By training ourselves to be able to control small movements, our potential for complex dynamic movements increases dramatically, even on the less favorite side.

Moral of the story:

Next time you go to "drop your chin to your chest," "throw your arm over your head" or "swing your leg as high as you can," consider the application, do you have control as well? Practicing both dynamics and control are great, but practicing the one that is more difficult is key for successful, healthy movement and advancement in training goals.

Special Thanks to Emily Rubin SPT for proofreading and edits!

Next Week: Push Through It or Change Focus? Reconsidering how to navigate pain


 

Online Instruction versus Hands-On Coaching

FaceTime is fun! Look, there's a cute cat!

FaceTime is fun! Look, there's a cute cat!

We live in era of Skype and FaceTime. The availability of these kinds of video conferencing platforms has offered the possibility of “online coaching” in the fitness and training communities. How does it compare to in-person coaching? 

Let's start with the obvious allure of remote/online training: it gives a coach and student, who otherwise are geographically separate, access to having training sessions together where they can see and hear each other. For folks in remote areas, this can be a tempting opportunity to get training guidance from an expert who lives in another region.

There's a glaring element of coaching that goes missing when sessions are moved online though, and that's what I want to unpack a bit here: It is hands-on cuing that can account for a significant part of a body's learning process.

If we were to say that bodies have a language, it would be kinesthetic experience. This is to say: when bodies feel external feedback, they respond to it very specifically.  We know a sleepy body wakes up to an abrupt slap and an agitated body calms down when feeling a comforting touch, but more important here: a lazy muscle activates when prodded by a coach, a joint learns how to isolate when guided by a coach. This is an invaluable tool in the context of training, especially training that is intended to introduce NEW concepts to a body. 

Online Functional Range Conditioning (FRC)?

First off, two definitions: Functional Range Conditioning® is a comprehensive joint training system based in scientific principals and research. Functional Mobility, as defined by the Functional Range systems, is "the extent of controllable flexibility across articulations (flexibility plus strength), refers to the amount of USABLE motion that one possesses. In any particular articulation there exists both a passive, as well as an active range of motion."

I am a certified FRC mobility specialist, which means I apply the FRC system when I work with clients and students who need to build healthier joint ranges of motion.  I have gone back and forth on whether or not to offer online FRC coaching to circus students around the country who may not have access to an FRC mobility specialist in their area, but who could benefit from it in their circus endeavors. To get opinions on this idea, I went to some of my most trusted colleagues in the field: trainers, coaches, and physical therapists. I told them, “when I work with people one-on-one in person, I am very hands on: cuing where to hold a position in space, encouraging a lazy stabilizing muscle to work, isolating a sticky joint etc." then came the big question: "How could I translate this kind of work to a video context?” The response was clear: those kinds of essential teaching tools are not possible over video. I wondered: can I teach people to use props to create external feedback for themselves?? Yes, eventually, once they know how to interpret that feedback, which is something that can best be understood through conversation and practice with their instructor first. Also no, it would be incredibly difficult to successfully create external feedback for themselves if the goal of coaching is to teach new, nuanced ways of moving intelligently and responsibly that they don't yet know how to identify.

One of the colleagues I had asked recently showed me an Instagram post by FRC star Hunter Cook. Hunter is a very skilled yogi, world-class strength coach, and one of the most advanced coaches in the Functional Anatomy systems approaches. Here is the post, read the caption too: 

One of my favorite things about working with Ryan is his brutal honesty and willing to share his struggle during the process. He knows he's taking on a journey and isn't going to wait until he has a "finished product" (there's no such thing and he knows that too) to share what's going on. P.s. Suptabaddhacadabra made me laugh out loud. P.p.s. This is how I coach. I'm hands on. I use manual biofeedback. I touch. I prod. I poke. I call things "stuff" and ask for resistance in the direction where you feel me touch. This is how I understand it and how I teach it. So until I figure out another way, online coaching is still not an option. For now. #HunterFitness #Repost @ryanorrico ・・・ Can you see how insane it would be for me to think I'm even close to being ready for a handstand? I have basically ZERO control whatsoever of my shoulder when it's near its end-range... which is where it has to be when you're doing handstands. ⠀ Oh! I know! I'll use a wall! At least then I can lie to myself until something *really* breaks! 🕺🏼🤸🏻‍♂️ In fact, I recommend starting your handstand training there... go to a wall, don't even bother making sure your wrists and shoulders have what they need. It'll all work out... the wall will just magically create the range you need. ⠀ Trust me. I'm a yoga teacher. Suptabaddhacadabra!💫 see? ⠀ (Couple things... my elbow should be straight. My lack of big toe extension is making this way more awful than it needed to be. Plus a whole lot of other bad things... but this was the first time I did this. I'll post another after I've done it a few times.)

A post shared by Hunter Cook (@hunterfitness) on

 

His conclusion is simple: “Online coaching is still not an option. For now.” 

I similarly struggle to find a good conscience for online coaching when I know my skills as instructor are largely in my hands-on cuing. The best option I can come up with, for now, is to offer online sessions as a supplement to in-person coaching if geography becomes a temporary hindering factor. After we’ve worked together in person 2-3 times and developed feedback approaches specific to your needs, I can help you keep up a consistent practice through online coaching until we meet again. BUT. I wouldn't call that online coaching, I would called that online instructing, and that's a nerdy semantic way of making it clear that the online approach has a limit in what it can offer. 

The reason I have chosen only to offer online supplements to students I've worked with already in person is simply because, in my opinion, learning new material in the FRC approach requires hands on cuing. Why? Well, if your body doesn’t know what the subtle cues feel like, you won’t learn how to interpret them physically through verbal and video instruction alone.

I realize that for folks who live far away from the coach/trainer of their choice, that online training offers a miracle of new possibility for you. Depending on what kind of training you're working on, your online coach might have developed great ways of teaching you without kinesthetic feedback. If so, fabulous! Unfortunately, knowing what we know about how bodies learn, if you are a living in a remote area and eager to work with an FRC coach specifically, I recommend investing in the trip to work with a coach elsewhere, or see if one might be willing to come to you. It’s not impossible- coaches travel to offer workshops all the time! Round up a dozen friends, partner with a local gym and see if that instructor can offer some lessons for a weekend. Trust me, schedules permitting, if it's financially worth their while and the impact they will make is significant, coaches will travel to you for a workshop weekend. The in person one-on-one training will give you an imperative baseline from which to work on your own until you are ready to progress further.  

Of course, not all physical learning needs kinesthetic guidance, and in some disciplines it is downright impossible. In general though, for injury prevention/rehab/mobility-improvement work my advice is: If you are a student considering online coaching, I encourage you to keep your goals for it specific and your expectations realistic. If your goal is to do a movement “right” but it doesn’t feel “right,” then it probably isn’t. Your body is smart. If it tells you it needs help understanding something, you should ask a qualified coach to communicate the missing link to your body in the language it understands best: touch.

Special thanks to fellow FRC mobility specialists Chris Ruffolo of Post Competitive Insight, Emily Rubin SPT, and Neil Roberts of Vajra Body Fitness for your insights on this subject that helped inform this post!

To learn more about FRC, visit: https://www.functionalanatomyseminars.com/

 

NEXT WEDNESDAY: Pros and Cons to using Momentum versus Muscular Control for Movement