Circus Artemis
The aerial feats of Circus Artemis (image courtesy of K.Kendall, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Do you have to compromise flexibility to achieve strength? It’s a debate that crops up in online fitness forums from time to time.

It all comes down to how you do it. In my experience it is possible for people to train or work intelligently, where activities that require muscular strength are performed in such a way that you are not sacrificing so much of your innate poise and balance in the process. And in this way, flexibility is preserved, along with your ability to perform skillful tasks (so you don’t have to lose so much of your violin-playing ability just because you operate a power drill for several hours a day, for instance).

That said, I doubt you’d meet an Alexander Technique teacher who would recommend weight lifting to their students. The more strenuous an activity, the stronger is the impetus to do things in a way that isn’t good for the body.

If you read a little further on, you’ll hopefully gain some insight into some of the issues that require attention when doing strenuous activity, at least from the point of view of an Alexander Technique teacher.

Most people approach tasks of all kinds by tightening up and contracting their body’s musculature inwards. There’s an observable tendency for the head and neck to retract into the torso, and for the muscles of the arms and legs to pull inwards towards the torso.

This is a difficult thing to convey merely using words but when we operate habitually in that inwardly-contracted state, we not only put more pressure and strain on the whole body, but we cultivate muscular habits that have an overall rigidifying effect on the body. And we’re more likely to build up habits of chronic tension in particular areas – for example, chronically tense arms seem quite common with heavy computer use.

We tend to sacrifice some of our natural poise and balance and ease of movement when we do things in this inwardly-contracted way. Things also seem to become less well “connected” to each other – a kinaesthetic quality that is tricky to convey in words.

The underlying physiology behind this has to do with a set of muscular reflexes – “antigravity” reflexes, they are sometimes called. When working well, they tend to keep us in a state of poised, balanced, expansiveness, where the muscles can adjust to each other and co-ordinate all the different parts of us in a way that feels easy and natural, and reduces the pressure on the individual parts.

But many people approach strenuous tasks in a way that interferes with the operation of these muscular reflexes, and they’ve been doing this for years so there is a slightly chronic state of contraction or collapse. One of the most significant ways you might be doing this is by tightening up the neck muscles and holding the head in a fixed position on top of the spine. It’s something you can find yourself doing without realising it.

It’s useful to explore doing things, even strenuous things, with as little muscle tension as you feel you can get away with. For example, experiment with gripping your pen or toothbrush less tightly.

Chronic tension patterns also go hand in hand with a tendency to lose touch with your surroundings, and how things feel. For example, the person who grips their pencil fearsomely will also not be very aware of how that pencil feels in their hand. So try to work in a way that maintains your sensory awareness of your surroundings and the physical contact you make with things around you. Continue to feel the little changes in weight distribution of your feet on the ground as you saw a plank of wood, for example, or the way the keys of your computer actually feel under your fingers as you type. Keep your vision in a reasonably lively state, interrupting up-close tasks with looking off in the distance every now and again, and maintaining some awareness of your peripheral vision.

There are various reasons why it’s good to be “sensing” your surroundings in this way. But to cut a long story short, this has the effect of getting our muscular reflexes more involved in whatever we’re doing, making it easier to do it, and requiring less undesirable muscle tension.

Just to give you a quick demonstration of these reflexes, try something now: stand on one leg.

Done it? Great. Now try again, this time with your eyes closed.

Notice the difference? It was probably a good bit harder to balance with your eyes closed. That’s just to illustrate the effect that one of your senses – vision – has on stimulating the operation of these muscular reflexes (or “postural reflexes”, as they’re sometimes called). The more you can reduce interference with these reflexes when doing things, the better your coordination and the easier everything will be.

You can cultivate poise and expansiveness in everything you do, whether it be playing a guitar or operating a power drill, and this will tend to counteract the development of chronic patterns of tension and immobilisation. It’s best to begin this re-education process with relatively non-strenuous tasks, before taking it to the gym. It can admittedly take some time and application (observation) to become aware of these kinds of muscular patterns, and to begin changing them. Taking Alexander Technique lessons can make this a lot easier.

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People sometimes ask me about core stability, and if core exercises are a good idea. In fact, Alexander technique doesn’t involve core stability work at all, and the two approaches seem to be somewhat at odds with each other. Or are they?
On the one hand, core stability has been embraced throughout the fitness industry, so lots of people appear to benefit from it, or believe they do. On the other hand, it seems clear that many people who do these exercises end up with poor posture. There is a danger that it can immobilise people around the trunk area, restricting breathing and mobility in undesirable ways.
The main muscle targeted by core stability is the transverse abdominus (TA). It’s understood that when this muscle weakens, you get back pain. So it seems reasonable to assume you should try and strengthen it.
But there seem to be several potential pitfalls with this. For one, the TA is involved quite heavily in the way we breathe, so if you don’t allow it to move freely then this will restrict breathing.
Furthermore, any movement you perform, whether it be picking something up or signing a cheque, requires the participation of every muscle in the body, to an extent. So it’s difficult to be optimistic about the benefits of working on one muscle group in isolation. Lying on the floor of a gym and working your core is quite removed from the context of everyday life.
Type in “the myth of core stability” on google and you’ll find articles looking at other difficulties with this approach. There are those who believe the premise of core stability work is fundamentally invalid while others stress that it is simply being mis-applied.
As ever, it’s probably best to make up your own mind. A fairly recent Guardian article attempts to give different perspectives on this issue
Bear in mind that even if you have back pain, your problem might not be an under-recruitment of muscles like the TA, it might be something else. So core-stability exercises won’t be appropriate (at least as far as i can see – I’ll happily blog an addendum stating otherwise if anyone wants to clarify).
It perhaps also boils down to how you perform the exercises. A Pilates teacher might talk about “stabilising” the trunk while an Alexander teacher will worry that this involves “stiffening” it, with unhappy consequences for the way the body organises itself as a whole. It all depends on your existing level of co-ordination and body awareness. If you suspect you have problems in this area, it makes sense to get a bit of extra help.