Arms control

July 25, 2012

(image courtesy of yuppie922, Creative Commons 2.0 licence)

This sounds like one of those annoying can-you-pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy-at-the-same-time things, but is a bit more subtle. Can you move your arms without moving the rest of you (especially the shoulders)?

This relates to insights recently gained into my tai-chi practice, at a workshop with Jan Dames, an Alexander teacher in Manchester.

One of the useful things I realised was that during the beginning of the form, when you raise your arms out in front of you, I tend to brace backwards and stiffen my whole back slightly. This is a bit pointless as it just stiffens everything and locks you up, rather than leaving your muscles and joints free to move. For me, this goes with a tendency to move my arms as though they were glued to my shoulders.

This is an aspect of the way the arms work that I seem to notice more and more in sportspeople and others who have good coordination. The arms can work independently of the torso, and some people can do vigorous things with the arms without the upper body having to move as well (or at least not very much). It seems to be an aspect of good coordination, though not an obvious one.

I notice the opposite tendency in myself and many of the people I work with in my Alexander teaching practice. When you shake their arm (or shoogle it, as we say in this part of the world), their whole body moves as well, as if their arm was glued to the shoulder (and there was no such thing as the glenohumeral joint). It’s also something you see a lot in people out jogging. They swing their arms and the whole torso twists with each arm swing. This isn’t great because it stiffens and tightens the upper body, and as running coach Malcolm Balk says in one of his books, is “like driving with the hand brake on: you are always working against yourself”.

It’s taken me a long time to notice this in myself, and indeed when performing moves that I’ve done thousands of times before – like the hand form in tai-chi – habits tend to kick in. But I’m surprised with how much easier I’m finding the form these past few days, with making the decision not to throw the head back slightly and stiffen the back in this way as I raise my arms at the beginning of it. And it’s even a slightly odd sensation to just move the arms without doing all these other unnecessary movements.

Developing the ability to quieten parts of the body – to decide not to employ them in an activity – is an aspect of the sort of work you can do on yourself to improve your own coordination. But it’s a difficult idea to get across. Often people will say: “uhh… so you just want me to do nothing, then?” They’re understandably sceptical, as doing nothing never solved anything, did it? But it’s more a matter of regaining the ability to consciously choose the degree to which different parts of you get involved in an act. Over time most people develop habits of movement that involve lots of over-activity, such as making all sorts of unnecessary movement with the shoulders and back as you move your arms.

The ability to move different parts of the body independently from each other is an aspect of good coordination that is quite subtle and easy to overlook. Watch Roger Federer lunging for a difficult backhand shot and clearly his trunk and shoulders are doing all sorts of necessary work. But people like that also seem to be able to quieten down a lot of their muscular activity, to take an easier shot, for example – they seem to have more control over themselves, in a sense.


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.

Get to know your hip joints

February 3, 2011

They’re not necessarily where you think they are. (Photo courtesy of cobblucas, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Where are your hip joints? It’s something you may discount as obvious. But almost everyone, in my experience, seems to have a poor understanding of this area. And – as hopefully will be apparent once you’ve read further down – this vagueness goes some way towards explaining why many people suffer from lower back pain.

When someone asks you to “place your hands on your hips”, you probably rest them on the upper crest of the pelvis, the iliac crest (see image above and figure 1, below). This is the area commonly referred to as “the hips”. The hip joint, on the other hand, the area where your legs join your pelvis, is quite a bit lower down, as figure 1 also shows.

The problem for many people is that they’ve formed the impression that it’s natural to bend at the hips. It isn’t. When we bend in the middle region of the body we should only ever bend at the hip joints. If you think of your body as something that folds in half when you bend over, then it’s important to locate the middle bit here, at the hip joints, not further up at the hips.

Figure 1: Pelvis skeletal system (left) and (right, inset) pelvic region of a real person highlighting approximate locations of hip joint and iliac crest

Just being clear about this can make quite a big difference to the way you walk, for example, with potentially positive repercussions for any back or leg pain you may have been having. You can locate your hip joints by exploring this region with your fingertip, looking for the place where the leg appears to hinge on the body. It might be a little bit sore to press on this area, if you are someone with habitually quite tight and stiff hip joints.

So looking at it another way, the pelvis belongs to the back rather than the legs, if you like. During activity, such as walking, the pelvis should be maintaining its alignment with the back. It shouldn’t swing forwards and backwards with the leg. This tends to weaken this lower back area and leave it more vulnerable.

Having a better experience of walking, where the legs can move independently of the hips and pelvis, felt at first – for me – like I was floating on top of the legs, rather than sitting on top of them, sinking down into them. It made walking, for example, feel fantastic – much easier. But it also felt quite different and unfamiliar, so it was easy to revert back to the old habit. It takes a little getting used to.

Being able to maintain this easier use of the legs while walking – if it’s not in accord with your habit – depends greatly on other aspects of your posture (or postural mechanisms, I should say) working well. So if you are someone with problems in this area, an Alexander Technique teacher would spend some time showing you how to maintain a good use of your head, neck and back area, primarily, before going on to explore this aspect of the legs and how you use them.

Lying down in semi-supine (see this youtube clip) is another very useful practise with respect to maintaining a good relationship between the pelvis and the rest of the back. When you practise semi-supine, your pelvis and back remain in alignment. So regular practise of it helps reinforce the tendency to maintain a unity between these two areas, if it’s something you tend to lose when you are walking or moving around.

We have choices over how we use our bodies, and we can base these choices on what makes sense anatomically, or simply allow ourselves to pick up habits from our parents or the people around us, many of whom might not really know what they’re doing either.

Photo courtesy of aussiegall/Creative Commons Attribution licence

Problems with foot pronation are commonly remedied by using arch supports or specially-adapted trainers. But if you’re really interested in re-educating your feet and posture, it’s important to appreciate the limitations of these kinds of orthotics. What else can you do to help matters?
Arch supports and other orthotics don’t take into account the role of the entire body’s musculature in creating and maintaining the arches of the feet. And many people prescribed them find they gain little benefit. It’s also true that people are generally given very little information about how to re-educate the feet and legs to work with these supports, or indeed to learn how you might eventually wean yourself off them – a desirable goal if you’re interested in improving the body’s functioning.
Arch supports can change the shape of the arch to some extent, relieve tiredness and knee pain, and make people feel a bit better. By avoiding some of the damaging consequences of simply allowing the foot to flatten onto the ground – in the case of fallen arches, for example – they seem to be invaluable. But it also seems evident that they don’t really get to the root of the problem and they do little to restore the natural shock-absorbing properties of the foot and arch.

Fallen arches and posture
So what more can you do? Well, as already mentioned, it’s important to realise that our arches are created and sustained by muscles elsewhere – in the calves and legs, most obviously, but ultimately in the way all the muscles in the body work together.
People who have developed a general postural habit of collapsing down will often tend to find that they are pushing the knees too far back, causing the arches of the feet to flatten. It seems reasonable to assume that putting an arch underneath will improve matters. And when the orthotic is in place, the muscles in the foot and calve contract, which seems desirable since one of the features of a flat foot is a lack of the necessary tone in the surrounding muscles.
However, when muscles are held in a state of ongoing contraction, they lose a lot of their sensitivity and responsiveness. So we may have achieved an apparent remedy to the problem, but by sacrificing some of our natural springiness. We will have diminished some of the function of the mechanisms that maintain posture, balance and uprightness. One result is that parts of the body such as the knees are placed under a different kind of strain, which isn’t ideal.

Re-educate your posture
Clearly, it makes sense to seek a solution that goes to the root of the problem, and doesn’t force us to introduce other compensatory forms of muscle tension. We can try to enforce change on the body using external devices, or we can work to improve the body’s functioning from the inside-out. Methods of postural re-education like Alexander Technique fall into the latter camp. This takes some time and effort to learn but the result is that you can do a lot of work to improve the arches in a way that involves the whole body, and doesn’t diminish the function of the delicate muscular reflexes that – when working well – can keep us upright and in a state of lightness, balance and poise.
Running is obviously an activity where the feet and legs are under particular stress. But you can minimise the tendency of the feet to over-pronate during running by adopting a running style where the forefoot lands first, something described in more detail in the posts on running, which appear elsewhere on this blog.

If you’re interested in the effect of arch supports on posture, this article Body and Sole presents a lot more detail, from the perspective of an Alexander technique teacher.

Landing on the forefoot
Landing on the forefoot. (Photo courtesy of Mikebaird/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

How do you develop a better running style and reduce your rate of injury? There is lots of advice out there about the best way to run, but is it any of it backed up by scientific studies?
The topic of “barefoot running” has certainly been a talking point in running magazines and forums for a couple of years. Its backers say it is more efficient and easier on the body. But how is this so? And how do you run barefoot along hazardous urban streets?
One recent study (as discussed in this article) seems to back up the idea that we’re built to run barefoot, and that this is a more natural way to run. And there’s no doubt it places less stress on the body when done correctly. This is partly to do with the way the foot impacts the ground when running barefoot.
This is something you can begin to experiment with, if you read a little further on.
The most common way to run is what we call “heel-toe” (see image, below). Your front foot lands in front of the body, and the heel strikes the ground first. You then push off with the toe. This has many drawbacks. It slows us down, applying a braking force. And in so doing it also puts more pressure through the joints of your leg than is necessary.

Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)
Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)

When you land on your heel in this way, it makes sense to try and reduce the impact by wearing trainers with thick soles. And so people will always caution you – when you start running – to buy proper running shoes with big thick soles.
But you can reduce the stress of foot impact by adopting a style of running where the forefoot lands first. Your foot lands underneath your centre of gravity (underneath your hips) and so it doesn’t interrupt your forward momentum. So there is far less stress and shock put through the leg. This is quite well illustrated in the photo at the top of this post, of two women running on a beach.
This forefoot-landing style is one that many people find greatly reduces their rate of injury and makes running easier and more efficient. It’s also one of the key reasons for the purported benefits of barefoot running, and is used in modern methods of running instruction like ChiRunning.
But you can benefit from these principles without resorting to actually running barefoot (a bit risky in my neighbourhood) or splashing out on pricey shoes that mimic the effects of running barefoot (MBTs, Nike Frees and so on).
There are subtleties of posture and so on that this article doesn’t cover but you can get a taste for this forefoot-landing way of running by trying the following:

• Stand, reasonably upright, looking ahead
• Raise one heel off the ground, then the whole foot, bringing it underneath (or a little behind) the hips and place it down again. Then raise the other foot off the ground in the same way
• Try making this transition more quickly, raising one foot while lowering the other (a bit like a hop)
• Do this continuously, as though running on the spot

Next, you can take this into running:
• While running on the spot in the above way, try to maintain the length of the body (i.e don’t hunch or bend forwards at the waist) while allowing the whole body to tip forward.
• Instead of simply falling on your face, allow one of your feet to break your fall and take you into a run

There are practical difficulties that many people struggle with when adopting this kind of approach. It always makes sense to run in an intelligent way, where you’re listening to your body, stopping and adjusting your technique if you encounter aches and pains.
Not only that but habits are very persistent, so you may find it hard to consciously adopt this running style. After a few steps you will possibly have reverted to what feels familiar – the way you run normally.
Objections to this forefoot-landing style of running tend to focus on the fact that most people will not be accustomed to doing it, so there is a risk of injury when starting out. And it has been associated with Achilles tendon injuries. But in my experience it works very well if you take it gently at first.
At my own running workshops, I use this approach in conjunction with Alexander technique principles to help people correct defects in their posture or overall style of running that may be causing problems. We explore various drills and practices that can help you prepare for this forefoot-landing type of running while also helping you improve aspects of overall running posture (although we hate the word “posture” as it implies fixing things in the right position – not exactly the route to free, spontaneous, joyful movement. But that’s another topic).
My own interest in running was rekindled a few years ago when attending seminars presented by Malcolm Balk a Canadian long-distance runner and Alexander technique teacher, whose ideas are the source material for a lot of the concepts discussed here. Balk has written an interesting book called Master the Art of Running and has a web site here.