I thought that I would expand on my last post about neuroplasticity, fascia and task based learning and bring the mind part of mind body fitness back to neuroscience. Usually on the topic of mind body connection, we think of yoga or Pilates; coordinated breathing and moving. Always. I want to talk neuroscience, motor control and our broad reaching habits not just in movement but in our lives. 

Ask yourself this- if you could be naturally gifted with either strength and power OR flexibility and coordination, which would you choose?? In the absence of specific goals, the way I’d answer this question is to consider which of the movement qualities are the most difficult to acquire? Without wishing to upset vast numbers of strength and conditioning enthusiasts and coaches, I am inclined to say that it is a simpler process to gain strength and power than it is to become more coordinated and flexible!

Note that I said simpler and NOT easier. 

The pursuit of high levels of strength is hard work but if you utilize a progressive training system that involves the manipulation of intensity (load) and volume, over time, you will get stronger. If you also practice moving quickly while applying force, you will become more powerful. I would also like to point out that depending on the individual, the constant pursuit of these two qualities exclusively is often to the detriment of overall movement quality.

Flexibility, mobility and coordination are a little more complicated to acquire. Gaining large increases in flexibility, for example, can be a long and slow road, but small and instant changes are achievable when knowledge of fascia is considered. In most circles, flexibility is not as impressive as getting leaner or more powerful. We talk a lot about movement quality at Iron & Grace and hold it paramount. It is not sexy or particularly marketable but it is a belief we hold dear as we know quality is where profound results start. We honor our students' goals then deliver quality movement patterns within the scope of their goals. 

We always talk about, "what is stable and what is mobile when coaching our clients so lets consider the concept of balance for starters. If you are not stable balancing in a static position, joint mobility and flexibility are secondary. You need to stabilize your joints (controlled strength) before you worry about enhancing mobility and increasing movement. And then, to make that dynamic.... well that doesn't happen until you've mastered the static part. In order to balance, our bodies use three internal control systems to help maintain balance (and thus stability) throughout any athletic movement. These three systems consist of our eyes, our ears, and our nervous system. The three systems function together to supply tons of information from our surroundings and our bodies to our brain. The brain then identifies which muscles and joints need to make the appropriate adjustments for proper balance. This system of balance is a very powerful and accurate control mechanism, unless the channel of communication between any of these three internal control systems is broken or disrupted.

In the world of body weight training, people who are coordinated and flexible require less strength. They have the capacity to manipulate their bodies into angles of leverage that are advantageous instead of fighting against their own tensions and having to muscle their way through things, but I beckon back to natural gifts.... We are naturally inclined to keep doing things that we can do better. So do you want to broaden your skill set or more greatly enhance your God given talent? There is no wrong answer. 

It reminds me of my adamant desire to master step aerobics. At 19, I took a certification, long story short- I SUCKED at it, never taught it, but by the time I was more mature.... 24, I started taking step class 2x/week BECAUSE I knew I sucked at it. I only got sorta better but I have a lot of moxie. After a few months, I added DOUBLE step and promptly sprained my ankle. I'd been taking my Pilates matwork certification and understood the value of focus, precision, control and grace in my 24 year old way. None of these qualities existed in my step-aerobics-ing.  I hung up my Reeboks and whole heartedly started working out on the reformer to strengthen my feet and ankles.  A blessing in disguise! That's when I really began to fall in love with Pilates. Fast forward 10 years, I took a "throwback" step class at a fitness conference. I had my Pilates head firmly attached and NAILED IT. Maybe it was because the class was taught by Gin Miller, step aerobics goddess, but I like to believe that it was my dedication and practice at Pilates. My brain changed. I was more coordinated. I'd spent YEARS studying, practicing, changing my natural inclinations and went from kinda clumsy to coordinated. I'm not sure that I have genes for coordination, maybe that's why I got moxie?

Effortless coordination is genetic, but coordination CAN BE LEARNED as pointed out in my step aerobics example.  Coordination suggests that someone also has a highly developed motor system. The peripheral nervous system, cerebellum, pre-motor and motor cortices are well educated, they have a large movement vocabulary, or as I like to call it they have a high level of movement intelligence.  So are the elusive skills we speak of more important than strength and power? Do I have to choose? No!!! You can have both.  We can do it all. Strength is indeed a skill and lifting heavy things is useful.

Skill work combines the expression of strength, power, coordination, mobility, flexibility and balance. There are untold benefits to this kind of movement neurologically and psychologically. How awesome does it feel to hit an arrow center on target, do a cartwheel in a straight line, or triumph some gnarly single track? Pretty awesome. But those all take PRACTICE and coordination of your brain and body. Skills are acquired through practice. When you whole heartedly commit to a practice, you simply get better.

Remember last post?  I’ll remind you that Joe Pilates really had 2 principles in his system of Contology (what we presently call Pilates) Whole body health and Whole body commitment.  Part of his dogma was to practice your exercises daily, with precision, alignment, focus and your whole life improves.  It is truth.

Form follows function
In an evolutionary sense and with regards to movement, the function of the body is to be capable of interacting effectively with the environment or as Joe Pilates would say, to "move with spontaneous zest and pleasure." A hypothesis as to why we have such incredibly powerful brains is due to our capacity for complex motion, the variance of the environment and a necessity to be able to predict outcomes of such interactions so as to promote our survival.  These days, the function of the human body is having the freedom and potential to do whatever we want with it. Our form, our design, affords us near limitless movement potential.

Move in a manner that promotes and integrates our form and improved function will follow. Move in a manner that over simplifies our form and function can degrade.

Fascia, what is it?
Fascia is the primary connective tissue of the body and has many recognizable guises such as ligaments, retinacula, tendons, aponeuroses, fascial bands, plura, meninges, perimysium, epimysium and even the pericardial sac,  but we will focus on myofascia. It is the very fabric that makes the body one single unfathomable piece of genius engineering!  

Luigi Stecco defines it beautifully, even in his non-native tongue. "In medicine, it has always been considered to have a mere function, or role, of containment or restraint, a type of packing material. In recent times, this view has changed somewhat. Fascia actually extends within the muscle, via the perimysium and the endomysium. This continuity means that the contraction of each single muscle fiber transmits to the deep fascia, or the outer most layer of muscle compartments. It is now thought that the fascia could be considered as a conductor of an orchestra playing a symphony of movement, where it synchronises the crescendo of some muscles and the diminuendo of others. The result is harmonious motion.”

Since some very smart surgeons and anatomists realized that fascia may be more than just the white stuff you need to cut away to get to the muscles, research and hypotheses have come out thick and fast. This research has proven that it can simply not be overlooked when training movement. Fascia provides not only a tension network but the ability for our muscles to slide and glide. The fascial system works optimally when it is mobile, therefore the body works best when mobile. Are you reconsidering your answer?

In response to regular physiological strain, collagen, the basic compound of our connective tissues adapts by altering its architectural properties to meet the imposed demand in gravity.  In healthy subjects 50% of collagen fibrils are replaced annually as part of the natural cycle of cellular life. There are hypotheses to suggest that certain movement practices can influence this cycle so as the renewal process promotes improved extensibility, hydration and sliding of fascia which is displayed via increased mobility through open joint angles. As ever, I will point out that fascia is not alone in this process but its direct line to the nervous system sure makes it a prominent player.  The proprioceptive sensory system does the learning, the tissues do the adapting. This is balance training my friends.

Whether it’s been proven in a lab or not, (and it has been) anecdotally as movement professionals, we see it everyday.  When working with the Oov, we see magic!  Tissue extensibility improves with the right kind of movement practices. It’s no coincidence that the connective tissue AND nervous systems of Gymnasts and Dancers allow them to move with grace and fluidity through full ranges of motion. I think of working through the fascia and understanding its arrangement and response is the best way to gain flexibility. It is instantly responsive when given the right coaxing.   We just need to reinforce the learning regularly to make it stick.

Counter movement and elastic recoil
The pursuit of athletic drills and movement skill practice is right on the money to enhance the energy store and release capacity of fascia.  The elastic storage capacity of fascial tissue can be enhanced with correct practice. When performing an athletic warm up we kick shoes off and coach clients to stay on the balls of the feet. We advise that ground contact time should be minimal and they should aim to be as quiet as possible, “land like a ninja”. Becoming fast and reactive through the lower limbs is a product of training. It strengthens the feet and goes a long way to improving athletic movement all the way through the body. Some have it naturally while others have to earn it, but it can always be learned and improved.  The energy returning, recoil extensibility of the connective tissue matrix is subconsciously utilized any time we jump, throw or kick a ball.  It is also present in just about every one of the dynamic skill movements we train our clients to do, particularly when using elastic resistance, like on the Pilates equipment and Rip Trainer.

Flexibility is not gained with a single approach. It is the net result of several complimentary practices, but I have to say, Joe Pilates knew his stuff, even if there was not current research to support it in the turn of the 20th century.  Let’s take his wisdom and get stronger, longer and springier !


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James Crews
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