The truth behind how to improve your movement, what works and what doesn’t
In part one (link here if you missed it), we discussed three principles which go a long way to understanding the confusing areas of flexibility, mobility and movement. A quick recap:
- The brain is responsible for muscle ‘tightness’. We should focus on it instead of muscles to address most range of motion issues
- The reason the brain does this is because it doesn’t feel safe or experienced at end range of motion, so it tightens the muscle(s) up to prevent the body from going into a position that it feels might cause injury
- The vast majority of muscle contractions are subconscious and reactive, rather than consciously deliberate. They react to changes in joint angle detected by proprioception (receptors in joints and muscles).
With this in mind, how do we take steps towards addressing our movement restrictions/muscle tightness?
The aim of the game is to convince the brain that the new range of motion is safe to move into. We need to speak to the brain in the language it prefers to best communicate the message ‘hey, don’t be scared, you can let me go here, trust me’. The way we do this is by focusing on the movement, not the muscle. More specifically, the bone movement(s).
To revisit principle 3 from the last article, muscles react to changes in joint angle, i.e. what the joint is feeling. This means they detect the change in angle more so than the specific angle it is currently in. Therefore, we need to be creating these emotional sounding joint feelings in our mobility work – the joint angle needs to change dynamically rather than being held in static positions. Static holds are a single word whispered to the brain, whereas dynamic movements into and out of end range are full sentences shouted right in its ear…kind of. You pick which strategy will get the message across faster.
Active or passive movement
So we know we need to move dynamically into and out of the position we want to improve, we have two choices on how to do so: actively or passively.
Actively – we use our own strength and control to get into the right position – if we could do this, we wouldn’t have a movement restriction/mobility issue and probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Passively – we somehow get our bones into the right position using assistance, either another human being or some sort of tool/prop/momentum. The assistance can put us into ranges we couldn’t achieve actively.
Using passive movement we are able to bypass the brain’s panic buttons by gently encouraging movement into new range (NOT forcing it). This is because we are not using the paranoid and tense primary muscles surrounding the joint, which would put the brakes on as soon as they realised what was going on. As a result, we can get the joint to feel new positions that it would otherwise never experience – giving the brain lots of information to prove that the new position isn’t as dangerous as it previously thought. A video illustration:
#flexionfriday a great drill to get into those tight shoulders adapted from the #gandalf by James @imfitlondon Keep the top arm’s elbow locked out throughout, then reach for the floor starting at the same side’s toes then working forwards and across until you’re in line with the opposite toes and at the base of the box/wall. Keep the ribs down and tucked for bonus points! #overhead #crossfit #flexibility #shoulders #rangeofmotion #functional #movement #hacks #fmh #mobility #wod #flexion
In this video, we’re working on the left shoulder, which is fixed on the box. We’re moving the body around the shoulder, rather than actively flexing the shoulder. As a result we show the joint what flexion feels like without actually flexing the shoulder overhead. This avoids the blocking feeling that would shut down the movement before achieving full range of motion.
Cool, so we know that passive movement is a sneaky way of expressing our joint feelings to our beloved brains. What else can we do to convince it that the new position is safe? As ever, we can learn a lot from babies and kids. The younger years are by far the most rapid learning phase of motor skills (and pretty much everything else), why?
Because kids aren’t scared to make mistakes. When learning to stand and walk, they fall over. A lot. In lots of different ways. Each time they do, like Thomas Edison, they’re learning yet another way that doesn’t work.
The brain realises “when I lean over to the left too much, I fall over. Next time I’ll try contracting muscles on the other side of the body to correct it and see how that goes”, but in far more dimensions than we could consciously comprehend.
Adding movement variations into training
We can use the same idea in our training by adding variation into our movements. Instead of squatting with a perfect set up each time, play with foot position, twist them out, twist them in, go wide stance, narrow stance, one foot further forward than the other – every time you do, you’re teaching your body how to get in and out of a squat-like movement with more extreme “errors” than you’re likely to ever face in a regular squat. This gives our brain confidence that it can handle almost any squat and by comparison our regular squat will feel super comfortable. In the video above, this manifests by varying the position of the floor touch both left to right and near to far, altering the shoulder flexion slightly each time as compared to a regular overhead press for example.
Improve your Movement – Task focus
Passive movements, with a lot of variance, what’s next? Task focus. Another way of ensuring the movement slides under the radar and avoids getting shut down is to take our attention away from the joint we are working on. By driving the movement with a different part of the body, we aren’t thinking about the joint we’re working on, increasing the chances of keeping those muscle contractions reactive and not conscious/pre-emptive.
We want to avoid predicting the movement as if we do, the brain will tense the muscle up prematurely, preventing us from feeling end range. A sly way of doing this is to give another limb something else to concentrate on – the floor touches in the video above. By concentrating on moving our hand, we let our subconscious deal with the joint feelings we just happen to be creating in the working shoulder, learning which muscles need to be fired automatically, rather than having to think about it first. This is far more useful than getting the muscles to work only when we think about them – imagine trying to consciously contract shoulder stabilisers when performing a heavy snatch – not likely.
When focusing on a task, you can supercharge its effectiveness by being very accurate. For example, being very precise with the floor touches in the constantly-referenced-in-this-article video. This is why I’ll use some sort of markers to aim for in a lot of my exercises.
By adding a focused element of co-ordination we are teaching the muscles fine motor control (skill) in the new range of motion. The reason this works is that to produce small accurate movements, the brain needs to fire just the right number of muscle fibres, and by building experience of how many muscle fibres are required, it sends a signal to the brain ‘we need to use this position well, so get comfortable here’.
My educators, Faster Global refer to this as a ‘neural notch’ – essentially a specific length of muscle where it is accustomed to contracting from so will happily default to. This is why yogis are incredibly flexible in the hamstrings but usually have poor vertical jumps, and why basketball players are the opposite. They have developed a lot of skill (and a big neural notch) at different muscle lengths so are very proficient at using one but not the other.
So to wrap it all up, in summary:
- Get your bones into the right positions passively
- Add variety to the movement so the brain learns to correct errors faster
- Focus on another limb to ensure the muscle reacts to rather than pre-empts the movement – a basic task is an easy way to do so
- Be accurate with the task focus; precision makes the new range stick better
- Watch the video