The common view of human construction is that our body is formed as a series of bones that sit upon one another to form the structure we know as the skeleton. In my treatment room I have a skeleton and in order for him to stand erect he has numerous bolts, springs and wires that hold him together – without them he’d be nothing but a pile of sticks on the floor. In reality our skeletal structure is exactly the same and on its own it has absolutely structural integrity. Far from being a like a house of bricks with one bone being stacked upon another our body structure far more closely resembles a suspension bridge in design than a static pile of bricks. Our bones form only one component of a far more dynamic whole. It is only through the way the soft tissues of the body (muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia) weave the bones together that allows us to stand tall and dynamically move and interact with our environment.
In the book ‘Anatomy Trains’ renowned structural bodyworker Tom Myers likens the relationship of the soft tissue and skeletal system of a human to that of a mast and rigging of a sailing boat. In sailing if you didn’t have the rigging attached to the mast and various points of the hull, the mast would be ripped from the deck as soon as gust of wind caught the sail. What the rigging allows for is the distribution of the ‘pull’ on the mast to multiple points on the sturdy structure of the hull. In exactly the same process if you think of the spine as a mast and our muscles as the rigging, when the spine is pulled forwards the rigging at the rear will tighten and pull to stop the spine from snapping forwards and vice versa if it is pulled backwards. Many people who have back pain often visit me to have that specific area treated and are surprised when I sometimes start work on the front of their bodies to address ‘pulls’ that may be causing the ‘rigging’ in the back to pull harder.
To enable dynamic movement our bodyweight needs to be suspended within the ‘rigging’ of the body rather than being precariously balanced on the bones. Understanding the way this system of ‘rigging’ pulls and slackens is the key to grasping the anatomy of human movement. Thinking holistically will provide clarity and reason for all of our movements and may even help identify areas for improvement and allow you to develop a ‘holistic’ training regimen.
Another misconception that often shapes peoples training routines is that muscles work independently of each other. Luckily this view is beginning to change as many athletes and martial artists are pursuing what is being coined as ‘functional strength training’ or ‘whole body workouts – yet still far too many people still train their body parts in isolation rather than as a holistic unit. In my opinion I think isolation training actually negatively impacts on the performance of the body when compared against whole body function specific training programs. The only context I recommend isolation training to my clients is during rehabilitation to bring an isolated body part back up to strength after which I advise them to switch onto exercises that will re-integrate the damaged or dysfunctional area back into line with the whole system. Other than for aesthetic reasons I see absolutely no benefit to isolation training and in clients I have dealt with who follow “legs today, chest tomorrow and then arms the next day” programs I see imbalances in the body that lead to injury and tension in the system as a whole.
The key to both health and performance in the martial arts is having balance and harmony in the body. When in balance the body can operate as a coordinated unit rather than as a series of isolated units that fire up independently all scrambling to fulfil their roles in life. In tai chi we have a concept called ‘passing muscle to muscle’ whereby we train the muscles of the body to work co-operatively and efficiently and this is one of the primary purposes of the seemingly slow pace you often see tai chi practiced at. This pace is needed to ensure that the muscles engage sequentially in a clean continuous partnerships and this level of coordination cannot be achieved through isolation training. It is like tuning a car. Once the muscles are tuned properly you can then begin to increase their capacity by moving more enthusiastically to stimulate synchronised growth throughout the whole body.
This then takes us onto another vital concept when engaging the body in a therapeutic manner to encourage health – something in our system we call ‘stimulation not decimation’. Back in the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s martial arts people used to do thousands upon thousands of exercises, drills and techniques – many people believed that the muscles and bones would respond favourable if pushed to a point exhaustion. The theory was that as the body recovered it would repair and adapt itself into a stronger machine. Many of the old timers from this era now spend a lot of time nursing chronically bad backs, knees, shoulders and other constant aches caused by the years of abuse.
Whilst there is some wisdom in this approach this approach a distinction needs to be made between ‘decimation’ and ‘stimulation’. Overtly intensive training requires the body to repair damage rather than develop a stronger unit – there is only so much repair work the body can cope with before it breaks down. This brutal approach to training is what we refer to as ‘decimation’. ‘Stimulation’ of growth lets us tap into the body’s ability to evolve and requires us to look at the system as a whole and how best to engage it.
In my last article we discussed how humans learn from experience and we can use this quality to evolve the body’s physical capacity. To stimulate the development of the body for martial arts you need to look at which function you want to improve and then decide an exercise or drill that will suit that function. You then need to push the body through that drill just to the point that you can feel it start take effect – this is as far as you need go. The body will take notice and then start to adapt and strengthen the structures you have worked – you have stimulated growth. If you push past this point you start to decimate the body and it then has to divert resources allocated for recovery and regeneration to repairing and patching damage and ultimately this places a load on the body that you’ll eventually pay the price for.
When planning a program for self-development we need to look at how to nurture the body – not torture it. In order to do this takes awareness and discipline. It requires us to dispassionately apply reason and ‘holistic’ thinking to our training. We need understand the system as a whole and it is impossible to evaluate that which is weak and that which is strong without first considering an individual components part in the whole – the evaluation of strength and weakness is always relative to the condition of body as a complete dynamic unit.
In order to ensure that our training is therapeutic and having a positive effect on our body we need to understand how the body is structured and functions as a holistic unit to avoid any training that will take a certain isolated part out of synch with the rest of the system. I believe wholeheartedly that we should walk away from training in a better state than we walked into it. As a martial artist I have no interest in what looks pretty I’m merely interested in the practical and the functional. I love the martial arts and want to train every single day so I refuse to do anything that will stop me getting up and doing what I love every morning. I’ve long ditched the training sessions that took three days to recover from and opted for ones that stimulate and invigorate my body on a daily basis. Understanding these concepts is fundamental to long term prosperity and health through the martial arts!
Thursday, 25 November 2010 11:06 Written by Gavin King.