Are you moving with your brakes on?

Feeling tired, achy, a little bit stuck physically and maybe emotionally too? Suffering from swollen ankles, shin splints, knee, hip, back or shoulder pain? Ever considered that the problem may simply be that your muscles are fighting each other, half of you is unconsciously holding back whilst the rest of you wants to be moving forward, you are trying to move with your brakes on !

To fully understand this peculiar but very common phenomena it might be helpful first to remind ourselves of a little basic science.

Some science

We Earthlings live in a gravitational field that exerts, on average 15lb per sq inch of pressure on us 24/7 from the moment we sprout forth to the day we finally give in to it and lie down for the last time.

For some crazy reason, one of our ancestors, be she ape, lizard or alien visitor, decided that we should move around on just two of our four available limbs?

All that pressure and only two rather spindly supports is a challenging combination and its legacy is an ever present choice between Stability and Adaptability. We need Stability so that we can carry loads and “stand our ground,” and Adaptability so that we can move freely in our environment, to gather food or avoid being food. And as anyone who has tried to build a free standing, walking robot will tell you this is actually a very complicated engineering problem. Luckily, this constant juggling between Stability and adaptability which would be a right pain if we had to think about it all the time has, over the last 6 million years or so, become somewhat automatic for us bipeds

So how does the body balance automatically?

A Little bit more science, bare with…

The bones of the body which act like slightly flexible supporting struts, prevent gravity from squashing us into amorphous globs of jelly. But without muscles and connective tissue holding it all together in a tensegrity structure, (look it up or wait for my future blog) not only would we be unable to move, but our beautifully constructed skeletons would be nothing more than a pile of bones, thanks again to gravity’s downward force.

Tonic vs Phasic muscle fibres

Muscles which work on the skeleton, aptly named “skeletal muscles” are made up of long fibres of which there are two types:

  1. those whose main job is holding us steady
  2. those that move us.

Tonic muscles

In general the muscles consisting of mostly “keeping me steady” fibres are found deep in the body. They are designed for endurance because they have to work for long periods automatically correcting posture and balance to save us from gravity’s tricky ways.

These muscles form part of what is known as the ‘Tonic system’ which includes connective tissue like the tendons which join muscles to bone.

The Tonic system is also richly innovated by sensory nerves many of which happen to link directly with our primal survival mechanism, often called the “Fight Flight Freeze” system.

Tonic muscles work in the background largely beneath our conscious control and are effected very much by our emotions.

Phasic muscles

By contrast, the muscles which contain mostly “move me” type fibres are found closer to the surface of our bodies. These muscles are known as ‘Phasic’ or ‘fast twitch’ muscles.

Phasic muscles are designed to work in short bursts and unlike the Tonic muscles can be controlled quite easily with conscious effort. Try flexing some phasic muscles, your biceps, pecs or quads for instance. Notice you can do this without moving a joint (ok thats enough, move away from the mirror!) Now try flexing some tonic muscles in the same way,  your triceps, ham strings or calves. Not feeling so hench now eh?

So here’s the whole point …..

In order for the Phasic (movement) muscles to move us, the Tonic (stabilising) muscles which act like brakes, must first relax.

This “letting the brakes off” is known as a “pre movement” and is part of and must precede every action we make.

The degree to which we can relax the tonic system and allow “in-stability,” conditions the quality and efficiency of the movement that follows.

Because we ordinarily have little conscious control of the Tonic system it is difficult to simply ‘will’ the brakes to release and would anyway, be way too slow and cumbersome. It has to be automatic to work efficiently.

So, the clever nervous system writes programes which tell the muscles what to do and in which order. These programes have been named Engrams in a book called Job’s Body By Deane Juhan and are the subject of another blog later

Engrams, although operating for the most part beneath our every-day awareness, are never the less listening to and can be influenced, changed and disrupted by what we think, feel and believe.

So if there is any unresolved trauma, deeply buried belief systems or unconscious emotional habits associated with certain movements or situations, then the body’s older and more primitive brain centres step in, the fight/flight/freeze system will be activated telling the muscular system that it is not safe to move and causing strong Tonic muscle fibres to easily overpower any ideas you have about “letting go.”

This situation ignites a kind of myofascial civil war. Muscles fibres which want to move bones pitted against muscle fibres which want to keep them still. This is the “Stress” that everyone talks about. It wastes energy and feels terrible.

With the body fighting itself in this way, movement of any kind will feel awkward and uncoordinated and will of course burn at least 100% more energy than you need to. Is it any wonder that many of us feel exhausted just getting through a normal day?

How then do we begin to let the brakes off?

The answer to this is actually quite simple, by slowing down and allowing time to notice unnecessary tension, we start to become aware of habitual holding patterns. Shoulders, arms, shins, buttocks even your tongue are good places to begin looking.

As you become more familiar with these patterns you may notice that many of them are associated with particular situations and that perhaps there is an emotional thought or feeling that accompanies them. Behind the feeling is usually a belief system which may have been created by the young survival mechanism decades ago in response to a real or perceived threat and which although now completely redundant is still running as an automatic program repeatedly telling your tonic system that “its not safe…. to let go…..to express yourself….to be noticed…..to relax”

A way to change the program is to replace it with a more positive and up to date feeling and over the coming weeks I will be posting some examples of these that you can try for yourself. Let me know if they help you to move more freely or increase the amount of energy you have spare at the end of your day.