How often do you work with clients who are tired, stressed, anxious or in some other way worked up? If you were to picture one or two of these clients, you may begin to see a few similarities in their body posture. Chances are they breathe in the upper chest with shallow and fast breathes, shoulders may be drooped or seem to be pulled up to their ears, but in both cases, they pull their shoulders forward, which immediately puts strain on their necks and shoulders, leading to limited function, pain and stiffness.
All of these positions as well as many more are defensive patterns of the body, and when we are in these defensive patterns, there is a massive implication on our ability to perform and function. The true implication of this is that if your clients remain in these defensive patterns while you are working with them, then you will not in any way be able to achieve the kind of results they are truly capable of. Many of our most prominent and seemingly high-achieving athletes also fall into this category.
|Good - Open Posture
||Poor - Closed Posture
The best way to understand this concept is to experience it yourself. As you sit reading this article, I want you to lean as far forward with your torso as you can. Now extend your right knee. How does it feel? Did it feel strong or weak? How was your range of movement? If you were doing a machine exercise like the leg extension, what do you think the implication would be?
A lot of people in this position are unable to complete the movement into full extension. Their muscle strength and power is dramatically reduced, as is control of the movement. You may even notice that your hip flexors are trying very hard to assist the movement because of the inadequate quadriceps contraction.
Let’s look at the opposite scenario.
Sit up straight in your chair and open your torso. Extend your right leg again. What do you feel this time? Did it feel strong or weak? How was your range of movement? If you were doing a machine exercise like the leg extension, what do you think the implication would be?
The first part of this demo is done by placing the body into an exaggerated defensive pattern (leaning all the way forward). What we find is that immediately the body is unable to function fully, and therefore the quads are unable to work in their required range of contraction, which creates a decrease in strength and power. If we operate in this position habitually, it means we will be in a state of functional disadvantage and therefore a chronic state of weakness.
In part two of the above demonstration, we take the body out of the defensive pattern by opening up the torso, and immediately the quadriceps is free to function correctly and at greater strength and power. The open body position gives a good foundation for the movement to take place, and it also opens up clear mind and muscle connection, so the correct output from the central nervous system is received.
From this, we can clearly see that simple understanding of the position in which we use our bodies has a significant impact on the ability of the body to perform tasks, whether in one plane or in multiple planes.
Too often we overlook simple concepts of body language when we are looking to understand an individual’s performance. If the body were a simple physiological system that was not influenced by outside factors, then our progress would appear very linear if we tracked our clients’ progress. But it does not happen like this. There are days when they do fantastically well, and we feel very good about our work with them. Yet only a few days later, you may be in a position where they seem unable to get anywhere near their great gains of the previous days. What is the difference – we don’t grow and lose muscle this fast, do we?
The difference lies in the factors operating in their lives that either have them open and strong or that close them down. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our state of arousal and relaxation. The ANS control center is the hypothalamus, which is part of the limbic system, the emotional seat of the brain. This implies our emotional state impacts on our response and therefore the fluctuations in our performance.
An important thing to note here is that these defensive patterns are evident whether someone is in either the fight or the flight pattern of stress and survival. When you cower away or when you challenge a threat and fight, your body patterns are essentially the same closing and protecting postures.
We go through a series of patterns as we close down. Our primary defense area is the chest, so we withdraw our sternum, which then brings the shoulders forward and down. This then engages the neck and jaw muscles. But since nothing happens in isolation, what happens at the top, happens at the bottom and the hips close up.
Each of these patterns has its own implication on the areas of function it impedes, as well as its place in influencing overall function. Our challenge is that most people these days are closing up in at least one, if not all, areas.
I am often surprised when I work with top athletes. Looking at their ability to engage their muscle systems individually and in functional patterns often shows massive compensation patterns in the body, which impacts on their performance and their tendencies towards injury. If even top athletes are closed down, we can understand why almost all of our clients (and yes, ourselves) are shut down and not achieving what we could.
What are the factors that shut us down? In our lives, this could be emotional, mental and physical stress that the body has not effectively let go of. Modern man has more stress than ever before and less ability to release it. Two thousand years ago, the stress was a wild animal that fancied you for dinner. These days, it's everything from traffic to the taxman to threats to our status, our job or our livelihoods. In all cases, the body responds with the same physiological process known as the stress response, which is the fight or flight mechanism. For short-term survival, this is the perfect survival system. For long-term use, the implications are more and more evident if we look at the number of stress-related diseases. The implication for us as trainers is that our clients are not performing to their best ability, so we are less able to help them achieve their goals or the goals fall short of their capabilities. If your client is performing at a higher level with you, you will be impacting their ability to manage their stress factors, therefore impacting their lives. Not only is this good for them, it is also good for you – happy clients tell their friends!
I'd like to take you through the basics of one of the techniques we can use for squats. As you are reading the article, stand up and sit down twice - get a feel for how it feels. Now using the index and middle finger of both hands, rub about two cm on either side of the navel for 20 seconds and then the back of the neck at the base of the skull for 10 seconds. Now do the sit to stand again.
What happens is, the second time we stand, we shoot up as we have released a defensive pattern that limits movement. The improvement also indicates that the body is locked in a defensive pattern and is therefore not functioning at the highest level.
The points that you have just rubbed correlate with releasing the psoas, glut and hamstring complex. When each muscle now fires correctly, the defensive inhibition patterns can be over ridden, and each muscle performs its part of the movement correctly. The body is no longer fighting itself to perform the movement.
To let you know the kind of results that can happen when you release the body's defense patterns, below is a case study done while testing an ex-national swimmer early last year. The results may seem impossible, but they are real. All testing and releasing of defensive patterns were done on the same day.
Case Study: Trevor
Date tested: 12 July 2004
Shoulders: Shoulder Press
- Test Procedure: Have client do shoulder press at comfortable maximum
- Result of test: 52 ½ kg for 3 reps
- Result of Activation: 82 ½ kg for 5 reps (30kg improvement – 58% increase)
Legs: Leg Press
- Test Procedure: Have client do leg press at comfortable maximum
- Result of test: 140kg for 8 reps
- Result of Activation: 220 kg for 8 reps (decided to stop testing at this point, although Trevor felt he could do a lot more); 64% improvement
- Test Procedure: Have client lie flat on back, raise one leg at a time with knee straight to measure flexibility in degrees off floor
- Result of test: Right leg 70 degrees; Left leg 75 degrees
- Result of Activation: Right leg 110 degree (40 DEGREE improvement); Left leg 120 degrees (45 DEGREE improvement)
Defensive patterns put us at a biomechanical disadvantage, which immediately robs of our strength and power. If we don’t take steps to identify when our clients are in defensive patterns and then correct them, we will not be able to train them at their greatest functional capacity.