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Training Laws: The Design of the Human Form

The more I study structure and design of the human form, the more I start to recognize certain patterns and underlying truths. Movement, myofascial and joint health and performance are all derived from our human structure and its corresponding design. From the following fundamental truths (which we will call laws), training principles can be adopted, and many questions can become clearer. The purpose of this article on training laws is to delve into some of these truths so that when we apply these truths to our exercise, it makes our program design more simple and effective.

Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine that you are the first to have discovered the human knee. No one before you has seen it function, viewed it up close and certainly had not seen it from under the skin. In your analysis of this structure, you have no previous information or knowledge to rely upon. You can only gather information or knowledge from what you observe. How would a scientist begin to learn more on this structure? First, you may try to ascertain how this structure moves. You will probably observe individuals as they walk, bend, play, etc. Your curiosity leads you to set up your first experiment. You hire four healthy individuals to serve as your subjects, and you hire four camera people to fix their lenses on only the knee structure while it is moving during the activities of walking, bending and playing. After two days of filming your four subjects performing various movement tasks, you review your video. If you are an out-of-the-box thinker, it would not take long to discover from this filmed experimental observation that the knee does the following:

In fact, you would clearly see the knee moves in all directions. Your scientific mind now leads you to launch a more in depth investigation into the workings of the knee. In other words, you do an isolated knee assessment.

In your assessment, you decide it is best to lie your four subjects down and hold the femur in place while moving the tibia in order to determine knee joint range of motion. You do this same assessment going side to side (see Figure 1), forward and back and in rotation. After all, this is the way you had originally observed the motion of the knee, remember?

Figure 1

You quickly see that the knee has the capacity to move well in the sagittal plane but not very well in the other two planes. But this presents a problem because your tasks’ assessment (observation) determined something far different than your manual assessment. Each assessment is extremely valuable. However, they now appear to be in conflict. Frustrated by this, you decide to investigate deeper into the matter and you decide to look under the skin by doing a dissection. Upon dissection of the knee structures, you notice a conglomerate of other tissues, structures and vessels, all with an apparent communication to other areas of the body. After finally reaching the knee capsule, you detect something very interesting (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

The structure of the knee itself is actually a hinge joint. It appears that the larger medial meniscus is what allows freedom in the transverse plane and more verticality at the meniscal borders (i.e., more height at the outside edge of the meniscus) is what allows freedom in the frontal plane. Moreover, many of the structures (not shown in Figure 2) that unify the knee with the rest of the body are in an oblique axis (which favors tri-plane motion). These structures are known as the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL), the Popliteus muscle and the Vastus Medialis, just to name a few.

Our “local” assessments (lying down on a table) and investigation into the observable movements of the knee (the “tasks” that we videotaped) are in a “structural conflict.” If we dismiss the fact that human structure implies relationships, then we would certainly only see that the knee functions primarily in the sagittal plane (based on our local assessment) with only a limited motion in the other two planes. As a result, our conclusion would be that the knee should track only in one plane of motion and more specifically over the second metatarsal. But what about our observation of our tasks assessment? We rarely see that the knee only tracks over the second metatarsal. Is single plane tracking (either sagittal, transverse, frontal) the protocol that would produce less wear and tear to our knee? If so, what happens to the rest of the body?

Figure 3

Try this. If I try to rotate my body (as in a horizontal chop pattern) and keep my knees over the second toe, can my hips even move? The answer is no. Now if my hips cannot move, then what happens to the lumbar spine? To accomplish this woodchop twist, my lumbar segments will be forced to rotate too much, which may exacerbate wear and tear to the spine. So who is right? What protocol do we use? First, it is important that we understand the body’s design and structure because the more we move consistent with our design, the safer we are. And by understanding the training laws that are the fundamental truths, we will develop strategies to more effectively and safely condition our clients/athletes.

The answer lies in looking at the universal truths that are given to us by nature’s very own design. As I had mentioned earlier, this article series is an essay on the laws that exist that govern human structure and design from which we can now question our current ideas of the body in motion and in design.

With a different and changing perspective, many of the concepts we use in training and conditioning simply do not make as much sense. Often, they are in conflict. Research has been down this road many times. One study may indicate one conclusion while another indicates something different. When this conflict arises and when conclusions are pointing to differences, researchers will often look for over arching or more general and global ideas for clarification. Thus, science has adopted laws that explain the fundamental workings of nature. Movement science is no different!

The following are training laws that may serve as a guide when you are considering using certain training methods and creating program design. These laws are not listed in any particular order, and all of them will have some impact on each other.

Training Law - The Law of Aggregates 

An aggregate is defined as “...being formed by the collection of parts or units into one body, mass or amount; a mass of separate things joined together or associated; collection.”

One true fundamental law is that the body exists as an “aggregate.” All of our physical structures imply relationships. All of them! The very form of the body follows an integrated function. We are clearly stronger, more efficient, more stable and more mobile as a whole rather than as the sum of our parts.

Let’s take the aforementioned “knee thought experiment” as an example. We see that manual assessments give us a far different information than do the tasks' assessments or movement observation. The obvious difference being that one is localizing (isolating) the function of the knee while the other is globalizing (integrating) the function of the knee. One sees the knee in isolation while the other sees the knee as it relates to the body. The design of the human body requires us to consider the whole structure, for it is not simply the structure alone but the aggregate of the structures that forms a body. An effective human being is a whole that is tremendously greater than the sum of its parts!

Doesn’t it make more sense that our tasks’ assessment gave us more knee motion because it was not simply the knee that was in motion? An even broader observation reveals that the hip and the ankle will feed in more knee movement... in space. It is not that the knee is moving within itself but rather that the knee has more scope of movement (a greater threshold in which to move - see Figure 4). The same holds true when the ankle moves through its physiological motions. It will bring the knee with it. The result is that we see a knee, as a whole, has more capacity for movement in all three planes of motion. This, in effect, actually decreases wear and tear on the knee complex as it is allowing other joints to disperse force as well.

Figure 4

Movement assessments of today have to follow the Law of Aggregates and adopt a more integrated view of the mechanics of human motion. As a result, our corrective strategies are changing.

Training Law - Natural Order 

We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.
- Norbert Wiener

In the training world (as well as in all aspects of life), the Natural Order follows a definite framework. It can be stated as the following: Stimulus -> Response -> Change/Adaptation.

There exists a kind of pattern or order in our human bodies. We may refer to this as Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (the SAID principle). Often, this is defined in reference to muscular adaptations to increasing volume of work on the body (be it load training or endurance training). However, natural order goes well beyond simply muscular change. This framework serves to affect all biological systems.

The human body is an amazingly plastic medium. It can change rapidly towards a structure that is more orderly and energy efficient. Likewise, it can move just as quickly towards a structure that is less orderly and requires more energy input. For example, consider the seated posture that so many of us adopt. If we sit in a certain way and hold this position, we'll find that over time, the body will “set” itself in this position (especially the spine). The training question begs: which environments are our clients/athletes adapting towards? Is it environments in which they are becoming more efficient or is it environments that reinforce energy leaks? Consider the two following figures:

Figure 5 Figure 6

As trainers, we are constantly assessing our clients by observing their movement. In the past, I have often been stuck in a mindset that is dualistic, meaning that one exercise is the right one and the other is the wrong one. What I do now is look at the adaptations that may occur (due to the Natural Order) from my exercise selection. I then question, "Is this exercise going to make my client more efficient or less?" Let us consider, given the Law of Natural Order, what is going on in the two figures above. In Figure 5, there is a pronounced side flexion and forward flexion in the spine, there is a closed hip flexion and external rotation at the feet, all in static postures. Given that this stimulus will elicit a response, what change or adaptation will result? The human structure always adapts to the most familiar positions. The result is that the person we see in Figure 5 will accommodate himself to that position.

This is due to collagen fiber being produced and released into the extracellular matrix in loose connective tissue. The result is that the body is fascially "set" into these patterns. In other words, the body (and more specifically, the fascia) is a plastic medium. Connective tissue continuously re-molds itself based on what stressors it experiences. Connective tissue cells rearrange themselves due to mechanical force (this may be the action of muscles in activity, the stress of an injury or holding static positions for too long). This stress (mechanical force) that goes through connective tissue deforms it, thus "stretching" the bonds between the molecules. The result is a change in the electrical charge of the tissue. Connective tissue cells respond to this change in charge by either augmenting, reducing or changing the intercellular elements in the area. Take upper crossed syndrome as an example. One will notice an increase in thoracic kyphosis. This results in a migration forward of the shoulder capsules and corresponding increase in cervical lordosis (i.e., forward head posture). More strain is introduced to the human body. As body segments are moved out of neutral and held statically for a long period (as in "poor posture"), we see that the muscles begin to change length (some shorten, some lengthen). The “short” muscles (i.e., pec minor) will be locked short and the “long” muscles (i.e., upper trapezius) will be locked long. This is due to the increase in fascial bonding of the surrounding intercellular matrix.

How is Figure 6 different? For one, we have a much more "open" body, and the structures are themselves oriented to gravity much differently (as we will find out in another law). The questions should therefore be, "In what manner do you want your client/athlete to follow Natural Order and adapt?" Figure 5 will have a tendency to adapt into a “closed” body position while Figure 6 will adapt in an “open” position.

Training Law - Natural Forces 

We exist in a medium governed by forces. Gravity and ground reaction force are two forces we are familiar with in the training realm. We know gravity is pulling us down, and we know ground reaction force is pushing our bodies up and allowing us to create movement. Our bodies hang in the balance between these opposing forces. We move "in" and "across" a field of gravity as we "push off" the ground. The field of gravity, in combination with the ground, has helped to shape our bodies. Think of why the human body has so much muscle in the posterior aspects of the hip and, by contrast, very little in front. It is the posterior hip musculature (i.e., glutes, etc.) that is mainly responsible for the deceleration of our body (as gravity pulls us down) as our foot is in contact with the ground. Our physiological systems developed amidst the natural forces that surround us. It is impossible to escape its effects. Yet, we rarely (if ever) see these forces, and we rarely use these forces to help the body. Far too often, our bodies succumb to these forces instead of allowing these forces to help us. We get fallen arches, head forward posture, weakness in the lower back, etc. All of these conditions are due to an inability to sustain the effects of gravity. Gravity pulls us down, and our bodies succumb to a more powerful natural force: chemical bonds.

If we maintain a certain posture for too long, gravity will slowly but surely have its way with us. We will "sink" into ourselves and begin to collapse. The spine will increase its curvature, the head will spill forward, the shoulders will roll forward. There will be a cascading effect on the entire body. From there, chemical bonds take over. And chemical bonds are a lot stronger than gravity! Given the Law of Natural Order, gravity (the stimulus) pulls the spine over. Muscles and connective tissue begin to stretch (the response), and more connective tissues (and their chemical bonds) are placed over the new, stretched space (creating a new "resting length" to the muscle structure, which includes fascia). It is not simply the muscle that stretched long. It is the connective tissue (and all of its chemical bonds) that resets the body to a new length. It looks something like this: gravity -> mechanical stress -> new chemical bond formation. 

To restore our original structure, we must overcome these chemical bonds. This is typically done through a flexibility/strength/stability protocol. Overcoming chemical bonds takes time, dedication and an adherence to a well thought out program. So if any of us ever get frustrated at certain postural "dysfunctions" we are trying to eliminate, we must remain patient and consider that adaptation to repetitive exposure (i.e., static positions such as sitting) will "set" the body and increase its rigidity.

As we begin to consider these laws and how they affect our bodies, let’s also consider how we might adopt these truths into our current training models. Like any other laws, if we violate the laws of the body, we are working against the body, and therefore we will not maximize our human performance and function.

Have fun exploring the wonders of our body, and remember, don’t break the law!