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Principles of Physical Movement

Moving naturally goes deeper than what kind of movements you get up to every day, and the variety of patterns that make up your daily movement nutrient profile. I like Katy Bowman's analogy about getting the right movement macronutrients and micronutrients, which means supplementing crawling, balancing, hanging jumping, and cutting back on chair sitting and spending too much time in stationary positions. But these principles go deeper than that.

These are a few simple points that are universally applicable to any kind of movement, not just exercise, but relevant right down to how you put on your seatbelt, reach for your coffee, change directions when you're walking, and even how you wipe your bottom. Those mundane acts are moments that can either reinforce distortions or help balance them. I'm not suggesting special techniques, but rather guiding principles that can reveal habitual movement inefficiencies that manifest in everything we do. Every time they manifest, that action requires compensatory muscular tension to hold the body up, rather than being balanced by the natural alignment of the joints.

It all boils down to whether you are working with gravity or fighting against it. This comes down to how you shift your weight and counter-balance to keep your center of gravity in line with your base of support. It is also about thinking about movement as a whole-body affair, and to stop moving in "parts".

What is the Movement System

The muscular system can be split into two categories, the smooth muscles which we cannot consciously control, and striated muscles that we consciously contract to create movement. The latter system is part of what we call the movement system, which involves these movement muscles, tendons, and also bone, ligament, and fascia. All of these elements together make up the movement system. Not only do they have the function of facilitating movement, but also holding everything else in place.

Principles of the Movement System

Everything is Connected - Whole Body Movement

If you imagined the description of the movement system as a whole network connecting the entire body, this point may not be hard to imagine. When stimulation is experienced in one part of the body, every cell in the body adapts to that subtle change, no matter how distal.

To test this and experience it for yourself, lay on your back and move your toe without moving anything else. You can probably do that, no problem without moving your foot, knee, or anything. The type of movement of your free joint with nothing anchoring it down, like your toe wiggling liberally through in the air, is called an open kinetic chain.

Now ask someone to try hold your toe in place while you try to move your toe from side to side. You will notice that when you move the joint, trying to overcome the resistance, and your toe has nowhere to go, your feet, legs, hips, back, and maybe even your arms, and neck will express the movement instead. When your toe in being held in place and restricted from moving freely, this is called a closed kinetic chain.

An open kinetic chain lets the movement out into the environment, but when the kinetic chain is closed, movement goes in the other direction. This exposes the "chain of command" that you don't see quite so clearly when the chain is open, allowing you to experience first-hand how everything is connected. Natural movement must involve the whole body; there is always a shift or subtle counterbalance from head to toe with every micro-movement, if this is missing, there is tension and probably distortion.

Center of Gravity

Our center of gravity must be in line with the center line of the body. The center of gravity is what we call the place where most of out weight is being held. If you are just standing or sitting around right now, you can imagine it as a basketball of your gravitational energy (hopefully) sitting in your pelvis as your movement system's (hopefully) passive resistance against gravity holds it up.

The center line is what we call an imaginary line that splits the body in the middle from left to right, and from front to back. You cannot move your center line, it is just a reflection of your physical structure. Your center of gravity on the other hand, you can move it, drop it, and throw it, but you have to follow it! It is literally like that basketball, it'll roll around all over the place if you don't keep it in check.

If the center of gravity is off-center, we must use tension to counter-balance. This creates distortions. Most people have one leg longer than the other, not because the bones are different lengths, but due to tension in the hips. You can test this by lying down and having someone hold your feet together and look at your ankle bones.

Center of Gravity - Contralateral Movement

If someone picks something up from the floor with their right hand and steps forward with their right foot, their center of gravity will be on the right side. Try it, you'll feel it for yourself. Don't do it too many times though because it's a bad habit! Once is enough, as an experiment to feel the center of gravity on your right side.

Now try stepping forward with your left foot and picking something up with your right hand, you should feel your center of gravity staying along your center line.

When you step forward with your right foot to pick something up with your right hand, your center of gravity is stretched between your right leg and right arm, not along the center line, but leaning to the right of the center line, or being held in the center through compensatory imbalances. This is called ipsilateral movement, or movement using only one side of the body.

When you step with your left foot to pick something up with your right hand, this is a called contralateral movement. In other words, contrary to lateral foot and hand. Your center of gravity is spread between your left foot and right hand, the leg in the back left quadrant, and the arm in the front right quadrant, along the center line. This draws the center of gravity diagonally along the center line.

In most cases contralateral movement is natural, ipsilateral movement is unnatural and leads to abnormal tension and structural distortions, especially in the spine, but contralateral movement is just one example, the essential point here is keeping the center of gravity balanced.

Many right handed people lean on their right leg when they stand. When you do this, you are leaning to your center of gravity off to the right side of your center line. Right handed people often have the right side of their pelvis tilted to the front and left side tilted to the back, tightening the left side and lengthening the right. The result is the left knee, left side of the chest, & left shoulder become tight, leading to tension in other places.

This is why in treatment, no matter what is wrong, if imbalance in the hips are not addressed, a remnant of the issue will remain and either cause the problem to return, or for tension in other parts of the body to manifest.

If you are holding your body is such a way, there are muscles that are chronically contracting. Muscles require alternation between contraction and relaxation to remain healthy, so even is one muscle is always tense, it will suffer, and it's condition will effect the rest of the body as well. The take-away here is again, keeping the center of gravity in balance.

Keeping the Center of Gravity in Balance - What you can do About it

This is a gross simplification, but movements can for the most-part be summed up as either rotations, forward/backward flexion, left/right lateral flexion, and opposing compression/traction.

Rotation & Compression/Traction | Shift to the same Direction

When rotating, for example, if you are standing still and you turn to look over your left shoulder, you should shift your weight onto the left foot. This draws your center of gravity between your leading leg and the opposite shoulder, across your center line. By contrast, shifting to the right foot when your turn to the left leans your center of gravity off to the right side of your center line. You center of gravity is held between the right leg and right arm, which means it is not in the center. So shift your weight toward the side of the same direction you are turning. If you rotate, shift your weight to your left foot if you're standing, left butt-cheek if you're sitting, left side of your back if you're laying down, you get the picture.

Sometimes we need to resist a compression, or traction to our joints (stretching them apart). For example, if someone is standing in front of you, gently pulling your arms and you don't step forward, they will be applying traction to your joints, stretching them out. If you resist the tension, it will involve contracting the muscles supporting your joints to compress them against the traction. If the pull is stronger, you'll have to shift your weight back to stand your ground against the traction, or you'll fall forward as your center of gravity is pulled off center line.

Moving against a compression is similar. If someone is standing in front of you, pushing your outstretched hands like a dramatic sumo clash, that would involve compression to your joints before moving your back. To resist this you first have to counter think about extending your joints, and if you shift your weight forward as you extend forward, your center of gravity will stay on your center line (unless your opponent moves out of the way and stops pushing before you can adapt and stumble out of the sumo ring.)

The sumo example is a fun illustration, but even just reaching up for a jar on a high shelf (shifting forward and up onto the balls of our feet perhaps) involves resisting the natural compression of gravity, and just contracting the muscles on either end compresses our joints. The take-away here is that natural movement during rotation, extension, and contraction calls for shifting toward the same direction that you are moving.

Flexion - Forward/Back/Lateral | Shift to the Opposite Direction

Conversely to rotation, during flexion, shifting toward the same side means throwing our center of gravity off to one side of our center line. With flexion, shifting to the opposite side keeps our center of gravity along our center line more effectively and without undue tension.

If you are hinging at the hips to bend over, for example, as you hinge, you should shift your hips backwards. If you fail to do this you may feel the tension in your legs, but the tell-all is where you feel the weight in your feet. Are your toes gripping the ground? That's a sign that your center of gravity has fallen to the front of your center line. Shifting your weight back will keep your weight in the center of your feet, which tells you if your center of gravity is in line.

If you are bending backward you should shift your hips forward, like if you were in front of a wall and trying to make contact with your hips. Shifting your hips forward as you bend back keeps your center of gravity from falling behind your center line. If you shift your weight back when you bend back you probably will fall back, so don't try that! If you feel a lot of abdominal tension and difficulty breathing when bending backward, you are probably not shifting at all, and just holding yourself in balance with your muscles. Try focusing on shifting the hips forward at the same time and see if that feels any different.

Lateral flexion follows the same principle. If you are leaning to the left (not rotating, still facing forward) you should be shifting your weight to the right foot to keep your center of gravity in line. If you lean to the left and shift your weight to your left foot, your center of gravity falls to the left of your line of gravity and the muscles on the right side have to hold everything together to keep you from falling over to the left side. The take-away here is shift your weight in the opposite direction during any flexion movements.

Breathing and Movement

Breathing is usually an unconscious act, sometimes we breathe deeply, sometimes shallow, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Our emotional state can effect and reflect our breathing pattern. We can intervene by controlling our respiration with conscious breathing practice. When it comes to breathing as it relates to our movement, dynamic actions are best performed during exhalation. The movement system does not coordinate well with inhalation, and injuries like strains and spinal herniation for example often occurs when this principle is broken.

In combat sports, skilled competitors often aim to strike as the opponent is inhaling for this reason. They also tend to inhale quickly and exhale slowly to limit the time they spend in that more vulnerable state where is is difficult to contract to protect against a strike. The take-away here is if you are lifting something heavy, throwing something, jumping, landing from a fall, or other special one-time-burst actions, try to synchronize the movement with your exhalation, or at least avoid inhaling, but it's better to exhale than hold your breath.

How can I Improve?

The idea here is to give you something simple to take away into your daily life, and the way you move, train, and play, so here is a recap of the key points in point form:

  • Whole-body involvement in movements

  • Exhalation synchronized with movement

  • Keep your center of gravity along your center line

You can keep your center of gravity along your center line by keeping the following points in mind during any movement in daily life and during exercise:

  • Contralateral foot-hand movements when picking things up, crawling, throwing, etc..

  • Shift weight to the same side during rotation & when resisting compression or traction

  • Shift weight to the opposite side during flexion

People with structural distortions shouldn't try to force themselves into a "good posture" at best, this will result in faking it with compensations that lead to deeper tension. "Poor posture" is just a series of counterbalances holding your body in the most balanced position for it's state of being. The answer is not about forcing the body to stay upright, but rather inviting the body to move with greater ease.

Taking these considerations to heart in daily life will address the underlying root of the distortions in the first place and with the help of good manual therapy and mobility training, you can make great progress instead of just undoing the daily damage that poor habitual patterns cause.

It is also a great guide for those who do not have any issues and want to make sure that they don't hurt themselves when lifting heavy things, or performing mundane daily activities.

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