Newsletter May, 2018: the sum of the parts

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I recently posted a video of me doing a depth jump to a forward roll on Instagram. My philosophy with Instagram is if I post something that either teaches someone something or inspires someone to look at movement in a slightly different way, I am (hopefully) providing a useful service. Someone commented that she didn’t know anyone else who would try that particular move.

I replied that what she didn’t see was the work that went into doing that. I did drills for my depth jump. I practiced forward rolls. I practiced a depth jump to an all fours landing. I worked all of these pieces, until eventually I could jump down to an all fours position and go right into a forward roll, ultimately eliminating the all fours position. It took months of working the basic pieces, over and over again. I posted the finish product because I feel like if someone like me, who has no high school or college athletic career, isn’t naturally flexible, and spends hours each week practicing alone, can learn how to use my body in an interesting way at age 38, anyone can with the right amount of dedication and practice. 

Not everyone wants to put in that amount of work, and that’s completely okay. Not everyone has to be an aspiring Parkour enthusiast to appreciate novel movements; practicing physical skills once or twice a week in a class setting can bring a person’s ability to perform specific skills to a new level. 

The crux of all of this is the basic components of the skills that are being sequenced together need to be practiced, over and over until the student doesn’t need to think about it anymore. So if you want someone to actually be able to perform higher level skills, they can’t be introduced to the basic pieces once on a Monday in February and once more on a Thursday in April with the expectation that the student will have adequately learned the necessary parts to perform that thing. 

I have a client in his early 60s who isn’t naturally flexible. The first time I had him come into a tall kneeling position, he struggled. When I had him try and sit back on his heels, he could barely go down.

Over time and with repetitions, he was able to lower to his heels, but only with the foot perpendicular to the floor. Any other position caused cramping or discomfort. We practiced every time I saw him, which is about twice a week. I added in standing ankle work to improve his ability to flex his foot and get the top of the ankle moving down, towards the ground. We practiced this regularly for a month.

Today, he sat back on his feet, toes pointing behind him. He looked surprised and excited as he realized he could do this elusive movement for the first time in his life. 

The total amount of time each session devoted to this is probably less than four minutes. But moving in and out of positions with control, and allowing pauses enables the nervous system to adapt to new positions. And while the position itself doesn’t matter, he realized a new way to sit on the floor which, arguably, is a good thing. It also highlights the fact that, at 62, he is able to gain flexibility and control that he has never had before. Learning happens throughout life, and using the physical practice to reinforce this fact can have a positive impact on the client.

Upcoming events:
May 23-25:
World Posture Virtual Summit
In addition to 11 other professionals in movement disciplines, I will be speaking (albeit, virtually), at the World Posture Virtual Summit on what it means to move well. For a limited time, access is free with registration. Link here.

End of May: Studio location change! I will be moving into my new space sometime at the end of the month. It’s exciting, and worth noting.

June 2:
Unlocking the power of the hips through the ankles and feet. Location: Be Well Personal Training Studio, The Barnyard, Carmel CA. 
Information and registration:

June 16:
Unlocking the power of the hips through the ankles and feet. Location: Move-SF, 2863 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94115, time and registration: TBA. 

Learn how the feet and ankles influence what is experienced in the hips and glutes and how pelvis position influences the feet. We will discuss proprioception from the ground up, and still utilize sensing, isolating, and integrating as a framework for improving movement efficiency and creating a deeper sense of embodiment. Gait mechanics will be touched upon, as well as how the feet influence common foundational movements such as the squat and hip hinge. This workshop is appropriate for movement teachers, personal trainers, and those interested in deepening their knowledge of how this area works. Class format will be lecture, practical application, and partner work. Please bring a notebook and dressed to move around. 

“Please download all your information into our brains!! The clients are loving the exercises we did at the workshop and they all say their feet feel stretched out/flatter/more grounded and they are fascinated by it!” A.G., recent workshop attendee.

July:
Learning Opportunity
I am looking for three curious movement/fitness professionals that are interested in honing their assessment skills, deepening their knowledge of movement and how to work with individuals with injury or pre-existing conditions, and are curious about how to combine strength, somatic work, and mobility work in an individualized setting.

I am launching an online mentorship/coaching program. The beta test group will consist of one month of weekly web chats, homework, and a dive into spine mechanics, proprioception, assessing what you see, and breathing. We will also how to address specific client needs or questions around programming and troubleshooting. (Future programs will be longer, but I am keeping this short and small to get a sense of how it feels for everyone). Cost is $100 for this group only. If you are interested or know someone that might be interested, please e-mail me with a bio or resume, why you think this might be a good fit for you, and career goals. pilottij@gmail.com

August:
Open House! If you are local, celebrate the opening of the new studio space with us August 4 from 11-2. 

A slight change in location, a much bigger space, and an opportunity to take classes, look around, consume refreshments, and ask questions. Join Jenn in celebrating the new studio location, still in The Barnyard, located upstairs, directly above Patrick James and next to Yolanda's Hair Salon facing the courtyard. 
12:00-12:45: Mobility and game play
1:00-1:30: Restorative
Cost: Free!

Saturday, October 20:
Free your neck and the rest will follow
Location: 36o FitHaus, 1400 Colorado Blvd. Suite C., Los Angeles, CA 90041. Details and registration coming soon.

Happy days!
Jenn

Weekly musings, 4/15/18: Rigidity and posture

Weekly musings, 4/15/18: Rigidity and posture
Have you ever been told you “should” hold yourself a certain way because it’s better for you? Or that if you round your spine, you are loading the discs too much and you are certain to cause imminent damage?

The spine is designed to move in order to respond to perturbations, or outside forces that act upon it. Rigidity during movement doesn’t allow for any sort of response and it doesn’t feel good. Think about a metal rod. When you hit it, how does it feel? Now imagine that you are hitting a water balloon that doesn’t burst with the same amount of force. How does that feel and which object do you think is more stable? A spine that works well is one that is strong enough to return to its resting position, but supple enough to give when there is outside force that acts upon it.

In fact, in a 2013 study, researchers examined how well subjects were able to recover from an unexpected perturbation when their lumbar spines were in a corset that held them rigidly. This was contrasted with how well they recovered from the same unexpected jolt without the corset. The corset hindered the subjects’ abilities to recover their balance; without the corset, the subjects recovered more efficiently and in less time.*

A client came in recently who struggles with low back pain. She has made dramatic improvements, but still struggles with occasional bouts of discomfort. We were discussing her tendency to hold herself rigidly and her fear of moving her lower back. “I was told I should keep my lower back a little bit arched at all times and never let it round because of my disc extrusion,” she told me. 

“Does it hurt when you let your back round a little bit when you bend over or does it cause your symptoms to flare up?” I asked.

“No, it feels really good.”

“Then it’s okay to do occasionally,” I responded.

Fearing movement isn’t helpful, just like always moving the same way limits mobility and strength going the other direction. If it hurts, don’t do it, but while strength is one of the best things you can do for your body, rigidity and strength aren’t necessarily the same thing.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24036601

Weekly musings, 4/8/18: Slow and steady

I have a client I’ll call Megan. We have been working on a lot of strengthening exercises on the floor, loading her arms and her legs in different, dynamic ways. I regularly have her hold positions that are uncomfortable for a moment, just long enough to feel a sense of struggle before she moves away from the discomfort, back to a place that’s more familiar. She moves through positions that, to an outsider, might not look like much, but when done slowly are challenging. She does low reps, 4-6, before moving on to something else.

I recently had her perform a move that she initially balked at, unsure she had the strength. She tried it and successfully completed it four times, surprising herself with her ability.

I have another client I will call Jessie. She had a vague goal of doing a chin-up, so I started having her hang from her arms while doing different things, building up her endurance and grip strength. She did rowing variations with suspension straps, holding in different positions, not always performing very many repetitions, instead focusing on the quality of the movement and finding a sense of work before slowly moving away from the sensation.

I recently had her jump up to the top position of a chin-up and hold it there, using just her arms. She, too, was skeptical when she realized what I was asking her to do. “Do you think I can do that?”

“Yes,” I replied, and with that she jumped up and held herself in the chin-up, before slowly lowering herself down. Her eyes were big, and she was clearly surprised at her strength. “I did it! My arms held me!”

Building strength doesn’t necessarily require performing 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions, though that’s definitely one way to do it. What matters more, perhaps, is consistent exposure to various aspects of the skill you want to accomplish, becoming adept and strong in a multitude of ways. I find, too, when people feel supported by their structure, it matters less how many reps they perform and more that they acknowledge when something hard becomes easier through practice. 

Weekly musings, 4/1/18: Handedness, strength, and motor control

A 77 year old client came in recently, excited about a book she is reading on cognitive health. “I am using my left hand to do things around the house that I would normally do with my right. It’s supposed to be good for my memory.”

How we use our hands impacts strength and coordination. Which hand we prefer also influences how we use our brain,* so it’s not a stretch to assume learning how to use the hand that’s more awkward to do functional tasks might improve cognitive function.

Curiously, the hand that is more competent at specific tasks isn’t always the hand you write with; in one study, grip strength in 10.93% of right handers was found to be stronger in the left hand. In left handers, 36% had a stronger right hand than left, suggesting strength isn’t always correlated to hand preference. A number of factors could be at play, such  as injury and the fact the world is set up more for right handed individuals. As a left handed individual, I open jar lids with my right hand because it is easier to grip and twist to the right with the right hand as opposed to the left. Conversely, I would open a box with my left hand, since the task doesn’t require a specific direction. If I am seated next to a right handed person, I will often use the fork with my right hand so I don’t bump the person next to me, and I can cut with either hand.

Does my ability to perform tasks with both hands matter? Probably not, except that it allows me to feel fairly balanced in strength and coordination on both sides of my body. If a person so strongly favors one side of his body that he doesn’t feel secure supporting himself with the other hand or arm that will limit how he chooses to use his body during movement. An easy way to begin feeling more coordinated in the non-dominant hand is to consciously use it.

Try doing basic tasks with your non-preferred hand. Things like brushing your teeth, opening a water bottle, or opening a box are safe ways to see what it feels like to use your body in a different way. If you use ball exercises for hand eye coordination drills, use both hands to throw and catch. Do single arm strength work in the gym, observing how it feels to grip a weight and move it with your non-dominant hand, A little bit of awareness and conscious change can improve your sense of self and maybe even create a little more balanced strength.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153632/

Weekly musings, 3/25/18: the feet

Weekly musings, 3/25/18: the feet
The feet live (mostly) in shoes, but are designed to interact with uneven terrain. They respond to the terrain by moving in a variety of ways, making them adaptable to most environments through an impressive network of sensory receptors, bones, muscles, and ligaments. They propel you forward when you walk, alternating between rigidity and flexibility. 

Like all body parts, when they aren’t used, they atrophy. When they aren’t asked to walk on uneven surfaces, their responsiveness lessens; coupled with the fact there is usually something between them and the floor, it’s no surprise people feel less grounded and secure on the two structures that are meant to hold them up.

Have you ever wondered why the bottom of your feet are sensitive when you walk on natural terrain without shoes? Maybe it’s because they aren’t used to being exposed to contact with the earth, so the feedback from the ground acts like sensory overload- the nervous system responds by yelling, loudly, that the ground is uncomfortable and potentially painful. With repeated exposure, the discomfort decreases and the foot and ankle become more responsive.

If you don’t want to walk around without shoes, consider walking around barefoot once in a while. Try balancing on balance beams or walking over different surfaces in the house. Which parts of your feet can you feel? Which parts of your heel can you feel? Where is your sense of center? Your feet support you regularly. Acknowledge them occasionally by feeling them.

Weekly musings, 3/18/18: Constraints and movement

Weekly musings, 3/18/18: Constraints and movement
When a flock of birds flies, they follow three basic rules.* They maintain separation by not crowding their neighbors. They maintain alignment by steering towards the average heading of their neighbors. The maintain cohesion by steering towards the average position of their neighbors. Another way to look at the three rules of behavior (separation, alignment, and cohesion) is in order to fly, the birds must satisfy these constraints.

In mathematics, a constraint is a condition that the solution must satisfy. Applying constraints in a movement setting allows analysis and problem solving (“how am I going to perform the task while obeying the rule imposed”), and removes the idea that there is a certain way you must move to accomplish a specific task. 

Introducing a constraint makes a movement interesting. It begins to look like game play, rather than “exercise.” Examples of how a constraint might be applied to an exercise setting include:
Move across the room with two contact points always in contact with the floor.
Set a timer for two minutes. Lower a body part as close to the floor as you can without actually touching the floor with the body part.
Set a timer for two minutes. Place your right hand on the floor. Move as many ways as you can without letting the right hand come off of the floor.

Constraints can involve using outside objects as well. Asking someone to place a yoga block flat in the left hand and draw a picture on the ceiling keeping the yoga block and the hand flat would be an example of using an object as part of the constraint. 

Not only do constraints make movement interesting, they also engage the mind and the body together in a way that allows for embodied cognition. Cognitive psychologists believe that from an evolutionary perspective, we evolved to problem solve by using our mind and body to deal with issues in the environment. What if you were walking along and there was a huge tree that had fallen down, blocking the path between you and your food source? You would have to critically think about the problem, using the mental and physical options available to you. Could you climb over the tree? Is there a different path you could take? Could you make tools to cut a section of the tree out? Before we could ask Google to problem solve for us, we relied on a different set of cognitive strength, one which was deeply intertwined with the physical self.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3569617/

Newsletter, April 2018: Adulting and challenge

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Being an adult is a funny thing. You do things you never quite anticipated, and you are faced with making decisions that you never really thought would fall into your lap.

Some of these decisions are easy (“what do I have for lunch?”), and some of these decisions are more challenging, (“should I buy a house/change careers/marry my long term partner?”). All of the small decisions you make leading up to the bigger decisions are a way to practice exercising your voice. You learn sometimes you make a decision that could have been better (“the Mexican food restaurant down the street really IS overpriced and not worth the wait”), and every time you decide something life changing, like moving to a different town, you learn that things move forward, that it’s okay to not be fully sure because things have a way of working themselves out.

Movement is like this. You challenge yourself physically at a level you can tolerate. You may not succeed every rep or every attempt, but with practice, you become more consistent. As your skills improve, you slowly work towards more challenging skill. The easier skills are a foundation for skills that require more strength, focus, and flexibility. 

In my business life, I recently contacted my landlord about exercising my option to renew my lease. He wrote back, enthusiastically, that that was great, he would start working on it, but would I be interested in a larger, different space for approximately the same amount of monthly rent?

As I read the e-mail, I found myself immediately recoiling at the idea. I like my space, it has great natural light, and feels good. As I thought about it, I realized that if I stayed put, I was limiting an opportunity to potentially grow. After I looked at the space he was proposing, I felt myself shifting towards what could be instead of what currently is.

I move in a few weeks. I am still nervous because change is hard, and I am investing in more monkey bars and play opportunities, but I am also excited. The worst that happens is I don’t grow at all and I make a little less money, but hopefully, my vision of 3 or 4 movement providers plus me will be eventually realized.

In my physical practice, I am working on the pop-up (if you don’t know what that is, check out the video here: https://youtu.be/EQHwNVfnmwQ). I didn’t even realize this was a goal until my coach started putting the building blocks on my program. As I became stronger and more competent at the skill, I began to see where the building blocks could potentially go. I am far closer to realizing the goal than I ever thought possible.

It’s okay to have initially strong reactions to change, but if you can step back, and honestly assess why you are opposed to trying something different, sometimes opportunities can emerge you may have missed otherwise. And these opportunities can be life altering.

Yours in health and wellness,
Jenn

Upcoming events:
I am excited to be teaching at 360 FitHaus in LA Saturday, 3/24. This four hour workshop explores the feet, hips, and pelvis. More information, or to register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/unlock-the-full-power-of-your-hips-tickets-41022317857?aff=efbeventtix

Suggested reading:
If you are interested in how C-sections are performed: 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315586/
Pain and back stiffness:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-09429-1.pdf
“Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance,” by Alex Hutchinson. Great read if you are curious about the science of our physical capabilities. (And very readable).
“Laterality in Sports: Theories and Applications,” by Loffing, Hagemann, Strauss, and MacMahon. If you are a movement geek and nerd (research heavy), this is an excellent read. The chapter on Embodied Cognition is fascinating.

 

Weekly musings, 3/10/18: C-sections and movement


Approximately 31.9% of births in the US will be performed via Cesarean section. The two incision techniques most frequently used during a C-section require slicing through an abdominal area innervated by two nerves, one of which, the ileo-inguinal, contains sensory fibers to the groin and motor fibers to the large abdominal muscles.* The second nerve, the ileo-hypogastric, pierces through the transverse abdominis and passes through the abdominal obliques. During surgery, the abdominal fascia is cut and the muscles are pulled apart by the surgeon.

Over the years, I have trained several women who had C-sections performed on them during the birth of their children. Not only is surgery potentially traumatic (the majority of my clients who had C-sections spent time in labor, only to be told vaginal delivery wasn’t going to be an option), but in my experience, physical therapy is rarely prescribed after the 8 week recovery period. 

When women post C-section return to exercise, again, in my experience, there is generally a disconnect with the sensation of the abdominal muscles. When you consider the incision, it makes sense. A sensory rich area has been cut, and muscles have been stretched (not of their own volition). It seems logical what the individual experiences and feels in the abdominal region is different after surgery than what she experienced before C-section. It also seems logical that for some individuals post c-section, spending time becoming re-acquainted with what it feels like when the deep core muscles contract to provide support may be beneficial for proprioceptive feedback and an overall sense of strength and internal security.

Exercise should be encouraged for new mothers for a variety of reasons; however, recovery from surgery and all that goes along with it makes exercise post C-section a little bit trickier. If you have a C-section, don’t be afraid to ask for physical therapy, and when you do return to exercise, make sure you listen to your body. If you feel disconnected from your abdominal region or like you aren't supported in your center, find someone that can help. Taking a little bit of time to feel whole again can go a long way to ensuring a life filled with movement.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315586/

Weekly musings, 3/4/18: Bone and images

Weekly musings, 3/4/18: Bone and adaptation
I was chatting with a client recently, who mentioned how surprised she was we had been able to do so much with her feet. (Her feet had sustained several injuries over the years, and her imaging showed structural abnormalities).

“Bone is a living tissue,” I told her. “It can adapt and become stronger with the right stimulus. Just like people with osteoporosis can become less osteoporotic because their bones get stronger with weight training, the bones and muscles in your feet can become stronger with a slow and gradual exposure to force, assuming you are otherwise healthy.”

There is a concept called Wolff’s law, developed by German anatomist Julius Wolff in the nineteenth century which says if load on a bone increases, over time, the bone will remodel itself to become strong enough to withstand the load.* What this means is not only can you become stronger on the deepest structural level if you use your body under load consistently, but that an x-ray is a lot like a photograph. You know that a photograph of you today will look different from a photograph of you five years from now because you might cut your hair, your body might change, or you might change your diet, affecting how your skin looks. A photograph and an x-ray (or any other type of imaging), are a snapshot in time. They are not necessarily indicative of what you will look like later because you can (and will) change. How you change depends largely on your choices today.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15038485

Weekly musings, 2/25/18: Bodies, machines, and human capability

In 1926, English physiologist Archibald Vivian Hill declared in a Scientific American article, “Our bodies are machines, whose energy expenditures can be closely measured.”*

This mechanistic view of our physical selves permeated the beliefs of the twentieth century. “Body parts wear out, like tires” we were told, “you only have so much energy to expend- it’s like gas in a car. Once the gas is out, you will no longer be able to keep going,” endurance athletes believed.

The problem with this is pain can exist without structural damage and structural damage can exist without pain, which means in the presence of structural damage people can often still perform everyday activities in a pain free manner.** Unlike tires, which need to be replaced if they get a hole in them, our original parts can not only take a little bit of wear and tear, our structures adapt to the demands placed upon them, getting stronger and better able to withstand force. If an engineer were to develop a tire that adapted to the demands of the terrain and became more durable over time, he would be considered a genius (and probably be worth a lot of money). 

In a similar manner, the ability to endure is dependent on a variety of factors, including how well rested you are, your psychological state, and, yes, your nutritional state. However, it’s more than that, as tales of survival remind us. (Google “survivors lost in the woods.” You will find amazing stories of people lasting far longer than they physiologically “should” be able to keep going). 

We are multi-faceted organisms and are physical capabilities and experiences are predicated on much more than our physical parts. If we stop viewing ourselves as machines that break, we will tap into a deeper sense of resilience.

*From Alex Hutchinson’s book, “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.”
**https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4464797/

Weekly musings, 2/18/17: Overuse and the middle

At a workshop I attended recently, several times during the observation period, people noted their movement tendencies. One woman preferred rotating one direction, another young man was frustrated he only had one strategy for avoiding an object. The instructor commented late in the day after another habitual pattern was observed, “it seems the metrics are overuse, if there’s any use at all.”

In the US, we tend to “go hard or go home.” We don’t like to slow down and take a moment to observe our actions and the consequences of our actions. Movement illustrates this concept so well- every time we move, no matter how subtle, there is a response in the entire body. The consequence, then, is the change in how we hold ourselves as we respond to the shift.

The instructor is an Israeli man, living in Barcelona. He has studied and taught movement all over the world. He was not trying to be cheeky or profound with his statement- he was simply voicing his observations. I had a woman recently contact me for training, only to call back before we started to tell me, “I’m not ready.” Though I had mentioned in our consultation that my style is a little unusual, I got the sense she envisioned training the way it is often depicted in television shows and movies- with lots of discomfort, pained looks, and soreness. The all or nothing approach serves no one over the long term. Finding the middle way and taking the time to slow down, move in ways that are unusual, and be less connected to succeeding or failing allows general fitness to become sustainable.

Newsletter, March 2018: clinicians and education

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March newsletter, 2018: Clinicians and education
I was at an eye appointment recently, getting my contact prescription renewed. Part of the exam involved taking an image of the back of both eyes. If you have ever needed your eyes checked, most eye doctors will dilate your pupils to check for glaucoma. The imaging takes place of the dilation, which is great for those of us who don’t particularly like having our pupils dilated.

Towards the end of my visit, the eye doctor pulled up the images of my eyes. She explained that my arteries and optic nerve looked extremely healthy. “If you had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar,” she explained, “I would be able to see it in the imaging of the arteries in your eyes.”

I found this fascinating, both because I haven’t had my blood work done in 15 years, so knowing I am still physiologically healthy is a good thing, but also because the health of my eyes reflects the health of my entire arterial system, just like the health of my gums reflects the health of my heart. It really is all connected, and the benefits of regular cardiovascular activity shouldn’t be ignored.

What also struck me about our interaction was the fact that she patiently explained what I was looking at in the image. She knows I have an interest in health and wellness, and I care about how things interact. (She noted the vision in my left eye had improved; when I told her I regularly do eye exercises, she looked a little surprised, but said it looked like it was working). 

A good clinician educates, not by forcing the information upon clients, but by gently pointing out patterns and directing awareness. Clients that come to me for help moving through pain issues are particularly interested in what their habits and tendencies are; they also become almost giddy when a subtle change is made that reduces the sense of discomfort. Understanding how to sense where the body is in space is the education, not a long list of muscles that are firing or not firing, or terminology that scares people because of it’s negative sounding connotations. Education should make people curious about the impact the new knowledge could potentially have on their lives, not scare people away from improving their health and well-being.

Be aware of the words you use when talking with people, particularly if you are trying to help them move through a sticking point, whether it’s pain, apathy, or a sense of self consciousness. If you interact with people in a way that is kind and considerate, teaching them about themselves, you will impact their lives in a meaningful way.

Your in health and wellness,
Jenn

Upcoming workshops:
I will be in LA at 360 FitHaus Saturday, March 24 teaching a 4 hour workshop from 12:30-4:30 on unlocking the power of the hips through the foot and ankle. To register, click here: 

I am at a workshop this weekend, so my normal list of recommended reading will have to wait until next time. However, my most recent piece on Breaking Muscle explores the differences between flexibility and mobility. Check it out here:

Weekly musings, 2/11/18: Movement choices and one arm handstands

Weekly musings, 2/11/18: Movement choices and one arm handstands
At a workshop yesterday, one of the participants asked about the one arm handstand. Specifically, he wanted to know the steps he could take to actually achieve the one arm handstand. 

The instructor (who practices one arm handstands on a semi-regular basis), began by assessing his ability to rock both and forth while he was on both hands. He could do that without much trouble, so they began working on the next progression, which was challenging for the participant. He rotated his pelvis and fell as soon as his legs were in a wider position. 

To help the participant feel what he was doing, the instructor placed him against a wall and had him do the same drill. This time, because the wall was in the way, he was unable to rotate his pelvis. Suddenly, the issue wasn’t the participant’s ability to balance; it was the large amount of work he felt in the stabilizing arm and shoulder. He came down, with a look of surprise on his face.

“When I got my one arm handstand,” the instructor said, “I did it by muscling through it. I wasn’t stacked and my line wasn’t efficient. Another coach reached out to me and told me I needed to stack the joints, just like I would in a handstand. As soon as I did that, even though the work felt harder at first, it was eventually much easier to maintain. If you learn how to be efficient now during the progressions, the one arm handstand will actually be easier than if you muscle your way through each step.”

We all have a choice when it comes to learning movement. I muscled my way through just about every skill I learned the first eight years of my movement journey. As I re-learned everything, gaining efficiency was challenging. I tapped into different stabilizing patterns, which caused the sensation of muscular effort in a different way. I learned to slow down, and see if I could do things easily, which conflicted with my go-go-go personality. 

Eventually, the sensation of muscular work and the internal battle over wanting to “get it done now” gave way to something else, something that made movement more enjoyable, more fluid. There is no right or wrong way to learn a skill, but if you take the time to break it apart, practice the pieces, and find efficiency, your path will be more direct than mine. Embrace the process.

Weekly musings, 2/4/18: Eyes and observation

Weekly musings, 2/4/18: Eyes and observation
A client came in recently, frustrated that his low back was bothering him. As I had him do some gently mobility work, I chatted with him about which positions seemed to cause him the most discomfort. “Standing up,” he said. “Particularly getting up out of a chair or the car.” 

This client happens to be a writer, and he spends a fair amount of time on his iPad or laptop. I set up a box that was a little bit higher than than hip level. “Stand up and sit down twice for me please,” I instructed. He winced a little bit on the way up. “That hurts,” he said.

“Okay, the next time you do it, look up and forward before you stand.” A smile spread across his face as he stood. “That doesn’t hurt at all,” he said, clearly pleased. After doing a few more and performing different types of basic get-ups throughout the session, he left with the clear correlation of that using his eyes to initiate his movements significantly reduced or eliminated his pain (at least for the time being).

There are several muscles that control movement at the eye. The eye, like many body parts, is able to move a variety of ways, including up, down, away from the nose, and towards the nose.

In addition, the eye plays a key role in our brain’s ability to understand where we are located in space. If we aren’t using the full action of our eyes, our sense of our body position will be altered. This will change how we perform certain movements. In this particular client’s case, looking down was altering how his brain organized his spine to stand up. (It doesn’t help that the head sits on top of the skeleton. Head position is partially determined by eye position, which influences the position of the spinal column).

Basically, the eyes matter. So, too, does listening to the person in front of you. I knew changing the eye position could potentially have a significant influence on this particular client’s experience because of the questions I asked and my ability to listen. 

1/28/18: Breathing and bracing

1/28/18: Breathing and bracing
Have you ever considered the value of a full exhale? Often, when we are instructed to breathe, we think about the inhale, but the exhale is really what allows us to re-organize the way we are holding ourselves. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing the entire self to feel a little bit calmer, and allows deep stabilizing muscles to coordinate a little bit differently.

I was teaching a workshop yesterday, and one of the participants was struggling in a hands and knees position. She was holding herself tensely, with the understanding that she needed to stabilize herself. The way she did it was by bracing, using as much muscular effort as possible.

Not surprisingly, when she tried to move in that position, she found it very difficult. A tense structure doesn’t have much give. Instead of the structure supporting movement, it resisted it.

When she was instructed to exhale fully, her structure changed. She no longer braced to hold herself in a hands and knees. Instead of holding herself rigidly, she had a little bit of give. When she tried to move, the rest of her structure responded, supporting the effort of the movement.

Sometimes, high amounts of tension are necessary. When I go to lift a heavy weight, for example, I need to establish a high level of tension so I don’t buckle under the load. I should still be breathing, but my strategy should meet the demands of the task. But when I lift a hand while in a hands and knees position, I don’t need to brace. I should be able to breathe smoothly and softly, allowing the structure to support the movement.

If you find yourself bracing during tasks that don’t require a lot of effort, ask yourself if you can take a long exhale. See if that helps you soften. The ability to move fluidly starts with the breath.

Weekly musings, 1/21/18: strength makes ease

Weekly musings, 1/21/18: strength makes ease
I was working with a client recently who used to have a really hard time relaxing into the floor. When she would lie down on her back, her mid back would arch up, creating space between her ribs and the ground.

I brought awareness to it, like I do. We worked on breathing, and she began to understand how her exhale could change her rib position. She learned to feel where her ribs were during positions like hands and knees, and she figured out that if she wanted her abs to support her, rib position mattered.

She brought the same awareness to standing strength based exercises. I would occasionally let go of major alignment cues, allowing her instead to simply work on the basic coordination and motor control needed to do things like squat, row, press. I would mention her ribs periodically, but I also let her do the movement- if her ribs flared after my initial cue in the beginning, that was okay. In order to build basic strength, sometimes the alignment is a little bit off while the body and the brain figure out how to do the movement. At the beginning of the next set, I would re-cue the ribs and almost always things would look a little bit better than they had the first time around.

Gradually, the client became stronger. As she became stronger, her ribs lifted less and less away from the floor when she lied down. She looked at me last week and said, “my ribs just go down now. I don’t have to think about and it feels so much better on my mid-back.”

Building strength in different positions take patience and consistency. It’s okay if things look a little bit awkward at first as long as you occasionally bring awareness to how you want to be supported. I was once told, “you grow into the position in which you spend the most time.” If you consistently train with your ribs lifted up and out, that’s where they will remain when you sit, lie down, or even come on to your stomach. Establishing the strength to keep the ribs relaxed and down is not necessarily better, but it is different and requires a different way of holding yourself. Play with your alignment occasionally and see if holding yourself differently offers you more or less support in positions that require strength. The most supported place of strength will also give you the most ease.

February 2018 Newsletter: Empathy and Learning

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There is a toy that was originally developed to help blind children learn about how objects exist in space. It’s a wooden puzzle consisting of five pieces, three shaped like arrows and two like honeycombs. Each piece has different indentations and notches so the pieces can fit together in many different ways, A set comes with two puzzles. The objective of the game is to put one puzzle together and then verbally direct a partner how to assemble the second puzzle so it matches yours.*

Researchers found the puzzle game (called the Empathy Toy), was effective for children and adults who could see, as well. The ability to instruct a blindfolded individual how to put together the puzzle created empathy, the ability to connect with another person and a skill that some sociologists and psychologists feel is at risk in a world that is becoming heavily reliant on communication via screens.

From a teaching perspective, empathy is perhaps the most critical aspect of connecting and empowering the person in front of you to move forward. We assume empathy is innate, but like all things, it is a skill that can be developed with practice. I often notice with new teachers and coaches it is difficult for them to explain a movement without doing it. In my early years of teaching, I was guilty of this. Without feeling it in my own body, I couldn’t quite verbalize what I wanted the client or students to do.

However, teaching isn’t about the teacher, and I learned to look at the movement through the student’s eyes. What was she feeling? Where was she stuck? What if I were feeling the same thing? What would I need to understand? 

As time progressed, I became better at using my words. I learned to watch clients between movements to see what they did with the pause in between. Where clients subconsciously rub, stretch, and rotate are all hints to what they are experiencing. Can I improve the experience in any way? What actions and words are necessary?

This type of inquiry is what allows us as teachers to connect with people of all different levels and abilities. Teaching is not a defined science, and the only real marker of success is how successful a student feels. One of the most interesting aspects of teaching is as long as the teacher is willing to observe and explore an experience through a student’s perspective, the teacher will always be learning. As one of the creators of the Empathy Toy says, “…the goal is designed discomfort. We have this notion that easy-to-use devices are ideal, but in education, complexity is ideal.” **

 Teaching is about more than distilling information. It’s about helping students understand, on a deeper level, the material. In my case, the material happens to be the human body. An acquaintance who takes my classes on occasion once told her husband, “the thing about Jenn’s class is you always leave learning something new about yourself.” This, more than anything else, is what I hope to accomplish with my work. 

Yours in health and wellness,
Jenn

Upcoming workshops:
Sensing, isolating, and integrating the spine
Saturday, 1/27/18 from 12-4 at Be Well Personal Training Studio, 3776 The Barnyard, Carmel, CA 93923.

In this four hour WORKSHOP, Jenn Pilotti, M.S. will discuss the spine's role in movement and exercise. Learn how it connects the upper and lower extremity, how to feel different aspects of the spinal column during breath and movement, and how to create stability and mobility for efficient movement. This workshop is appropriate for Pilates teachers, personal trainers, yoga instructors, or individuals interested in deepening their awareness of this area and their relationship to it. The workshop format will include lecture, partner work, and skills designed to tie together research and practical application. Register at www.bewellpt.com

Cost: $90

Unlock the full power of the hips
Saturday, 3/24 from 12:30-4:30 at 360 Fit Haus, 1400 Colorado Boulevard, Suite C, Los Angeles, CA 90401

Join Jenn Pilotti, M.S., for an exploration of lower limb mechanics. Learn how the feet and ankles influence what is experienced in the hips and glutes, and how pelvis position influences the feet. We will discuss proprioception from the ground up, improve movement efficiency, and create a deeper sense of embodiment. Gait mechanics will be touched upon, as well as how the feet influence common foundational movements such as the squat and hip hinge. This workshop is appropriate for movement teachers, personal trainers, and those interested in deepening their knowledge of how this area works. Class format will be lecture, practical application, and partner work. Please bring a notebook and dress to move around.

Cost: $90

Registration: Coming soon.

Suggested reading:
Revenge of Analog, by David Sax. Thought provoking read about actual, tangible things and experiences and their relationship to human interaction.

The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll. How physics shapes life. Fascinating, bias challenging, and science heavy (but written so the lay person can understand).

 

Weekly musings, 1/14/17: Simplicity

Weekly musings, 1/14/17: Simplicity
Recently, I was visiting the esthetician I see once every couple of months for skincare stuff. She was peering at my face under a magnifying glass, like estheticians do, when she peeled her eyes away from my skin to look at me. “Your skin looks amazing. What are you doing?”

“I am using olive oil, in the morning and evening,” I replied.

“Olive oil? Wow. Well, it’s working.”

What’s fascinating about this isn’t the fact that olive oil is making my skin look great (though that is a nice little by-product). I have spent thousands of dollars on expensive skin care creams over the course of my life, looking for the perfect one to hydrate and replenish (because women care about these sorts of things), and the thing that has been most effective is the one I read about in a fashion magazine twenty years ago and a bottle will probably last me a year. 

For some reason, when it comes to health and wellness, there is this idea that expensive and complicated must be better than simple and minimal. Clients are frequently amazed at my ability to design a challenging workout using a washcloth, 2x4, and their own body weight. Though I utilize external load almost every workout, once in a while it’s nice just to return to the most basic patterns. 

Additionally, the basic patterns can be cued using muscular tension to provide support. A movement such as hands and knees can be done in a way that feels like nothing is really happening, or it can feel extremely challenging. “How can this simple little movement work so well?” clients often ask. 

The answer, maybe, is that like the olive oil, simple is better. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, so if you are struggling with something, take several steps back and work on the most basic patterns. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Weekly musings, 1/7/17: cells, life, and movement

In the book, “The Big Picture,” Sean Carroll discusses three features that are ubiquitous to our concept of life: compartmentalization, metabolism, and replication with variation. Compartmentalization, he writes, is actually part of a more general concept called self-organization.

When Mr. Carroll discusses life, he is looking at it from a cellular level, but these three ideas could easily be translated to the foundations of healthy movement. Compartmentalization and self organization are how the body organizes itself to move effectively and efficiently for the task at hand. When joints work both independently and interdependently, forces tend to be dispersed more fluidly up the skeleton.

Metabolism is required for movement (and life) to take place. A person that moves little is not using as much energy as one who moves often. The ability to use energy means the system is alive, so movement is a way to maintain life.

Replication with variation is a lot like repetition with variation. Repetition with variation is how we learn, and in movement, is a way to define play. It maximizes options, improves self organization, and requires energy. By moving in similar, but different, ways regularly, we maximize long term success for moving efficiently and effectively.

Maintaining health and vibrancy throughout an individual’s life is multi-faceted, but it is clear movement is a large part of the equation.

Learning, empathy, and thoughts on training

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As I sat down to write this, I wondered to myself, “what do I want to read?” What I want to read influences what I write; writing is how I process my thoughts about movement, psychology, and the world around me. It makes sense, then, that these are also the things I like to read about.

And so it is with training people. What we tend to gravitate towards with regards to teaching people different movement skills is heavily influenced by what we are currently learning and what resonates with us, in our bodies.

Until it’s not, or it can’t be, or despite our best efforts, our 72 year old client doesn’t want to work on the prep work for handstand. When this happens, we are required to teach things that are outside of our comfort zone or to look at a person’s experience through his eyes rather than our own.

This is difficult, and I feel like trainers and coaches choose workshops and continuing education opportunities for two reasons. The first is to better understand themselves, and the second is to get ideas for how to work with these more challenging clients, the ones that don’t want to do what we want to be able to do because let’s face it, most of the people we work with aren’t looking at movement as a hobby. They are looking at it as a way to improve strength, flexibility, and coordination so they can lead more fulfilling lives. Those of us that have made movement our livelihood view it as just that- a way to live our lives, which is a different mindset than the average client.

So how do we learn to experience movement through someone else’s eyes? How can we learn what the person in front of us needs rather than what we think he should want? And how do we rectify this with our personal development in learning movement?

I break training down into two sections: foundations and skill. Before you get huffy and argue that conditioning should be included, in my world, if you are doing skill work you are doing conditioning work.

Think of it like this. In order to perform a heavy deadlift, you need the foundations of a hip hinge, foot to floor engagement, adequate hip mobility, and grip strength/lat engagement. These are components that are worked on separately, to teach the awareness, and then together with very light weight or in a partial pattern to teach the how.

To actually learn to deadlift heavy weight requires deadlifting heavy weight. Practice is parceled out using set/rep schemes and a plan to develop the skill. The conditioning is the practice.

Okay, so because we are living in my world and we are exploring how to develop two things, foundations and skill, where should a trainer or movement specialist begin his journey?

This is super tricky, because most of us get into the movement fields at a relatively young age, for largely selfish reasons (“how can I be better?” “And once I am better, how can I help others be better?”). Until injury is an issue, we generally care more about learning the skills rather than the foundations. We gravitate towards learning opportunities that are going to enhance skill development and are then thoroughly perplexed with how to train the 66 year old desk jockey with intermittent low back pain that can’t get down on the floor.

While learning by necessity definitely happens when you work one on one with people, to make our lives a little bit easier, it would be great if we learned the foundations before the injury happened, or the frustration with clients/students settled in. One way to practically apply this (because skills are important, too), is for every skill workshop you take, read one article on a foundation. This will probably be flipped if you are in an injury cycle, in which case I still encourage you for each foundation workshop you take, read or watch a skill based tutorial because the long term goal is still a general foundation of fitness.

Back to foundations. What are they? Again, this is strictly from my perspective, so here are the foundations I use with every single client at some point or another.

Breath:
Understand basic breathing mechanics. Check out this video of the diaphragm below and begin to understand how the movement of the diaphragm affects the pelvis floor, the ribs, and the spine. Middle backs will feel less tight by teaching people how to breathe into their mid-back, low back sensation decreases when center of mass is altered by getting the ribs in a more expiratory position, and shoulders feel like they have a little more room because there is apical expansion occurring at the chest wall. Breathing isn’t a cureall, but it’s often an easy place to start. Understanding how the breath works enables you to see when a different strategy would be beneficial and is a way to quickly assess a fundamental habit. It doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective. It does not need to be a two day workshop belaboring the mechanics of breath, but spending two to three hours learning about how breathing works is worth your time.

While you are learning the mechanics of breathing, spend a little bit of time understanding how the breath affects the central nervous system. What happens when the breath shortens and moves into the chest? What does it tell you when someone is scared to fully exhale? When you work with people in an individualized setting, understanding how the physiology and the psychology knit together makes you a more effective teacher.

Joints:
How do various joints move? What exactly are you looking at when someone lifts his left leg and it looks like Rubik’s cube organizing itself from the right foot up into the shoulder girdle? As a by-product, you will learn muscles when you learn how joints work, but think of it less anatomically (unless you are working towards a degree in anatomy). What action do you want the joint to make? What action does it actually make? And remember, you are looking at this from a movement lens, so when you learn how the joints work, make sure you are considering what they do during physical activity.

Joint mechanics can be a little bit complicated, but understanding how the joints organize to disperse load during movement makes it much easier to clarify what you see. It will let you begin to understand where the person is stuck, either physiologically, because he lacks the strength/mobility to do a specific thing, or neuromuscularly, because he doesn’t have the ability to coordinate the skill.

Movement doesn’t just happen in a forward/back fashion. We are designed to rotate, and the joints reflect that. When you begin learning how joints work, notice what happens to the joints above and below when a joint is unable to rotate. Remember- rotation can happen on a very subtle level. The slight external rotation of the shoulder in a quadruped, for instance, changes how the weight is dispersed in the hand. Changing the position of one bone will alter the entire structure.

If you are struggling with which joints to focus on, I recommend learning the center, what’s in contact with the floor, and then moving up from there. For instance, learn the spine and the foot; once you understand those deeply, learn the pelvis and the ankle. Eventually, you will understand the entire lower limb and how it interacts with the torso. If you teach yoga or work with a lot of arm balancers, you are going to need to learn the hand and wrist mechanics sooner rather than later because it is also a reference point to the floor. Things will unveil themselves with time, so don’t rush the process. Take time to understand on a practical level what you are learning. It will save you hours of frustration later.

Proprioception:
How does the body interact with the world? What is the person’s sense of where he is at in space? What elicits more proprioceptive feedback? 

Understanding how proprioception works will begin to help you empathize with the person in front of you. Once you begin to identify how he interacts with the floor and with space, you can formulate a plan to improve overall awareness. Proprioception exercises are great warm-ups and provide a lot of bang for your buck in terms of helping people feel a noticeable change quickly. Improving proprioception also impacts the central nervous system; many of the mechanoreceptors that send information to the brain about a joint’s location are embedded in the joint itself. Proprioception, then, neatly ties together our two previous foundations, breath and joints.

Gait mechanics and transitions:
Understanding what happens when we walk, how the pelvis shifts forward on the swing leg and the shoulder protracts on the opposite arm, how the big toe helps push off the ground while the spine subtly rotates and laterally shifts towards the swing leg, can give you insight to a person’s habits when those things aren’t happening. Walking a specific way doesn’t guarantee any sort of dysfunction, but when there is a lot of visible movement during a person’s walking gait or there isn’t any movement at all, you receive clues to a person’s proprioception, joint mechanics, and breathing.

Transitions tell you how many options a person feels he has. I talked at length about transitions here; however, I felt it worth mentioning one more time because it is, from my perspective, a valuable foundation.

How do you learn the foundations? Through workshops, self study, and patience. Don’t inundate yourself with all of the information at once; pick one thing, take a workshop on it, sit with it, practice on yourself and your family members, and slowly introduce it to your clients. See how it goes. Once you feel comfortable with that building block, move on to the next foundation. I don’t necessarily think any one methodology is better than the other, so pick what resonates with you as long as it deals with one of the four foundations. (And beware, there are sometimes differences in opinions regarding how things work. Don’t get too hung up on conflicting view points or which way is right or wrong. Simply stay in your lane and learn what you are learning with the knowledge there might be another way to accomplish exactly the same thing).

Skill work:
Again, study skills that resonate with you. If you have the foundations, you can break any skill down to a level that is manageable for any body. Remember the 72 year old without any interest in handstands? He still benefits from wrist mobility work, overhead mobility work, and variations of hollow body. He doesn’t have to know it’s handstand work for it be an effective exercise sequence.

Two things you do want to keep in mind are:

  1. People benefit from a bit of external load once in a while, so if you are mostly a bodyweight athlete, learn how to do simple strength moves, like Goblet squats or suitcase deadlifts. Again, keep it simple, and don’t feel the need to learn the entire RKC repertoire- just a couple of key moves you can utilize occasionally are fine.
  2. People need to be able to rotate. Our bodies yearn to move through space dynamically and in a variety of ways. If bodyweight training isn’t your thing, learn one or two games or drills that encourage the body and torso to rotate and incorporate them regularly.

One final note is make sure you have a personal practice. It improves empathy when you experience struggles understanding how to coordinate movement and it prevents boredom because, ideally, if you practice, you are learning and exploring. 

To check out my upcoming workshops, visit http://www.bewellpt.com/events/. I will also be attending the Movement Archery workshop at Athletic Playground February 16-18 as a student.