“How do I get flexible and stay that way?”
I hear this question very often and my first answer is always “Improve your Muscle Patterning”. Put simply, muscle patterning is the order in which your muscles work to perform an action. Think about it, the numerous times you have picked up those packages from your porch, the time you painted a room in your house and you were sore everywhere the next day! YES! That was your body working together in a specific order to help you move.
Every motion of our joint involves multiple muscles including the primary mover(s), and the synergists. The primary mover is exactly what it sounds like, it is the muscle that discharges most of the work in a movement. The synergists are helpers, muscles that assist in conducting and stabilizing the exercise as required.
Let us use hip extension as an example. Some movements involving hip extension are:
1) when you step your leg behind you in a lunge stance
2) when you come up from a squat
3) when you do a hip lift (bridge pose).
The hip extension is one of the strongest positions your body can use for mobility in every aspect of daily life. For example, carrying out your daily chores around the house, vacuuming, cleaning, removing the pot roast from the oven, outdoor activities like walking, hiking, cycling. Now, the primary mover of hip extension is your Gluteus Maximus (your butt). This means that when you begin with hip extension (kick your leg behind you) the glute should be doing most of the work. The synergists, which include the hamstrings (back of your upper thigh), adductors (inside of your upper thigh), and the quadratus lumborum (lower back), all help with hip extension depending on the range of motion and the direction of your leg.
So, let us pause for a moment, is this difficult to absorb? I understand if it is! Do not worry, I am going to simplify it more.
For every movement you undertake, there are usually 1 or 2 muscles doing most of the work while being well assisted by other muscles. This is the essence of muscle patterning. We are stronger, more limber, and more injury resistant when we pass from the big movers to the smaller helpers (synergists). Therein is the problem because, as modern humans, our ‘good patterning’ skills are dreadful.. We tend to overuse the synergists and generally completely forget where the primary movers even are. The reasons for this vary. The main issue is lack of education in this area, most of us never get movement training and go right to sports specific training when we are younger. The other reasons involve habits and past injuries.
Ask yourself when was the last time you sat on the floor, went for a 6 to 10 mile walk in the woods, or climbed a tree? Be honest…now ask yourself, when was the last time you spent 3 or more hours looking at a screen, sitting on a comfy couch, or driving for over an hour at a time? Finally, how much scar tissue is in your body, have you ever had a c-section, knee surgery, or broken bones?
All of these things can affect your patterning in positive and negative ways. For example, climbing a tree is a great exercise for teaching your arms and legs to work together, unless of course you fall out of the tree possibly rendering it detrimental to your limbs! In brief, our bodies respond to the stimuli we offer them, then change and adjust as required. We are always adapting to our current movement needs.
So, now that you have read the information above you may feel inclined to sit up much straighter, perhaps go for a walk or, on the contrary, you may have decided that I am full of it and you acquired another pillow guilt free. Both responses are good and reasonable.
However, I am here to assure you that changing your patterning is not terribly difficult, it takes a little patience and practice but if you start from a stable place you can recreate awareness painlessly and effortlessly. After a while, theory gets messy so let us use an example and revert back to hip extension.
We are going to perform a glute bridge, one of my favorite movements and it is fairly simple. Lie on your back with your hands to your sides. Bend your legs and put your feet underneath your knees. Now press through your legs and lift your hips several inches off the ground and hold. Pause and hold. What do you feel? Do you feel your quads (the front of your legs), do you feel your hamstrings (back of legs), do you feel your lower back, your calves, or maybe you feel your butt?
Now relax, chances are you felt something other than your butt.
This is an example of poor patterning, the movement is hip extension, it’s called a glute bridge, guess which muscle I want you to feel working the most! Exactly! your butt! Now if you had trouble let us fix it by creating some muscle awareness:
Straighten your legs, now try to squeeze one butt cheek at a time without using anything else. Keep the rest of your legs and abs totally relaxed. It can be tricky but just go slowly. Once you start to feel your butt working try the glute bridge again. You do not need to squeeze anything, just lift your hips. Does it feel different? Do you feel your butt working? Yes? No? Either way, straighten your legs and keep trying the butt squeeze when that becomes easy, roll onto your belly and try, then try to do it standing. The goal is to make this movement entirely automatic.
The hips and lower back are one area where patterning often goes awry but this same process can be applied to other parts of the body. If you are having trouble working something, you must first stabilize it, isolate it, move it and repeat. If you have any questions about any of the above or concerning more specific areas please feel free to reach out and contact me.
– Grant Clark