Our most advanced computers pale in comparison to the human nervous system when it comes to complexity. And what we know about its function is just the tip of the iceberg. It pales in comparison to what we don't know. But what do we know can give us a strong foundation to build upon.
In this article we'll explore two physiological laws of nervous system activity and discuss how they might fit together in an integrated movement practice. Please note: there will be some necessary simplifications as we go forward here.
The Role Of The Nervous System
Any movement we make is in essence a neuro-musculo-skeletal phenomenon. Our nervous system organizes contraction of muscular tissues, which act on the bony levers of our skeletal structure to generate movement.
A particular movement is a contextual solution to a given puzzle or demand within a particular set of constraints. Typically, they fall into three categories:
Task constraints involve exactly what you’d imagine. Pick up an object of X pounds. Carry it Y distance. If the task at hand requires moving a boulder, picking up a pebble doesn’t follow the rules. Environmental constraints are equally intuitive. What sort of environment are you performing this task in? This could involve varied textures and terrain, or social factors like peer pressure or support.
Note how you can’t do a whole lot about those first two constraint types. That’s where the organismic constraints come into play. These involve strength, mood, fatigue, and the like. When you combine these constraints, you get something like this happening.
Any and all of our movements emerge out of this complex interaction.
If we improve organization and coordination of ourselves, then we widen the box and give ourselves more options by which we might solve a particular movement puzzle. This allows us to complete more tasks across a wider range of constraints.
And that's the high-level goal of any movement practice, right? Get us better at doing more things?
An Apparent Paradox
The issue is a matter of coordination. Above all else we need to improve coordination of a body in space. Doing so simply makes life easier and more enjoyable.
Here's the challenge. Based on what we know about how living bodies work there are two ways to improve coordination, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Below we'll explore these two approaches based on known rules of physiology.
First we need to review the Weber-Fechner Law. As we've discussed before this is a model of understanding sensory perceptions. It's particularly applicable in perception of loads. In a nutshell it shows that the larger the magnitude of stimulus (e.g., heavy weight, bright light), the less able we are to perceive changes in the stimulus.
This has major applications in somatic education where we often reduce the scale of movements and tune into the subtle shifts of effort and engagement. Why do we do this? To reduce parasitic tension of a movement, using only the necessary amount of muscular engagement to accomplish the task at hand.
We don't want to do more work than we need to. You don't need full engagement of your shoulders to take a sip of coffee, but many people live their lives in a constant state of over-tension. This can lead to a feeling of stiffness, pain, and the vicious cycle of sensory-motor amnesia.
As Moshe Feldenkrais said, the goal is to make the impossible possible, the hard easy, and the easy elegant. We do this through a reduction of excessive tension.
On the other side of the physiological equation we have Sherrington's Law of Irradiation. In essence we can use recruitment of neighboring tissues to synergistically amplify neural drive, helping us recruit more muscle fibers to get the job done. This is a necessity when strength is the goal. It's also a useful way to drive physiological adaptation of tissues that might not otherwise be trained.
Why is this important? If I want to engage with my surroundings in any vigorous way, I need the ability to bring more of myself to the task at hand.
At first glance it seems that these two laws contradict each other. On the one hand we engage more, on the other we engage less. Which do we choose?
It's Not Either/Or
In short: both.
But truthfully it depends. Where do you fall on the spectrum of day-to-day neural tension? If you or a client are stuck with excess tension, reducing the magnitude of movements through somatic explorations can go a long way to clear the slate. On the other hand if you or a client struggle with generating force, you're going to need practice in ramping up neuromuscular engagement.
There's room for both at the table. It doesn't make sense to use more energy than is needed, but when the situation demands it, we want to organize ourselves for the task at hand. We want to use as much of ourselves as necessary, but not more.
This is something we can intentionally improve because the nervous system is a learning system. Therefore we explore both ends of the spectrum, even within the same session.
Let's take our hips for example. There are numerous ways we could teach the hips how to organize. Some are low intensity, helping us tune in to subtle changes in effort and organization. Others are high intensity and challenge their ability to organize movement under external load. Both play a role in helping us find more coordination and improved function. And when the hips work like hips, we find improvements throughout our movement.
For example you could go through a somatic exploration like the one below before (and after) training heavy front squats. You'll find similarities in the movements of the hips, and together they help us work with the nervous system in an organized way. The nervous system thrives on varied stimuli, and we learn best through contrast. Bringing both approaches--high and low effort--to a single session goes a long way for improving our experience of movement.
A Closing Thought
This is by no means a comprehensive exploration of nervous system function. But it will give you food for thought in your own practice and when working with clients.
My hope is that you come away with a greater appreciation for the complexity of the nervous system and new avenues of inquiry to help you create life-changing results for your clients. A blend of conventional training and somatic education can go a long way in terms of improving mobility, strength, and alignment. Put simply: great coaches know how to work with bodies, not on them.
If you're interested in developing your understanding of movement even further, click here to learn about the upcoming Deep Coaching Intensive. It's an online teacher training and continuing education program for coaches who crave depth of understanding, client empowerment, and personal growth.