The human body is supremely adaptable. Given a repetitive stimulus, our structural architecture and physiological mechanisms can change to manage in a number of ways. When we lift heavy things our muscles adapt by getting bigger. When we do weight bearing exercise our bones become stronger. When we practice unaccustomed tasks, we gradually become better and more coordinated. When we look at individuals and take into account the functions they perform regularly, it becomes evident that our structural and physiological make up is a result of these functions.
This is also true of our nervous system. Despite conventional wisdom saying that our brains and nerves are permanently fixed, rigid structures, science has shown that they are in fact extremely malleable. The structure of our brains are influenced and moulded by all of our experiences and stimuli.
This is extremely true when it comes to movement.
When we attempt a new skill, such as learning a musical instrument, we are initially clumsy and uncoordinated. After repetition however, we improve and become more precise and autonomous. This is because at first the brain is unsure of which sequence of muscles to initiate to perform that task. Gradually, it learns the right sequence, and as it is repeated, it more readily and more easily initiates that sequence. This is known as neuroplasticity. Our adaptive and learning capabilities are truly awesome.
Just as good as we are at conditioning ourselves for functional tasks, the nervous system equally has a capacity to decondition. This is obvious when it comes to strength and fitness – don’t exercise and the capacity of our muscles and cardiovascular systems will diminish – but it is also true of movement. Fail to practice a particular movement pattern and it becomes more difficult to perform.
We know movements that are performed repetitively and invariably can potentially become sensitised and result in pain. This may be why neck and shoulder in desk workers is so common. Maintaining the same posture, (whatever that may be) performing minimal movements such as using the mouse and keyboard, for eight hours a day, five days a week, induces very little variation of movement. It may also explain why adjustable standing desks are so effective for minimising desk related pain – different posture, different movements, different joint and muscle activity, more variation.
Even when performing repetitive movements with precision – for example Steph Curry dropping three pointer after three pointer – there will be slightly different permutations of shoulder, wrist and back movements each repetition, even if the outcome is the same – we do not move like robots. This is movement variability and has been dubbed “repetition without repetition”. Reduced movement variability has been demonstrated in individuals with knee pain and back pain, so increasing variability within a functional task may be beneficial in reducing pain levels and minimising risk of injury.
So how do we put this into practice? Essentially the goal is to allow the body, from the muscles and joints to the brain, to experience movement regularly and in many different ways.
Try to identify movements or positions that you are prone to performing repeatedly throughout the day, and try to move in different directions. For example, for desk workers who are used to leaning forward towards a computer screen, try reaching your arms back behind your head, or reaching from side to side. Or sitting into a deep squat. Although it will be challenging and uncoordinated at first, the nature of neuroplasticity will likely result in rapid improvements with repetition.
Then select a given movement and alter as many variables in as many different ways as possible. Variables to think about are what the Gray Institute call the “tweakables” of movement. These include:
- Angle, distance and height
This video demonstrates how the simple squat can be varied using the tweakables.
The human body has the capacity to move in a nearly infinite number of directions in a nearly infinite number of ways, and will do many of these on any given day. By applying variability and allowing your body experience novel positions, forces and movement we prepare the nervous system to cope with these variables when confronted with them both on the sporting field and in day-to-day life. Variability of movement creates more robust and more functional individuals.
Move. Move often. Move with variability.
Our osteopaths Matt and Ashley at Absolute Health & Performance has studied extensively with the Gray Institute in Michigan and are highly skilled in assessing and tweaking functional movements to rehabilitate and prevent pain and injury. If you are interested in learning how a functional movement approach can benefit you, come in and visit us here at Absolute Health & Performance, 199 William Street, Melbourne CBD 3000, or call us on 03 8547 4830.