A professional race car driver knows how his automobile works. He understands the principles of the internal combustion engine, how the gearbox works, and the calibration of the car's steering. He is able to achieve a high level of performance by comprehending his machine, its components and their function. Shocking to me, I have encountered sports athletes who lack a corresponding comprehension of their bodies. And the average person tends to have even less knowledge. I say it is important for the average person, and much more so the athlete, to acquire a certain level of knowledge of anatomy. This is my presentation on anatomy and exercise science, which I hope will be useful for most people and especially practitioners of yoga.
Every human being has basically the same machine, albeit with some genetic variations. This machine is made of intercommunicating systems of bone, muscle, fascia, nerve. The bones provide a structure and levers. The muscle moves the bones by acting across joints. The fascia binds the muscles and distributes force around the body. The nervous system communicates sensory input and commands the action of the muscles. These systems connect at specific locations. They communicate and act upon one another in specific ways.
Fascia binds and connects one part to another. The muscle tendon is one manifestation of fascia. The coating of the muscle and the interior coatings of bundles of muscle fibers are other forms of fascia. The fascia shapes itself to stresses, whether from activity or inactivity in a certain posture. Repetitive activity, such as cycling, will tend to thicken the fascia around the hips and lower back. This helps manage the forces of these activities but it will also lead to restriction of movement and, perhaps, lower back pain.
It should be in the proper amount and in the proper configuration to provide the overall healthiest support and range of motion. It is necessary to manage and shape the web of fascia and this is possible through various techniques.
There are four ways to manage tension in the body.
- Self-Myofascial Release
- Reciprocal Inhibition
- Mental Control
To manage tension correctly, you must consider both the neurological and the mechanical aspects of the neuromuscular system. In the neurological aspect, there are sensors in a muscle and they have two types. These sensors can become poorly calibrated, meaning that they no longer sense and react to reality in an optimally functional way. There are ways to correctly calibrate them. One type is the muscle spindle, which senses the change in length of the muscle and the rate of that change. The second sensor is called the Golgi tendon organ, which senses contraction and the rate of contraction in the muscle.
Stretching acts mechanically on the fascia and neurologically on the muscle spindle. Consider fascia to be like clothing. If you are trying to run in tight leather pants, then a lot of your labor will be spent on the resistance of those pants. Of course, you would rather run in elastic leggings that would provide both some support and freedom of movement. Stretching loosens the fibers of your fascia and encourages them to reform in a healthier way. The nervous system, specifically the muscle spindle, learns the range of motion from the stretching. Perhaps the muscle spindle has been calibrated to allow the muscle to be at a certain length. This education has come from both activity and the experience of the restrictions imposed by the fascia. For example, riding a bicycle that is too small won't allow the leg to fully stretch out at the end of a stroke. You can slowly reeducate the muscle spindle to allow the muscle to relax to a healthier length. And you can train it through exercise, especially by creating peak contractions, to shorten in such a way to create maximum force.
Abbreviated as SMR, self-myofascial release is commonly known as foam rolling or trigger point therapy. Like stretching, it acts on both the mechanical and neurological aspects of muscles. Through rolling a cylinder or sphere across a muscle, the fibers of the fascia are softened and reformed. The most important action though is on the Golgi tendon organ (GTO). The GTO senses the amount of pressure or contraction in a muscle. If you are trying to run in tight leather pants, the GTO will learn that the muscle is contracting to a certain level and likely not to its fullest possibility. Moreover, it will sense that the muscle cannot fully relax . This creates both upper and lower limits on the contraction of the muscle, which greatly limits how much power the muscle can create. Even if you remove those pants, the muscle will still operate within the limits that have been trained into it.
By putting artificial pressure on the muscle with an object, you create a false sense of contraction that can retrain the GTO to accept more tension and to permit greater relaxation. My method of SMR is pushing a tennis ball into a given muscle. It works magic. I have found that SMR first and stretching second is the best sequence for creating change.
Knowing this property of the nervous system allows you to relax one muscle by causing another to work. For example, by working the quadriceps, the hamstrings will relax. By working the shin muscles, the calves will relax. See the explanation on "Appropriate Labor" for more information on this.
You can learn to control the amount of tension in a muscle with your mind. This requires mental training, also known as meditation, of a certain kind. As you can imagine, this is immensely helpful for both health and sports performance.
Muscles communicate with one another to create a motion. Anatomists use a few terms to describe how the muscles act in concert with one another and it is helpful to learn them. The muscle that is doing the main work of a movement is called the "prime mover" or the "agonist." The muscles that assist the movement are called "synergists." The muscle that creates the opposite of the movement is called the "antagonist." An antagonist can help by stabilizing and decelerating a movement. "Reciprocal inhibition" means that when the agonist is working, the antagonist is not. "Altered reciprocal inhibition" describes a situation in which the muscles are poorly coordinated.