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Not Just Any Movement, You Need Functional Movement

Written by Jesse James Retherford

The ability to crawl, walk, run, jump, and climb each require an amazingly sophisticated movement system. This system sets us apart from all other species on the planet. But there is one catch… If you don't use it you literally lose it.

One of the reasons your body is so special is its ability to heal itself. Within your fascial tissue are cells that create fascial adhesions around an injury to provide extra stability and restrict painful movement while the damaged tissue is repaired. The restricted movement is just enough to facilitate the healing process while at the same time allowing you some freedom to move. In the ancient world where the human body was forged, this healing process took place over the course of a few days or weeks. Movement was a necessary and key factor in the healing process. Early man did not have the luxury to spend a few days in bed to fully recover. He had to move to survive, and so he had to heal while moving, which is why this process of building fascial adhesions is so special. Movement works in unison with the circulatory system as a secondary mechanical pump and flushes the injured tissue with fresh blood. This flush of blood flow removes waste by-products, brings in fresh nutrients and speeds up the healing process dramatically. As the injured area recovers, the body once again is able to utilize full, pain free, movement patterns that completely break down the fascial adhesions.

Today we have a problem: we no longer live in that ancient world. Our cultural landscape has dramatically changed our lifestyle over the past 100 years – especially in the last 20. Instead of hunting, gathering, and harvesting our food, utilizing our body in daily acts of survival, we spend most of our time sitting, in front of a computer or in a car. Compared to a mere couple hundred years ago, the lifestyle of even the most active person in any industrialized country today would be considered relatively sedentary.

When you do not get adequate functional movement, you no longer put your mechanical pump to use. This slows down the healing process as restrictive adhesions do not get broken down. Instead, lack of movement communicates to your body that you are still injured and so it continues to build up even more adhesions to further stabilize and restrict motion around the supposedly injured areas. Over time, these fascial adhesions become so thick and strong that you permanently lose your full range of motion and function. Examples are: losing the ability to fully turn your head in one or both directions to see behind yourself while walking or driving; the ability to raise your arms fully over your head while maintaining a stable spine and scapula; the ability to do a deep squat with your feet flat on the floor; the ability to walk, run or sprint without pain. Without enough functional movement your body assumes you are in a continual state of injury. Eventually this becomes a full-time reality. This is the primary reason that I find deep tissue massage therapy, such as myofascial release, to be so important. I can manually break down fascial adhesions and increase functional range of motion. I can prime the mechanical pump, facilitating waste product removal and nutrient delivery back into the tissue. In essence this removes years of fascial buildup and facilitates a speedy return to functional movement.

Not Just Any Movement, What you need is Functional Movement

A sedentary lifestyle means we do not use our bodies the way a human body was designed to move. This has become the reality of our lives. On a daily basis, we fail to utilize the vast array of movement patterns that are possible. Plus the intensity of our movements has softened. All kinds of technologies have made our lives much easier in most regards. This means that we must go out of our way to move our body the way it must functionally move.

Functional movement training is vital. You cannot not get the movement your body needs to maintain pain-free health and vitality by sitting in front of a computer. You must move. I am not talking about the traditional types of exercises that are likely coming to your mind. I'm not talking about running for hours on end on pavement in a straight line. I'm not talking about lifting weights while sitting on a nice cushioned bench or using a machine. Your body needs functional movement. It needs to move the way it was designed to move. Running and traditional weight training are small portion of functional training and tend to be overly repetitious in very specific movement patterns. They do not utilize the postural stabilization and functional movement patterns your body craves. To your body not using a functional movement pattern is almost the same as not moving. And as I said earlier, if you don't use it, you lose it. Even if you run or lift weights 7 days a week, if you do not lift your arm over your head, over time you will lose the ability to do so. Your body recognizes this as an injury and begins the healing process discussed above, but now to your detriment.

What is Functional Movement?

My definition is simple. You have a body for a reason. Functional movement is what happens when you use your body to meet all of its designed purposes: flexing, extending, pulling, pushing, rotating, changing directions, running, walking, jumping, sprinting and climbing. If you are designed to do it, then use your body to do it. If you don’t, you will eventually lose your ability to do it, which will lead to a higher risk of chronic pain and injury in your life.

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Foam Rolling The IT Band

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The IT Band is white, tendinous fascial tissue, which means it receives less blood flow and has less ability to release compared to muscle tissue such as the glutes. The IT Band attaches directly to the gluteals and tensor fascia latae (TFL), the tension in the gluteals and TFL pull through the IT Band down to the knee and ankle. Most pain that is felt in the IT Band, outside of knee (runner’s knee), and ankle is actually located in the gluteals, TFL, and adductors. Adhesions do form in the IT Band, especially closer to the knee. However, in my experience as a therapist, I find the majority of adhesions which affect the IT Band are located in the dense tissue of the gluteals and TFL. Most people have minimal adhesions directly within the IT Band itself.

How this translates with foam rolling: When you roll the IT Band and neglect the adductors, glutes, and TFL, you will only get temporary relief, not lasting change. As soon as you stand up, the restrictions in the adductors, glutes and TFL will once again pull through the IT Band.

You will get greater change in the IT Band tissue, increases in range of motion of the hips, and reduction of pain and discomfort by breaking down adhesions in the TFL, gluteals, and adductors. This is especially helpful for people new to foam rolling, since rolling the IT Band can be very painful. If you spend a few minutes working through the gluteals and TFL first, when you roll on the IT Band it will be significantly less painful.

I believe that if you only roll out the IT Band and neglect other areas of your body, you could be asking for trouble. By loosening up just one side of the hips and knee, the opposing sides tighten to take up the slack. This could create imbalances in your movement patterns, as well as your body’s ability to stabilize the knee and hip joints. This is the big reason why I recommend to clients that they spend equal time addressing their entire body. The goal is to bring balance to the tissue, not to only work what feels good.

Personally, I do roll out the IT Band. It feels good and I can feel the benefit. But it is an area that I spend a minimal amount of time on. If I only have a short amount of time to roll, I roll the adductors, TFL, glutes, and calves. I won’t hit the IT Band at all.

On another note, when I perform deep tissue fascial therapy on a client, I tend to focus very little time directly on the IT Band for the same reasons listed above.

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What is posture?

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Or I get an image of the skeletal and muscular anatomy posters in a doctor’s office with a plumb line that goes directly through the center of the head, shoulder, hip, knees, and through arches of the feet. This is what many of us are taught is "good" or "perfect" posture. There is a problem with these pictures and instructions: they do not represent the entire story of what posture truly is, nor do they effectively teach you how to maintain it.

What is posture?

Posture is not a concept. Neither is it an "ideal or static position." Posture IS position. It is the stable position of your body as it moves in gravity right now. Posture is the shape of YOU – moment by moment, movement by movement. What provides that shape is a highly complex system of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia that provides stability, strength and coordination to the body.

Postural muscles [or core muscles] stabilize the joints within the skeletal system through movement, against gravity. In terms of posture, stabilization means to slow down joint movement. In essence, postural muscles are a high-tech braking system. When it comes to movement and injury prevention, stability is king. It is more important – for long term joint and movement health – to be capable of slowing or stopping joint movement than it is to speed it up, and your body inherently knows this.

It is from stability that all healthy movement is derived.

Movement Muscles

Movement muscles [called phasic muscles] are the muscles that provide mobility. These muscles are primarily responsible for movement. Your phasic muscles are what make you go. They are the gas pedal.

What causes poor posture and pain?

When postural muscles are not engaged, such as from sitting for long hours every day, or lack of functional exercise, they go to sleep. If you do not use them, your postural muscles literally lose the ability to stabilize the joints of the body. Since stability is so important to movement, when your postural muscles lose their ability to function, your body MUST do something about it.

What does this look like? A great example of this is the lower core. It is primarily responsible for stabilizing the hip and the lower back. Sitting shuts off the lower core muscles. If you sit for long hours every day, over time you lose the ability to turn your lower core on. You can no longer fully engage them. Do this long enough and you will lose the functional ability to stabilize the hip and lower back with your core muscles. The muscles are there, but they are no longer doing their job.

What happens…

You have your postural muscles, the brakes. You have your movement muscles, the gas pedal. When the postural muscles shut down, the movement muscles are left with the responsibility of providing stability as well as mobility. This is the equivalent of having your foot on the gas pedal and on the brake at the exact same time.

What does this look like?

Let’s think again about your lower core. Once the lower core muscles have shut down, the pelvis is left unstable. Remember, stability is king! Your body will recruit stability from somewhere else when needed. In this instance the stability will come from the hip flexors and gluteals – both mobile muscles. The hip flexors and gluteals take over stability control of the pelvis. In doing so, they lose some functional ability as mobile muscles placing greater stress on the hamstrings and low back, leading to significant reductions in the range of motion of the hips and secondarily to the shoulders, knees, and feet. Reduced range of motion causes imbalances throughout the body, which ultimately lead to dysfunction, pain, and injury.

What is the lesson here?

For your body it is posture, aka stability, that trumps movement. If your postural muscles have lost their ability to function, your body will automatically trade in movement to achieve stability. There is no movement that does not begin without stability.

To improve posture, you must improve your body’s ability to stabilize itself within every range of motion available. This means creating a fundamental shift in how you move and how you train movement. The program I recommend to my clients includes self-myofascial release using a foam roller, deep tissue massage therapy, full body flexibility, corrective exercise, functional strength training, and being barefoot.

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