Monday, October 24, 2011

Pain and Fear Reactivity - why you can't do splits and shouldn't squat on a Swiss ball

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I was in a significant car accident this past July.  The greatest loss was my beloved Civic (total loss), but I also suffered mild injuries to my sternum and shoulder (mild meaning they hurt like hell but I didn't actually require any medical attention).  What made this a good story was that my test for sandan (3rd degree black belt) was scheduled for 3 days after the accident, and I really had no choice but to go through the test.

I learned a lot from this experience - I learned the value of ibuprofen, I learned how much harder it could be to get out of bed than it normally is, and I learned never to post anything about injuries on Facebook unless you're willing to be barraged by commenters insisting you see a physician (what am I, a 6 year old girl?  See a doctor just because I'm hurt?)  But the most interesting thing was what happened to my punching.

You see, the worst pain I felt was in the muscles along my right shoulderblade.  Every morning my right arm would be useless.  A few minutes of arm circles and general warming up would give me most of the function back, but I still had pain through some movements.  Nothing serious, mind you, but definitely pain.

So here's the funny part.  Pushing didn't really hurt - I wasn't setting any world records, but I could do pushups pretty much normally.  Despite that, I couldn't really punch with any force (not that my punches are normally anything fantastic).  Punching didn't hurt, I just couldn't muster up any snap with that arm.  Remember, the muscles used in pushing the punch out - my legs, my core, the pushing muscles in the arm and shoulder - were all fine, yet I couldn't snap out my punches.  The damaged muscles should only have really hurt at the end of the punch - absorbing the energy near lockout - yet I couldn't throw a punch hard enough to make that happen.

What was going on?  I'm going to steal a term from Scott Sonnon (and I'm probably using it wrong, so please forgive me for butchering the poor guy's theories) and call it fear reactivity.  To put it simply, my body was shutting down or interfering with uninjured tissues (the muscles used to throw a punch) to protect the injured tissues (the ones that would have been hurt by the force of a full speed punch).

This is worth restating:  in many cases your body (i.e. nervous system) will prevent you from hurting yourself.  That means when you try to move through a position that either causes pain, due to existing damage or a structural deficiency, or where you are weak, because the muscles are undertrained in that range of motion, you will have a reduction in activation by your nervous system, resulting in weakness, or a tightening of muscles to prevent you from entering that position.

Another place we see similar things happen is in the hip adductors (groin muscles).  If your adductors are weak when your hips are widely abducted (legs far apart), as they are in most people (because really, who the hell trains their hips when their legs are far apart?) the muscles will tighten when you try to stretch them.  That's why you probably can't get into a split.  Strengthen the muscles in that range of motion and you'll see quick gains in flexibility - not because any tissues are longer, but because they're not tightening up to protect themselves.

There are 3 different ways understanding this principal should impact your training:

  1. You might make quick gains in strength (how much force you can actually produce) by doing some mobility work, especially if you're relatively new to training.  Move all your limbs through a full and pain free range of motion, and do it often - move slowly, then quicker.  This will convince your body (I really mean your nervous system) that those ranges of motion don't hurt, which can release or unlock any restrictions that are inhibiting your performance right now (this is a part of the Z-Health system).
  2. Make sure you are strong in the ranges of motion you need to use in your martial art (or daily life).  If you like to kick people in the head (while they're still standing), then your hip muscles have to be strong when one leg is way high in the air, or your body will reduce the force it can exert while that leg is high.  If you train your hips with, say, squats and swings only - movements where your knees are fairly close together the entire time- then you can't expect to be strong when they're not close together.
  3. If you're trying to get stronger you have to convince your body that it's safe to generate a lot of force. That means STOP SQUATTING ON AN UNSTABLE SURFACE!!!  Moving on a bosu ball, swiss ball, etc. - any kind of unstable surface - tells your brain that it's not safe to push hard.  If you don't believe me, try to do a max squat while wearing roller skates.  If you're rehabbing an injury or working on your balance or trying to activate stabilizer muscles then unstable surfaces are great.  If you're trying to get stronger, then the instability will cause an inhibition of the prime movers - the muscles that generate the bulk of the force you're trying to produce - and the exercises will be less efficient.
In the end I passed my promotion and it only took another month and a half for my shoulder to heal pretty much completely.  Next time I have a promotion (if there is a next time) I'm going to stay home for 2 weeks before the test!


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