3 Ideas That Will Change the Way You See Your Body (Part 2!)

In my last article, I mentioned near the end that “if there’s one thing you learn from the Reembody blog, let it be this: muscles don’t create movement patterns; they respond to them.”

Did anyone read that and think to themselves “yeah, whatever the hell that means”?

You’re not the only one. To clear things up, I’m going to take the next few minutes to completely redefine the concept of strength and turn your understanding of what muscles do completely on its head.

#2. Leverage: Strength for Smart People

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter as a trainer is how people view their relationship with gravity.

It gets blamed for a lot: gravity is what makes push-ups hard, what makes us feel wobbly during a single-leg squat, what makes our thighs burn when we climb a long flight of stairs.

Man, gravity’s a jerk.

This, in turn, inspires the other most common misconception I come up against: if gravity is the villain, muscle is the hero. We use our big, strong muscles to fight gravity, to do more pushups, to fly up those stairs like a gazelle with a rocket pack.

But your body is more than a collection of big, strong muscles: it’s a damn genius when it comes to physics. Consequently, you can produce a lot more power just by being smart about how you do it.

For example, say you have two circles of different sizes: the smaller circle will spin faster than the bigger circle when turned with the same amount of work. Basic physics, right?

stick with me through the physics stuff and I promise to put a video of a kitten falling out of a paper bag at the end.
Stick with me through the physics stuff and I promise to put a hilarious kitten video at the end.

Well, a lever is really just a tool for creating a couple circles. Check it out:

Photo 11-10-13 12 53 02 pm

Pushing down on the long end is a lot like turning a big circle. The short end behaves like a small circle that turns at the same speed but, because of their size difference, produces more work. Simple. Elegant. Incredibly useful.

So it’s no surprise that evolution saw fit to build you out of a bunch of levers. Take this one, for instance:

Photo 11-10-13 11 57 21 am

What looks like your heel bone is really one of your body’s most amazing pieces of mechanical engineering.

Red Dot: When that pointy bit hits the ground, the ground pushes back with what’s called ground-reaction forces, or GRFs.

Green Dot: That other bit that looks like a shelf isn’t touching the ground, however, so it’s still accelerating toward the floor.

GRFs push up, gravity pulls down and suddenly we’re looking at a big circle:

Photo 17-10-13 9 47 37 am

The only difference is that, instead of moving boulders, this lever is turning your tibia:

Photo 11-10-13 12 53 14 pm

Boom. Leverage. Every step you take generates force through the pull of gravity and the clever geometry of the bones in your foot.

And not just your foot, either; all of your joints operate on this principle. Recognize this one?

Photo 17-10-13 9 54 24 am

The force that initially entered through the foot keeps moving from joint to joint—knee, hip, spine, shoulder, wrist, all of ’em— growing each time due to the mechanical advantage conferred by leverage, until it finally explodes into whatever action you feel like using it for.

Hey, you have your sport, I have mine.
Hey, you have your sport, I have mine.

Gravity, far from being the enemy, is an energy source. Muscles, instead of fighting against gravity, are, quite literally, storing the energy generated by gravity.

When it comes right down to it, muscles are basically batteries.

A bigger muscle, then, is not necessarily stronger; if the alignment of the bones underneath isn’t optimal for generating leverage it’s just a dead battery. And what’s the point of carrying around a bunch of dead batteries?

But I get it: you want to be a sexy beast cut harder than a roman bust. Hey, no judgement here. Besides, I never said it wasn’t possible to be both strong and muscley. I’m saying that you don’t get strong by building muscles, you build muscles by getting strong . . .

. . . and you get strong by being smart.

Here’s something to start with:

Remember that heel bone lever we just talked about? Well the ankle is the next stop for the force generated there. Let’s see what we can do with that.

(If you currently suffer from osteoporosis or osteopaenia the following exercise should only be attempted in the supervision of a competent professional.)

Stand with your feet parallel and about shoulder distance apart. Now look at your feet. Your ankles probably look like this:

plantar flexion: wide angle at the ankle
Plantar flexion: wide angle at the ankle.

Now make them look like this:

Photo 16-10-13 3 23 06 pm
Dorsiflexion: smaller angle at the ankle.

No matter what happens next, do not let the angle of your ankles change. Bend the knees a little and ensure that, despite your new ankle position, your heels are firmly planted on the ground.

Now start to roll down:

Photo 16-10-13 3 23 06 pm

If you’re successfully keeping your ankles dorsiflexed, you’re going to feel like you’re really top-heavy; that’s good! That top-heaviness is the feeling of gravity charging up all the extensor muscles in the back of your body, mainly the glutes.

Go down only as far as you can stay in control of your ankles and keep your balance. That point will be different for everybody.

Now, roll back up, still maintaining the dorsiflexion of your ankles. The glutes will fire up automatically. As you continue to rise, think of flexing your ankle even just a tiny bit further. This will keep leverage in your favor and gravity working on your behalf.

Photo 17-10-13 10 26 02 am

No muscles in your back, shoulders or neck are required to work and the overall effort required to return you to a standing posture will be negligible, save for the energy expended by the glutes (which was stored there when you rolled down in the first place).

Now, as a little experiment, start over and, this time, let your ankles push back into plantar flexion. I’ll bet 10 bucks that your glutes turn to pudding and your hamstrings start screaming.

That screaming is not “a good stretch”; it’s your hamstrings telling you that they are overburdened and underpowered: just a couple of dead batteries. Flex those ankles and gravity will light you up like a christmas tree.

A good roll down will train your glutes to get better at storing the energy created by the leverage in the ankle. You can expect to see the glute tone up nicely and build in a way that actually makes sense for your alignment.

Now, as promised, please enjoy this adorable kitten:

15 thoughts on “3 Ideas That Will Change the Way You See Your Body (Part 2!)

  1. Oh my gods, you are incredible, do you know that? Physics, circles, notwithstanding etc – but the kitty bribe definitely got me reading down to the end of the page, literally the icing on the cake.
    Please DON’T STOP! Don’t stop educating us. They never taught this at school, or anywhere as far as I know.

  2. Very interesting! I’m a bit confused as to why dorsiflexed ankles would give better leverage for gluteals and hamstrings? Sorry, I’m a bit slow when it comes to physics. I certainly feel more tone/work in hamstrings and glutes doing it with dorsiflexed ankles. If I let my pelvis sway back behind heels into plantar flexion of ankles, it feels like more of a stretch-but I’m guessing this would be a bad idea because if hams and glutes are asleep, there’s nothing stabilizing the spine? I’ve often hurt myself with all of the spinal flexion in Pilates and wonder if perhaps this is part of the reason.

    1. “but I’m guessing this would be a bad idea because if hams and glutes are asleep, there’s nothing stabilizing the spine?”

      Bingo, Adrienne. It’s one of the issues I have with the Pilates method: the abdominals rely on the information coming from the hip and lower extremity to contract properly. Unsupported abdominal contraction, no matter how strong, doesn’t make your lumbosacral region any more stable.

      “I’m a bit confused as to why dorsiflexed ankles would give better leverage for gluteals and hamstrings?”

      Hey, no worries! You’re not slow at all: in fact, your question indicates that you clearly understand the concept.

      First off, dorsiflexion is a product of eversion and eversion sets the tissues of the foot into their “mobile adapter” phase, where information about the terrain you’re standing on and the GRFs applied by doing so are both maximized.

      Also, your center of gravity is now positioned such that the anterior tissues of your lower extremity—tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus, etc—are contracting due to gravity’s pull; all the muscle tissue has to do is take up the slack. This means that no force is being expended on contraction, but instead, all on elongation of the extensor tissues, like the glute. The somatic nervous system recognizes the presence of this balanced, stable joint position and delivers activation signals accordingly.

      When the ankles are plantar flexed and you roll down, your center of gravity is positioned behind the plumb line, forcing the lower extremity to contract to pull you forward, which it isn’t designed to do. With all the force available being used up keeping you balanced, the somatic nervous system has no choice but to keep the glute inhibited or risk falling over.

      There’s also some really super cool stuff going on with force transfer through the meniscus of the knee but that would require practically a whole new blog post.

      Does this answer your question well enough?

      1. Thank you for your detailed response! I’ll need to think through this for a bit. I’m now wondering about variations of this exercise from a straight leg position and how safe that may or may not be now. I’d love to hear more about the force transfer through the knee in another post, by the way, sounds fascinating.

        1. It’s also important, Adrienne, to ask WHY you would want to do a straight leg variation. What is the goal? I would posit that straighter legs are not biomechanically relevant in this exercise.

  3. I also notice that when I go into a more dorsiflexed ankle position, the slight bend in my knees also firms up my ITB, which most of glute max attaches to, which means now it has a really firm, primed, springy foundation to engage from on the lower end.

  4. I appreciate the circles reference and application to the heel and shoulder blade. I’m now aware that the scapula is like an anchor to the shoulder joint and thus the arm. I’m curious now as to the weight to compared to the sj and its three bones. In Feldenkrais, we hear about moving from the scapula and now I have a much better understanding as to why and how it reduces effort: it’s at the beginning of the chain.

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