Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What is Z-Health R-Phase: not your daddy's joint mobility

Note from Nov 2009: the article below was written shortly after my initial experience with z-health. After going through the whole certification suite of z-health's R,I,S,T and 9S certs, my view has clarified quite a bit and is hopefully easier to grok.

You may find the following piece interesting (i hope you do) but i think a clearer take on the z-health picture can be seen across a few pieces:
and for a total cut to the chase overview, an interview i did with chris highcock at contitioning research has i think the most succinct version yet.

And now, back to your article:
zhealth movement rehab package
OVERVIEW: TO cut to the chase, if you're looking for a good follow-along dynamic joint mobility program, the z-health "movement rehab package" is a great way to go: it comes with three dvd's and a detailed manual: one DVD is instructional, going through each of the movements and what targets to focus on in the movement to get best effect. The next is a 20 minute program flow that goes through the set of movements in a sequence. And there's a 10 min daily mobility practice DVD (called the neural warm up) to keep all joints oiled, as it were. THe manual creates a 12 week approach to learning each component of the movements, to build practice, awareness, and most particularly, rebuilding or rehabbing the maps in the brain that learn and orient good movement.
More detailed overview of the DVD's in the "what's on the DVD's" below.

GETTING INTO IT What the heck is Z health (or ZHealth or Z-Health)? This is a fast review overview of Z-Health from the perspective of someone who's recently certified in the first level of z training called R-phase.

The usual response i've had to this very query about Z-Health is "it's joint mobility, right?" - which is frequently followed by "i do that already; don't need more/other."

Just as a quick aside, what is joint mobility work, anyway? It's usually construed as work to move joints through their whole range of motion. Ok. So why is that a good idea? And what if you can't move a joint through it's ROM? Or how do you know that you've done so?

Some folks talk about joint mobility work as an end in itself: that it's taking care of the surfaces of the joint for "joint health." And sure there's good there: move it or lose it. Body parts that don't get moved don't get the same attention as joints that do; moving joints also helps move waste materials away and good stuff in, and can stop weird growths from poor mobility or improper mobility.

Z health folks themselves however don't talk about joint mobility per se, but about the nervous system: yes there's joint mobility work in there, but initially that joint mobility work is designed to be a vehicle for getting to the nervous system; it's not an end in and of itself. That other good things come from moving those joints, specific to "joint health" is a bonus.

Granted, this insight of nervous system focus is a little tricky to get from the Z health web site or from the start up R Phase DVDs, and once you have it, ok - Z = nervous system, what does that mean anyway?

In the health culture, we're usually so focused on muscle work (and sometimes ligaments) that we either forget that the body has other, and higher order systems that co-ordinate activity. Or when we're reminded of it, we don't have a framework to utilize the information. What does it mean to what -talk?-to the nervous system via the joints; to focus on bones to nerves rather than muscles to lifts?

Recently, i completed the Z Health R phase certification in Edinburgh (full review and more detailed description over here), and the pieces came together. Z Health itself, it turns out, is actually this framework for understanding and working with the nervous system. It is a kind of paradigm shift away from the focus on muscles and ligaments in isolation, and to the nervous system, which after all, without which, movement doesn't happen Consider someone recovering from stroke: their loss of muscle function is not because their muscles fail, but because messages are no longer being sent via the nerves to innervate.

In Z Health, the R Phase certification material covered makes clear that the body always responds to exactly what it practices (a variant of the SAID principle). This adaptation happens quickly. Why? communication in the nerves moves at over 300mph. There are tons of nerves focused on receiving and communicating various kinds of information. Something that is make compellingly clear in Z is that if there is the smallest disruption in that signal path at one place in the body the WHOLE body is effected. No kidding. So reducing noise in the signal path is a good idea. And thus to the heart of the first phase, R phase, of the Z approach.

Our joints, it turns out, have the largest proportion of particular kinds of nervous system messengers, mechanoreceptors, that communicate our position in space. They are key to our ability to move. When there's immobility around a joint, there's compensation elsewhere in the body. Global performance is actually impinged. You don't have to take my word for this: go to a z workshop like the Essentials of Elite Performance and see this demonstrated.

In Z's R phase cert, from such demos, we learn that movement - from range of motion to pain release - is dependent on the nervous system's perception of the state of the body. Dealing with the joints - taking each one through its full range of motion - is a powerful way to help the body learn that things are ok. Likewise, restrictions in joint mobility are powerful indicators that work can be done to improve not just mobility, but through that joint mobility, clearer communication in the nervous system.

You may already do joint mobility work, and that's great. How do you know that it's having that optimal effect for you, that it's clearing the signal path to enable optimal movement/performance? That some of its movements are not, in fact, closing joints down rather than opening them up? It might be interesting to drop by a z cert'd instructor just to get a quick assessment - you may find that you're in great shape with what you do - or you may find that there's a few places to tune.

If you haven't looked at Z, you might want to consider doing so. In health we talk sometimes about what's the minimum a person should do for their health, for instance "if you do nothing else, do blah." If we look at biggest bang for the buck, there's an argument to be made that if you do nothing else, do joint mobility work - and do the joint mobility work that you know is opening your joints, providing the clearest signal path to enhance movement.

Ok, that's the basis of Z-Health. But where does it start?
Z-Health has several phases: R-Phase, I-Phase and S-Phase.
R-Phase teaches the movement vocabulary where one stands in a neutral stance with tall spine, and learns how to take each joint through a full range of motion.
I-Phase is the complement of R-Phase (b2d overview here), and begins to move the athlete from neutral stance into versions of the R-Phase drills in more natural planes of motion.
S-Phase takes these movements and makes them, er, move (b2d overview of S here).

Z-Health in each phase uses joint mobility as a vehicle for optimizing or clearing the nervous system. Kathy Mauck of Z-Health talks about this approach as helping to build a clearer map. That is, in mechanoreception/proprioception, where our body senses where we are in space, clearing joints of any mobility restrictions or impingements or whatevers means that more information about those locations is coming through. That's a good thing.

It's a first principles thing, isn't it? The nervous system is higher up the stack than muscles, ligaments, bones. These other systems are responsive to the nervous system, so it rather makes sense that if there's something we can do to improve that communication, other good things will follow. Like improved athletic performance. Improved daily mobility. And quite often, reduced pain.

Ok, Starting with R-Phase, what's in those DVD's?
So, this neuroreceptive approach to well being sounds interesting. Where does Z-Health begin?
Here's what you get in the R-Phase/Nerual Warm Up I combo set (i recommend getting both and i'll come onto why)

The R-Phase DVD set has two discs: a follow along and an instructional DVD. A lot of folks skip the instructional DVD. May i encourage you strongly to go through the instructional? These vids help you find and hit the joint targets that make a big difference in the effectiveness of the follow along drills. You'll also find alternative positioning not given in the Follow Along (but which can be used while doing the follow along)

toe pull targets and alternative position from R-Phase instructional

In the R-Phase follow along, it takes a little over 20mins to go through the drills for each joint in the body, as there are a few drills for each joint. Each movement is modeled by three people as it is described by Eric Cobb.

R-Phase Follow Along goes through mutliple movements for each joint

The Neural Warm Up I is a complement to R-Phase.
It's a ten minute series that also moves through each joint of the body, and introduces some movements not in the R-Phase package that optimize hitting joints in for a quicker series. It's easy to get the Neural Warm Up I in every day, or on alternate days from doing the complete R-Phase series. Eric Cobb leads this movement suite. As with R-Phase, NWUI also includes an instructional set to make sure you're comfortable with each movement.

Eric Cobb leading cross body figure 8's in Neural Warm Up I

Eye Drills in Neural Warm Up I. Another attribute of the Neural Warm Up series is that they include eye drills. Eyes may not have joints but they do have muscles. And like any muscle, use it or lose it. There are also more nerves in the eyes than just about anywhere else, so making sure the eyes are moving through there full range of motion is pretty critical (and part of why contacts rather than glasses are recommended).

This is why i recommend getting R-Phase and Neural Warm Up I together: R-Phase provides multiple drills for each part of the body that can be practiced as a complete sequence, or, as taught in the manual, as a particular focus on a given day: like today, i'll do shoulder circles at various speeds. The Neural Warm Up is a well thought out, short, routine to make sure you get through each joint effectively, as well as work the eyes, and get a muscle recharge.

Manuals. Both R-Phase and NWUI come with manuals on how to get into practicing R-Phase for most benefit, with two twelve week programs. The manuals also go over the four speeds at which R-Phase is best practiced. Once you have the speed down that the video demo's, what about going super slowly? Very different feel on the muscles and joints to bring it down. Awesome variants.

A Note on the DVD's and why seeing a Zed'er is a good idea

I've heard from colleagues who've said "i've looked at the video" or "i've tried it [once or twice] and it didn't do anything remarkable for me" or "i like X's flow better." That's ok; it's understandable. These movements are precise, designed to hit targets rather than look pretty. Though watching someone do double elbow circles is pretty cool. And if you're already in good shape and doing mobility work, you mayn't feel a kowabunga effect. I know for myself when i've done them either daily or every other day as recommended, after breakie in my case, i just feel more energized. I can't claim, though, that i was doing them to optimal effect. I also know the first time i had a Z-Health trainer really check that i was hitting the toe pull targets, i had a revelatory experience. Man, what a difference! It went from ok to awesome.

Like any athletic endeavor, when learning new technique, while DVD's are great references, where possible, we also hear the recommendation to seek out a certified trainer for a session to tune our positions. This is just as true of joint mobility work as it is doing a kettlebell swing or a lift.

Getting an expert pair of eyes on these movements will ensure we get the most effective communication to the nervous system going. This meeting will help make sure we are hitting the target joints in full range of motion as effectively as possible. Also, such a meeting can also help target drills for a particular sport or for to address pain.

Why Z?
It's that last point that still makes me shake my head. It can sound like one is talking about a revival meeting: i saw this guy do these itty bitty moves, and he tried his shoulder again and his range of motion went way way up. Wow.

I've also seen folks do muscle work and be able to touch their toes when they couldn't before, so people can be helped by many things and in many ways. umm hmm. That's likely true. And that's great. The thing about Z that appeals to me is that it's working at the higher level or root of an issue by going for nerves. That suggests to me that muscle work, whether stretches or pulls or pushes, is more or less trying to get to the same signal paths but that by going away from the nerve receptors to these bigger tissues requires far bigger effort/work and i'm guessing has less precision.

With z, because it's going directly for the nerves, i hypothesize based on what i've seen and know of the science, the approach is more compact and specific. This minimal effort has great transferability. Anyone sitting at their desk can do ankle circles or finger waves or head titls.
Lighter, faster, stronger.

And again, what i'm describing here is in no way to challenge anyone else's mobility system - i don't know anyone else's mobility system. It's simply to articulate that this approach is based on the bleeding edge of what we know about the nervous system, movement and pain. It is specifically designed to do a particular neurological job to improve mobility; reduce pain and thus improve performance. As well, it has a compelling assessment associated with it to evaluate immediately if that job is being effected.

If you're potentially interested in doing a Z-Health cert based on anything you've read here, and you feel so inclined, please email info@zhealth.net for info and let them know mc recommended the cert. Trainers don't get money from these recommendations, but there's a new program where we will get money off our next certification, which is awesome. It's also a nice way for me to see if these articles help at all :) Thank you for reading. And for your consideration. You can always drop a comment here, too, if something you read helped.

update march 2009:
i've added a review of z health five months post certification and how it's been working so well with athletes in ways i hadn't anticipated.

update June 2009:
what's I-phase?

updated July 2009:
when add I-Phase to R-Phase
I-Phase is the more "in the real" version of R. R is the starting point - the basic vocab of Zed. I-Phase is the more flexible template, moving out of "neutral stance" and into more usual planes of motion.

Review 2009:
S-Phase: The Complete Athlete, Vol 1.


Franz Snideman said...


Great write up! I have done some course with Eric Cobb but never the R-phase cert. I need to make it to an R-phase soon!

What type of changes do you notice in yourself after using it?

dr. m.c. said...

Franz, based on the ck-fms, you'll love it.

Personally, you know what? i'm more relaxed. So much learned about the plasticity and adaptability of the body that it's like letting go of a ton of How This Must Be Done. Tall spine, relax, wow.

Also, with what has been chronic lower back stuff, got some real powerful insights into what was going on there - and how EYE DRILLS for pete's sake, more than anything have helped that and a hinky shoulder. Sounds like bloody voodoo. BUT it's not. It all actually makes good sense neurologically.

Oh ya, and at the cert, after having been practicing this from the May RKC cert both Doug N and Will Wm came up to me and said "is mc taller???"

tall spine, baby.

i could go on. It's a mental as well as a physical shift, and it happens *fast* - i guess paradigm shifts do.

take care sport, nice of you to drop by.


Mark Reifkind said...

great post mc just stellar analysis and commentary. well done.so many ask me when I am doing I phase and I always tell them, 'when I've mastered R phase'. that might be awhile and I still see gains all the time from this simple starting point.well done.

Dr Todd P Sullivan said...

I have recently learn about Z health I thought your article was right on. The only thing else I would have to say as a chiropractor is that, that's why chiropractic care is important because it works with the nervous system just like z health. In my practice im going combine, chiropractic, ART, Z health and dynamic rehab with kettlebells.

dr. m.c. said...

That's great to hear Todd, that you'll be adding Z to your practice.

Couple things: any manual therapy - any contact with the body - as i understand it, works with the nervous system: it has to, eh? If i punch you, that affects your nervous system.

Again, as i understand it, because you are moving yourself in Z, the nervous system stimulation is significantly greater than what manual manipulation can induce.

If you're interested, there's a number of chiropractors who are also Z trainers - Eric Cobb who founded Z is a DC (perhaps you knew that?). If you'd like to chat with them, please just go to the Trainers section of the Z site. You might want to look for Jim Ryan or Grove Higgins about how their chiro practices have been affected by incorporating z.

If you decide to do the cert, please let em know mc suggested you and they'll take good care of you :)


Modern Display said...

Thanks for sharing a very informative post here. Very well executed. There so many joint supplements glucosamine and chondroitin available in the market but they have few side effects.


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