Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Plastic vs Elastic when talking about Human Perfomance

The body is often variously described as plastic and/or elastic. Sometimes it seems the terms are used interchangeably. But what do they mean - at least in terms of the body? The are complementary. Elastic: to stretch away from a shape but be able to return to the original form. Plastic: to stretch out (or not) to a new form, and be able to maintain that new form, way, approach. How these concepts apply to the body have inspired some compelling models in human performance training.

Elastic is the more common term. Elastic bands: they stretch out; the snap back. That ability to expand and have the object return to its original state is the biggie part of elastic.

Elastic also has this interesting property with energy. For example, pulling back a bow string loads the bow with the energy to drive the arrow. When the bow string is released, the bow springs back to its "relaxed" position. Entropy is achieved once more.

Muscles are often described as "elastic:" they stretch out; they snap back.

Depth Jump - stretch shortening
Muscles also takes advantage of elastic energy, in particular stored elastic energy. Elastic energy is a big part of plyometrics. For instance "depth jumps." A person wants to leap up in the air. So before they do this, they stand on a box about a foot off the ground, jump down and then quickly leap straight up. That jump will be higher than if they just leapt up from a standing position. Why?

Well the theory goes (and it's been tested a lot), that pre-stretching a muscle (eccentric contraction) stores up energy in the muscles and tendons that if translated very quickly from storage to use (the brief transition between storing to using, called amortization), that energy can be used by the muscles as a kind of power assist.

The difference between muscles and a bow string is that the bow string can maintain that stored energy longer than our muscles. Stored elastic energy in muscles translates very quickly into heat if it's not used immediately by the muscles for work.

This is also in part why plyometrics is about very quick movements: translate the stored energy into work before it dissipates into heat.

an aside - what don't stretch

Since elasticity is related to stretching, a note about what does stretch and what doesn't. Generally speaking, muscle and skin stretch. Tendons, the bits that join most muscle to bone, don't stretch. But for a few types, ligaments, the bits that connect up joints, don't stretch either. Fascinating, eh? And here's another bit: tendons carry electricity to the muscle; ligaments are without charge.

Plastic - constant adaptation

Elastic is about being pulled from an original state and returning to its original state. Plastic is the complement of this about being able to be pulled from an original state into a new state and then staying in that new state.

Despite its relatively recent use to describe a material, plastic as a concept is rather old. According to an online etymology, it's been used in English (1632) to refer to something "capable of being molded" and 1839 - surgically - talking about "fixing a deficiency of structure," and finally 1905 as a "solid substance that can be molded."

When folks talk about the body as plastic, they're also talking about this ability to be reshaped. Scientists have studied this reshaping for some time. There's Wolff's law, which considers how bone is constantly remodeling based on use - or lack of use. Then there's Davis's law which talks about soft tissue remodeling, similar to Wolff's on bone remodeling. And these both can be seen to act along the lines of the SAID principle: specific adaptation to imposed demand
(aside: just try to find the history of this term - everyone talks about it, but the source? i'm sorry i haven't found who first started talking about it, but with Wolff and Davis, it's easy to support it; that said the principle of specificity (seemingly used interchangeably with SAID) is similar but perhaps different in intent, suggesting that training should be similar to the action to be performed. Anyway).

Only more recently though has research begin to show that our brains and nervous system remain plastic. It used to be thought that after infancy, our brains effectively set. Work since the last part of the 20th century, discussed in the Brain the Changes Itself, shows that this is not the case. Our nerves and brains, too, re-pattern based on demand.

This patterning is refered to as neuroplasticity. If a limb is injured, a nerve cut, it rewires to utilize other nerves available. Likewise if the brain has an issue, it's been found that with work, it will rewire itself to use another part of it to make up the difference.

This knowledge of neuroplasticity, of brain and nerves rewiring, has made it possible to develop new practices to address challenges from stroke recovery to reducing the effects of dyslexia to autism. Some of this work has been put into research-tested products like those by Posit Science to help older folks especially recover brain function. I've been watching some of my elders benefit hugely from "playing" with these brain practices to help retune the brain to a sharper form that can attend, focus, hear better.

Plastic and Elastic: Always On, All the Time
Organic life is pretty amazing. We as such are also pretty amazing: bio-mechanical, electro-chemical, neurological beings. We stretch out and snap back; we also adapt. All the time. Not just in shape but in practice, learning.

A profound challenge in research seems to be how we can best design training to enhance best adaptations for best performance.

One of the attractions of Z-Health, at least to me, is that it takes advantage of the elastic and the plastic, using the plastic to enhance the elastic (as per this discussion of form and efficiency in the front squat). It works with the SAID principle, neuromechanically.

Z-Health extends the SAID principle to suggest that we are always adapting, always and exactly to what we do, and rather immediately. Therefore what we practice is what we become (we are what we eat?). Practice the most efficient neural patterns for plastic adaptation; enhance elastic performance. The intriguing thing is just how immediately these adaptations do take place.

This all started as a discussion of plastic and elastic. While elastic is so well known and used in muscular training, it's perhaps the research in plasticity that will be the new plyometrics in sports and well-being training.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Vibram Five Fingers Meets Z-Health - at

Justin Owings runs the very groovy, a site dedicated to all things & people digging Vibram FiveFingers. The site presents great interviews with surprising folks who wear VFF's. Like Christopher MacDonald, author of Born to Run. Perhaps that one might be expected. But what about Justine Lam, Ros Perrot's eCampaign director. Not so obvious.

Then there's just the great resources about VFF's from pose running gurus to super reviews of various VFF's in use (and ok, one ref to an article about how to fit these suckers). And it looks great, too.

So, after some conversations about VFF's being great for proprioception, and how Z-Health optimizes those benefits, Justin asked if i might do an article describing how/why Z-Health might just take VFF wearers to an even better neur0-physiological performance place.

And it looks so nice! So, here is the article that pulls together stick figures, da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, cell phone towers, Henry VIII, 18thC class warfare and of course Vibram FiveFingers.

Here's a quick fact form the article:
Given this context that (a) the more freely our joints move, the better the information, and (b) the more joints that are sending back these signals, the richer the picture of how we're moving, let's consider the foot. All those joints!. Twenty-five percent of the body's joints are in the feet: per foot, there are 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. We are designed to send 25% of our physical orientation from our feet!

And yet in a conventional shoe — especially a "supportive" trainer, the arch is blocked from flexing, the ankle is restricted, we heel strike with abandon, and the squishiness of the soles deadens any true sense of the state of the surface to which we might otherwise be adapting by our highly flexibily designed foot. Modern shoes are like sensory deprivation tanks for the feet...

Enter Z-Health: it helps reeducate the foot (and other parts of our body) to move like we were designed to move.

Thanks for the invitation, Justin, and happy trekking to all.

the vff'd feet of justin owings...

ok i like this one, too (despite the pc hardware):

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

begin2dig is a year old: thank you for your readership

Goodness, just noticed that b2d is a year old - yesterday - the ides of June 08 was the first post.

Time flies, eh? In the past year there have been 89 articles (this being the 90th) and about 63k visits to the site. Looking back over the past year, there seem to (have) be(en) a few themes.

There are the various discussions on the turkish get up, and about the role of cardio and strength and kettlebells (kb and vo2max | cardio and strength).

Likewise, nutrition oriented discussions, from carbs being treated as the new fat (ie evil), and various debates about multiple fuelings (a la precision nutrition. pdf overview) vs IF's various incarnations.

Feet have played a remarkable role, as in Freeing your Feet (with Vibram FiveFingers, mainly, and how to fit them to do so). Feet freeing and the whyfore's of that relate to the "perfect rep quest adventure" about blending repetitions (how many) with load (balancing volume for strength) for the perfect rep (what's perfect mean anyway?). The perfect rep discussion has in turn been informed by Z-Health and movement efficiency; that has lead into the relationship between reducing/eliminating pain by improving movement.

While there's only been one post so far, learning more about how to get rid of crap around goals has been pretty powerful stuff for calming down, working out, moving up. Higher up and further in, as it were. Hope to write more about the ongoing experience of "letting go" soon.

In this past blogging year, through b2d, i've met amazing folks who have posted comments or emailed, and you'll see many of their blogs listed on the side bar of b2d. Comments are always appreciated and thanks for reaching out. My work's been enriched by these comments, and a big shout out, please to

Mark Reifkind whose blog inspired me to start this one. Rannoch Donald of Simple Strength, Mike T. Nelson of MTN's Ramblings, Georgie Fear, the redoutable RD of Nutrition Solutions, Adam Glass with hands of steal potentially, Suleiman Al-Sabah and Roland Fisher (who needs a web site), who it's been my pleasure to get to interact with a little more this year through the blogosphere and related.

Please also let me thank all
  • the folks who have said you grok b2d and hit the blogger "follow " button - that's really kind and very much appreciated.
  • the folks who follow on rss feeds - thanks for making b2d part of your bit stream.
  • the folks who have pointed to articles here to share with others - so glad you've found them useful and usable
  • again the folks who take time to drop a line or a comment, and
  • of course the folks who drop by from time to time either from searching for something or following someone's suggested link (either of which always amazes me).
Belated Happy Site Day, Welcome, Thank you for visiting.
As always, if there's a topic in the b2d sphere that is of interest to you, let me know, and i'll see if i can dig something (or someone) up.

All the best to you as we head rapidly towards the summer solstice and perhaps finally summer weather?


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why I? Loading for the Real - an Overview/Review Z-Health I-Phase

In life we have physical things that we do that we'd like to do better. It may be as complicated as getting a technique down for a wicked lick on a guitar or as simple as getting off the steep stairs of a bus with a little more grace. Our goals may be a little more serious: we'd like to move more smoothly, and perhaps take fewer falls when going for a run or even walking about the house. Z-health's i-phase approach provides a suite of strategies to help with these real life movement goals. Before we get into i-phase a bit of z-health context

In an overview i did of Z-Health, focusing on R-phase, i wrote about how Z-Health (Zed for short in this article) focuses on communicating with the nervous system, and why that's important for improved well being, whether that's getting out of pain, or moving better for daily life or an athletic pursuit. For a quick review, R-phase focuses on moving each joint in the body through its range of motion. It does this not just because moving joints about is good for the health of the joint, but because joints have a TON of two particular kinds of receptors in them: noci- (detecting noxious stimulus - not just pain) receptors and mechano- receptors (excellent article overviewing joint mechanoreceptor types).

The mechano's in the joints are in large part communicating about where that joint is in space, as well as how fast it's moving. The brain processes all the inputs coming in from these joints to create a microsecond by microsecond map of where we are in the environment. Help all the joints move through their whole range of motion, and at least two key things happen:
  1. more options to respond to the environment because there's more mobility;
  2. the brain gets a better picture or "map," as Z-Health founder Eric Cobb puts it,of where we are because more signals are firing;
Options. I need options! To expand point 1, remember that wild scene in the matrix (that was ten years ago oh my god) where Neo first dodges an agent's bullet? and how he bends way way back to do this? WHile speed is obviously important(talk about that when we talk about S-phase), being able to bend back the way he did, showing pretty good ROM, means that his nervous sysetem had more options to respond to the environment, and respond quickly - due to that mobility. Without that flexibility could he have gotten out of the way?

(ok you too may have wondered why he didn't just step aside, but heh, that means there were a few options rather than just one).

The pay off here is that the more ways we can move the more choices we have to avoid a crisis. The more we practice moving, the more we work our balance and visual system to connect to those movements, the better our coordinated responses, or reflexes have in a given situation. This range of options and heightened reflexes that comes from such agility/balance work has been shown to be an important component as a strategy for people at risk of hip fractures, for instance. Enhance the signals as to where one is in space, practice using them, we give the body more options to adapt and remain vertical, lessen the chance of a fall.

It's a Map - a Map of the World. Eric Cobb talks about what our bodies do in space as Navigation. "And navigation is an action." The better information coming in from the body about position in space, the better off we are. When joints can move, they're sending off more points of information.
Think about the "light bulbs" that people wear on motion capture rigs for computer graphics. Only a few points are needed around the major limbs to be applied to a model of a human form in order for the computer to integrate those points and model to render a pretty convincing motion (movie, 275kb). But look closely at the foot. How "mobile" does it seem in the model?

Thus, entire strips of sensors have to be used to map finer joint movements accurately, like those of the fingers (movie 2.6mg). Way more sensors to give finer detail of movement - but check out how well or not even here, the fingers unscrewing the cap are mirrored in the computer model of same.

In other words, a few points certainly give a general sense of movement, but more points of information are necessary to get a truer picture of the movement. And that's just for a computer trying to render a passable realistic sketch of a anthropomorphic character. My fave work in this space is Mike Chat's from Discovery's Extreme Martial Arts, and mapping the skeleton onto the form (check about a minute into the clip).

Very convincing approximation from gross motor movements.But notice that the light suit to get that degree of movement detail has many more points (the white dots on the skin suits in the image below)

It's these multiple points of information of course that feed into why Zed heads talk about freeing your feet, getting out of non-bendable, twistable, overly squishy shoes: their "support" stops your joints from moving as they're designed, and hence lessens the signal back to the body about the foot's location in space.

It's no wonder that so many runners get sprained ankles: the shoe wear designed to "support" their foot deadens its natural ability to communicate, hobbling the body's ability to respond and get it out of trouble. R-phase therefore is about openning up all the communication channels of the joints to enable a better map, better signal to noise ratio for letting the body respond to the envirnoment. I-phase is training the body to put that new information to work.

Building on the Information Flow: Putting the Map to Work

Eric Cobb talks about R-Phase as learning the vocabulary of movement; IPhase is getting into the grammar - building sentences. What does that mean, practically?

In R-Phase, by learning the drills that move each joint of the body through its range of motion (with the exception of the sutures in the skull - that's T-Phase), we learn about those ranges of motion. Speaking for myself, i started unable to move my thoracic spine in any meaningful, mobile way. Thought it was impossible for me. Turns out not. Lots of practice, et voila: thoracic circles like no one's business. Standing still.

So R-Phase we learn how to move these joints to send off that information with very little load on the joints themselves. Great for learning, and teaching the body to create new patterns of movement. The benefits of this practice alone are legion. I could write idyls of joy to how much R-Phase (with a little T mixed in) has helped my back. Likewise, in working with clients, R-phase drills have wrought out and out remarkable benefits for many clients, helping them either into better performance or out of pain or both.

Once that practice/knowledge is in place to perform perfectly in "neutral" posture and load, I-phase adds load. With lunges. And foot positions. A simple pelvic circle in neutral stance suddenly has a plethora of combinations from 6 lunge positions and 3 foot positions for each of 2 feet. Nice.

Train for the Sprain; the Kobioshi Maru of Movement
So why add all these positions to a given neutral stance posture? Cobb argues that this puts the body in positions that are closer to real life. Get used to working in these postures (80% load on the front leg, feet neutral; shift to 80% load on the back leg, feet turned out), the body is more ready to respond to unusual circumstances, ie, life. This is the magic of practice, or the learning effect of making reaction reflexive rather than cognitive.

We see this practice effect all the time. One of the greatest examples of it was in the early Space program, where astronauts rehearsed and rehearsed multiple variations of space maneuvers in the earliest simulators in order to have that vocabulary of options at their finger tips, but in order to be able to call on them in a variety of less than optimal conditions. Like going for a run on a muddy chip trail (in vibram fivefingers of course. no stupid squishy trail shoes that kill the proprioception here) and starting to slide, but being able to recover.

There is no Spoon: I-Phase as a Template
Another aspect of I-phase work is that "it's a template." Unlike R-Phase, while the I-Phase and Neural WarmUp II DVDs take one through a variety of combinations of the I-Phase movements, and while they introduce some moves not in R-Phase at all (like the powerful peg board drill), the DVDs are by no means exhaustive. Right elbow circles in a left lateral lunge with neutral foot position are demonstrated. But all the other lunge positions and foot positions are available, too.

To add even more dimensions, head and eye positions can also be part of the mix. How about practicing the elbow circles with a left anterior lunge, head titled left, eyes looking right (up). Sounds like a slightly wacky combination until perhaps looking at the picture on the right.

By following the guidance in the I-phase manual on how to learn and practice these loaded positions, one is not only working mobility, but adding strength/muscle work. The advantages are the same as in R-phase: signal is increased.

Adaptation for the Unexpected or the Fairly Usual.
If you've ever tried to hold a position that's new, you may feel your muscles shaking. That's a neurological adaptation happening: you may be entirely strong enough to hold the move but the muscles/nervous system are figuring out optimal firing patterns to adapt the muscles to that move. There can be quite a bit of initial shake in I-phase. But as the positions become practiced, neural paths are developed to get used to these positions.

What happens at the same time is again, more signaling information is brought to the body's central processor; better mapping happens. The muscles, like the joints have tons of mechanoreceptors too telling the body about limb position and the stretch position of the muscles. The more patterns practiced, the more the brain gets used to those new positions, the better it can navigate by putting just the right resources there (no more shaking) and having more available for elsewhere. Go from clutz in learning a move to grace in practice of a move; from conscious effort to unconscious response.

Faster Learning?
Another benefit to the I-Phase template approach is enhancing the rapidity of being able to learn new moves/adapt to new situations. Cobb talks about this kind of learning as that of the "natural athlete" - someone who has such unconscious body awareness that they can readily move their bodies into the forms demanded of that work. With I-phase practice in its varied positions, the body habits of natural athleticism can be learned.

One might protest, but i am a desk jockey, not an athlete.


If one has to walk stairs, open a car door in a rainy oil slicked parking lot, shovel snow or sweep a floor, reach for something rolled under the couch, stay vertical on a moving British bus, then one needs these I-phase teachable athletic skills for simple survival (especially in the case of the British bus. sheesh!).

I've personally noticed that my reflexes have improved without consciously working on them - when i can catch a bottle that's coming off the counter towards the floor, grab my hat 2 feet in front of me as the wind's whipped it off my head, or beat my cousin at a video driving game without ever having played the game, something's funny here. Especially when my previous image of myself was always of the person who was lucky if the lid to the jam landed sticky side up.

So when do I do I?
Some folks ask "when should i do I-phase?" I've also heard some people say, after a year or more of focusing on R, "i'm not ready for I; i still haven't mastered R."

My view? based on my experience and working with folks? Really being grounded in R is a very good idea. Doing the 12 week program that's in R-Phase to learn R-Phase is a very good idea. I worked on R-phase for about 6 months before really getting into I. I also did the R phase certification 3 months into that cycle, so i got a lot of attention on how to do R properly (get a coach; it's worth it). This is not to say all that time was necessary; it's just what i did. Your mileage may vary, as a colleague says. What i would say is if and as you've been practicing R-phase, do connect with a Z-health coach to check your form. As with anything, getting the form right makes huge difference in performance/experience. Those simple toe pulls go from "oh ya, ok" to "ahhh. wow" when you really get 'em. And that's what you want every time.

That said, R-phase is not a martial art; it's not yoga. It's learning how to hit particular targets cleanly and effectively to recover function and "clear the map." While one can do R forever fruitfully, getting into I, as i hope has been shown above, is doing your body a favour to take that knowledge and get into some Astronaut Training Time. That is, I-Phase's addition of load and position challenge is prepping the body for Life; it's the simulator to train for the sprain. My opinion? based on my experience and working with folks? If you've been doing R for awhile, have gone through the 12 week programs, have met with a coach to optimize your target hitting, you owe it to your body to get into I-phase.

We can Work it Out
And if you'd like to work with me on some of that Zed mojo, either in person or online (yes that too is possible), please feel free to contact me. My email's in my profile, and there's some feedback here, mainly from other trainers with whom i've had the pleasure to work. Otherwise, hope you'll check out the I-phase Neural /WarmUpII package. As with R-Phase, the I-Phase DVD goes through the suite of I-phase Drills in some of the lunge/foot combinations. The Neural Warm Up II is a power boost subset version of I drills and is more of a work out. It also has several new (and intense) super chargers, body openers and eye drills.

Later, let's talk about S, too?

(update 1: review of S-Phase DVD, the Complete Athlete, vol.1, posted)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Porous with Travel Fever: Eating on the Road - what do you do?

Many of us travel for business - whether frequently or infrequently. And many of us have strategies to deal with the anticipated Crappy Food at the Destination. Or sometimes worse: crappy food on the plane (or in the airport).

Here's an example: 8am breakie at the meeting will be bagels and cream cheese, with some fruit (if lucky). And i'll be honest with you - i only had the sauce for a ten minute body weight workout so not actually burning up the carbs in my system to require a carb reload, as per one of the nutrition habits of Precision Nutrition: starchy carbs after a workout only. (If you're not familiar with the Habit based approach to Nutrion that is PN, you can check it out here.)

Lunch will be more sandwiches. Now if you're a vegetarian or vegan, there may be wraps. "um, what's the protein for the vegheads?" "Oh, there isn't any; vegans don't eat protein" oh my. So there's veggies in the wrap but no protein.

Get back to the hotel after long day in a business district. THere is no green grocer in site and beyond that, do i (or you) have the vim and vigour to forage at what the body thinks is 3am? No, my friends, i in any case do not.

Coping Strategies
One thing i have found truly helpful is traveling with
a) protein powder
b) bcaa's
c) creatine
d) some kind of carb thing like malto/dextrose or cytomax - tho this isn't essential
e) flax seeds (there's often a fridge in the hotel room)
f) greens+ (again, fridge in hotel room)
g) shaker cup.
h) vitamins like a multi, a big fat d and algae/fish oil, maybe zma to help stay asleep

All of the above can fit into wee glad bags stuffed into the shaker cup, stuffed into a carry on. Fab. This set of fixers is great i find particularly later at night or before sleep if i'm getting hungry.

If you do have yogurt offered at breakie and can secret some of it up to your room fridge for the next day or later that day, stirring in some greens and flax see is kinda nice

It's grand to pack a lunch for a flight, but what to do going back? On long flights, raisins, nuts and Lindt chocolate can help for munchies and sometimes there are wraps available in airports - not always. Sometimes, it seems, one just has to suck it up and Eat a Sandwhich (sometimes in lieu of the disgusting in flight meal)

What do YOU do for food when you travel?
Those are some of my Travel Nutrition Survival Strategies.

What, b2d readers, are yours?

en route from NY from one meeting to London for another, about to weep having forgotten the bag of nuts, raisins and critically, lindt 85% bar.


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