Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Eyes Have It - sometimes: using eye position to enhance strength

ResearchBlogging.orgI was fascinated by Geoff Neupert's article in the latest Power by Pavel Newsletter (issue 209, 08/09/10) about his experience using eye position in the press. Geoff is the author of Kettlebell Muscle. Absolutely awesome to see eye position highlighted in relation to how that action can support movement practice. That support is rather dependent on where and how in a compound move it's being used, and also what else may be happening in our somato-sensory systems. So let's look at eye position and postural reflexes and how they support muscle action a little more.

Geoff writes:
For the last four years, until recently, I promoted a neutral head, eyes down posture for presses and jerks, thinking that this would increase flexion at the shoulder and therefore increase shoulder mobility and allow for the weight to go up easier.

Geoff reports that this didn't work for him. When we understand the roll of vision in position,  that result is not surprising, so we'll come onto why. He then proposes a revised move with a different head, jaw and eye position: the neck back a bit, chin up a bit and eyes slightly up.

Geoff says of this approach:
I then corroborated my findings with what the absolute best in the world do, confirmed my position, applied my "new" techniques, and started making progress once again.
This is excellent: Geoff tested the move to see if it worked better for him, today. Testing a technique is critical as adaptation is pretty individual; testing that neutral head / eyes down thing sooner might have been a good idea too for addressing four years of press frustration.

For more ideas on how to train these eye muscles,
see Eye Heatlh: How Fast can you switch focus?

Test Early; Test Often The key thing to me in this article is that Geoff did "test" his new approach: did it improve his press? he says so an i believe him. Yet while he proposes a new technique for his press, and has some interesting theory to support it, whether or not that approach will be universally successful may be as likely as eyes down through the lift was successful for Geoff. May be. Dunno, maybe.

The take away from this story, at least for me,  is less about a new technique that will work for everyone and more about: test it, because what works for you mayn't work for me, or for you later today, no matter how well we hypothesize why something works after the fact.

Let me step back a bit and say here's why i'm not surprised by GN reporting that eyes looking down *through the whole press* would likely/potentially not be a good idea: there's more going on than shoulder flexion in the press.

Eye Position and Reflexes when Reflexes work. Let me back up even further and say that the eyes are tied to reflexes that support extension, flexion, adduction, abduction, rotation. By reflex we mean involuntary automatic and near immediate response to a stimulus. Intriguingly, sometimes these reflexive responses can get buggered up, (and with the eyes, have particular effects on posture, among other things) but more on that anon.

When things are working right, we see looking down triggers flexion, looking up triggers extension looking in one direction triggers complementary adduction/abduction/rotation in the direction viewed.

Eye position is then used to complement/strengthen what can most benefit from that reflex. That may change throughout a lift. And what if while one thing is extending something else is flexing? What do we need help with the most? We'll look at an example to try in a sec.

Strengthening what needs to be strengthened throughout a lift

As an example of how eye position might change in a lift, let's take a look at the example from Geoff's article, the kettlebell press. The press is a rich movement: one may need eyes down to support shoulder flexion at the beginning of the lift coming out of the rack, then eyes towards the horizon and looking at the bell when the delts are at the weakest point, so strengthening rotator cuff movements, and post sticking point, eyes up to support the triceps extending (thanks to conversations last year with Zachariah Salazar Z-Health Master Trainer and RKC on these multiple positions in the press). In Pavel's pressing, as RKC Ken Froese pointed out to me, his eyes seem to follow the bell throughout, which may be great for someone with even strength, but not for someone with say a shoulder issue.

So keeping eyes down throughout the movement may be less productive for some people if where the weak link in the move shifts, and changing eye position will enhance that.

Try this at Home: A chin up (hands supinated) uses extension of the shoulder/lats firing, but it also uses elbow flexion (biceps coming into a curl). So what needs more help for you in a chin? Best way to find out: test either/or positions, depending if one's weaker link is shoulder extension/lats (eyes up) or biceps flexing (eyes down). Try both: what works better for you -when? Which is which may change as training progresses, or for just about any other reason, as we'll see below.

When reflexes seemingly aren't firing normally
Why would a doctor whack a knee if a reflex always fired as it was supposed to? We wouldn't need to test something that always works one way. Same thing with eye responses as demonstrated in what are referred to as postural reflexes, richly informed by the visual (and vestibular and proprioceptive) system(s):
Visual and vestibular input, as well as joint and soft tissue mechanoreceptors, are major players in the regulation of static upright posture. Each of these input sources detects and responds to specific types of postural stimulus and perturbations, and each region has specific pathways by which it communicates with other postural reflexes, as well as higher central nervous system structures.
There's even work to suggest that blinking or performing visual sacades may improve postural stability.

Sometimes due to trauma or sometimes a long flight and jet lag, one's postural reflexes get really muted or actually cause the inverse effect reflexively in the body. There are tests for this (if you visit with a z-health certified coach who's done i-phase, for instance, they'll know these position/vision tests). The important thing to get is that our muscular responses - things as seemingly simple and immutable as flexion and extension - are intertwined with the somato-sensory system (visual, vestibular and proprioceptive function), and that these intertwined systems are constantly dealing with various stimuli. As Reiman and Lephart found in 2002:
Motor control for even simple tasks is a plastic process that undergoes constant review and modification based upon the integration and analysis of sensory input, efferent motor
commands, and resultant movements.
We occaisionally really get how intertwined these actions are if we ever have an inner ear infection, or find ourselves experiencing sea sickness or dizziness

Obviously, if one's visual responses to a direction are screwed up (say looking down doesn't strengthen your bicep curl, or cue an appropriate postural reflex), then using your eyes in a movement in that direction is also likely not going to help - in some cases it may seem to work against you if your body doesn't like that eye position, performance is going to suffer - until the thing gets fixed. And it is addressable.

Repetez apr├Ęs la model: Test It. So rather than getting super prescriptive about what will achieve what, great to have some heuristics about reflexes and eye position and of course form. But great too (a) to be sure to be able to refine application - like multiple eyes positions may be needed throughout a move and (b) to know that those reflexes are working as designed and (c) just test it.

If an eye position doesn't work - doesn't provide a performance boost or takes away from one - try something else. And if in a simple move like a biceps curl where eyes down should make that curl stronger and it doesn't work, maybe check with that qualified coach who knows how to work with these positions in case it's either a technique thing or something else that may need a bit of work.

We are Complex Integrated Systems There are 11 systems in the human being. They all interact with one another, from our skin to our reproductive system. There's no way we're going to be able know, a priori, what will unequicoably work for ourselves, little own everyone at all times. only salespeople seem to make such unequivocable claims about their products - it slices; it dices. always for everything. Really? What other domain is so certain?

In my main domain of human factors, this is why we can't make claims about the effectiveness of an interface based on how it works for ourselves alone, but have to test it rigerously so that we can say with some statistical power that it is effective to some degree, and even that is constrained like: for people aged x-y with these particular skill sets, they were able to use this tool to complete this task A% better than the previous tool design. Without that - even though we've developed that design with the best models of human performance from motor control to cognition available to us - the best we can say in our domain is "we liked it; why don't you give it a try and let us know if it worked for you."

Broken Record: Test it. Frequently, regularly. Vision is a potent system - the top of the somato sensory hierarchy. Makes sense that when it's firing well, it can help our other systems respond well. To use eye position to enhance a lift, therefore, means testing the eye position to see what action in a lift may need that enhancement - presuming that our visual reflexes are working as they're supposed to work. So again, if eyes down doesn't enhance that biceps curl, may be time to check vision, too. If it is, check eye position with the move. Test various positions through the move.

It's a really simple principle. It means having strategies to deal with a weak result to help make improvements. but at the very least it gives us information about tuning what we're doing.

Morningstar, M., Pettibon, B., Schlappi, H., Schlappi, M., & Ireland, T. (2005). Reflex control of the spine and posture: a review of the literature from a chiropractic perspective Chiropractic & Osteopathy, 13 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1746-1340-13-16
Riemann BL, & Lephart SM (2002). The Sensorimotor System, Part II: The Role of Proprioception in Motor Control and Functional Joint Stability. Journal of athletic training, 37 (1), 80-4 PMID: 16558671
Rougier P, Garin M (2007). Performing saccadic eye movements or blinking improves postural control. Motor control, 11 (3), 213-23 PMID: 17715456

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Gregory said...

Great article! I appreciate the short literature review, citations at the end, integration of research, accessible language, and practical application.

This is the kind of research, writing, and communication which makes me happy--it's useful and generates useful, applicable knowledge.


Great modeling for other bloggers.


Franz Snideman said...

Wow, truly informative article! visual stuff has always fascinated me! I loved seeing the specific muscles of the eye. Definitely a part of the body I need to study more about

dr. m.c. said...

Gregory, that's most kind. Hope you'll visit often.

Franz, thanks - this is why i know you'll dig the workshop - lots more where this came from.

have added a link under the eye image too to drills for the eye musculature.



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