Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Improving the Squat: Reduce the threat (squat position part 2)

Yesterday i just asked about how folks were doing with their squat position - just getting into and achieving a squat. The posts at facebook and here suggested that most folks of a healthy bent kinda think of the squat as the Big Squat - going up and down - rather than just sitting in a squat position. That's ok. The same principles apply. But right now, just being happy in a bodyweight squat position is a first start especially for folks just approaching health and fitness anew. So in this post we're gonna look at one of the higher order ways to approach a better squat: reduce the threat.

And please, once again, let me invite comments from readers to speak about your own squatting-as-sitting experience (or related squat efforts) to help shape this mini series.

Reduce Threat; enable movement
The story goes that the reason a lot of us are challenged with our squat is that we spend too much time sitting and this does all sorts of things to our tendons from tightening them to shortening them to weakening them.

Any of that may be true. But then again, maybe not. Hard to say, really *why* something happens in the body, as in really, is a muscle physiologically shorter than it needs to be to achieve this position? Or is it fine, it's just tense? or weak? or something else?

One of the things we talk about in nervous system work in z-health in particular is that the nervous system is designed to respond to one state: threat/no threat. If there's threat, we get survival mode responses which means performance for anything not related to survival gets shut down. Less threat; better performance.

Let's think about this for a sec with respect to the squat if it's a challenge.

Strength: The squat requires a certain amount of strength to let us get down under control and back up under control. If our nervous system is wired for our survival, and it has some doubt about our capacity to get back up from being down, why would it let us get into a self-compromised position?

Mobility: the squat requires a certain amount of flexibility around the joints: the ankles, knees, hips, pelvis all have to be able to move in a rather coordinated way. Note i said mobility, not stability and not flexibility - more on these distinctions here.

Balance: when a bunch of joints are moving together that requires some balance work to be involved. Balance, maintaining it, is a constant dance between proprioception (where we are in space and how fast a limb is moving), vestibular information - that inner ear organ set that's telling the body if it's upright and how to correct to stay upright - and vision. Vision is our biggest input to the nervous system to keep us oriented against gravity. There are a ton of reflexes just in the back of the neck related to the eyes to keep us upright (wild, isn't it?). So the eyes and the inner ear are working together like mad all the time, along with info from nerves around the muscles and joints to coordinate where we are.  Balance is a big deal

Familiarity: The squat may be a natural movement, but if we haven't been doing it since we were little, then, it's a lot to expect that it's going to still feel natural - as opposed to uncomfortable. We're plastic people - every part of us from our skin to our brains adapts to what we do regularly. And if squatting isn't part of our movement, then that adaptation will not be a big deal for our brains. It needs to be reintroduced as a skill - just like any other skill.

And just like any other skill, if we try to do it and we don't feel super comfortable, that action itself can induce stress - which again privileges survival not performance; protection not openness. If we start breathing more shallowly as we descend into the squat, that's not a great thing for telling our bod we feel safe and happy doing this movement.

Challenge anywhere affects everywhere: arthrokinetic reflex
We've seen this before at b2d - how a joint jammed somewhere can affect performance elsewhere - we saw how cranking the head back so the neck joints were squished resulted in a weaker hamstring test, and as soon as the neck went to a neutral position, the hamstrings tested stronger again. There a physiological challenge at one point in the body which compromises performance affected performance elsewhere in the body.

Given the above list of just four issues that feed into a large movement like the squat, i hope it's possible to see how a challenged squat may have more than any one single factor feeding into it.
In other words, if there's a bit of a challenge in our ankles or pelvis mobility, if there's a bit of weakness in our thighs, or if we haven't been doing squats in a long time, or if perhaps we may have even a slight vision or balance issue, maybe that big drop down to the ground is going to be perceived by our nervous system as a threat - and for our own protection we're just not going to go there.

Dialing in Threat Reduction - one system at a time
The job of a movement assessment is to check in on these factors - have actual tests for them - and be able provide ways to deal with these factors quickly. That's an option i like cuz it's personal, fast and efficient. (Why i'm having a holiday sale for online assessments, too: see link upper right corner of page)

But since we're not looking at each other face to face right now, let's take this one step at a time.

Preflight Check: how's your squat right now?
  • By all means, check how far you can go down to sitting into a squat. 
With that check in mind, let's try a few light drills and recheck

Proprioceptive Assist:
  •  if you have shoes and socks on, if you can take them off, by all means, do. 
  • rock back and forth on your bare feet. bounce on the heels a bit. roll up to the toes if that feels safe. do this a few times.
  • bend over on your ankle - stay standing up straight while you do this - grab a table or chair if that helps you feel more upright - little movements is all you're looking for here while keeping your body nice and tall and relaxed. 
  • breath in, pause, breath out for longer than you breathed in - go for twice as long out if you can staying relaxed.
  • now, try your squat again and see if either you got deeper or it felt smoother
  • let me know in the comments
Balance/Proprioceptive/Strength Assist
Whether you need to do this next one or not, please try it to have the comparison.
  • After doing the above drills and re-test of your squat, 
  • find a door way with edges you can hang onto or a pole you can hang onto or a bannister and now letting your body feel that you're taking some of the load with your arms (that's important),
  • breath in, pause, breath out slowly
  • let yourself down into the squat, and come back up.
  • only go to where you feel comfy going - this is all to be stress free.
  • did you get any deeper? did that feel any easier?
  • let me know, please, here in the comments.
Visual Support: near far jumps
Vision is a mental process. It's cognitive. We have to take in info from a lens in our eye and blend it with info from the other eye, flip it so it's upside right and then interpret what the heck it means. That's work. Practicing vision, and so reducing the load, can often open up performance.
Near Far Jumps. Here's a quicky exercise i've written about before with a zhealth video called near far jumps, of focusing close then switching focus to look far - so the eyes have to work at re-focusing and doing that as fast as possible.
Eye Position. Another one? look down while going down; up while going up. Eye position triggers those postural reflexes that helps movement.
Try that, and retry your squat. Let me know
Results? Individual
That's a really itty bitty bunch of stuff to try, isn't it? The thing is, if our bods are perceiving threat, sometimes that's all it takes: a little thing to us can be a big thing to the nervous system to help it move out of survival "must protect" mode, and letting us take the breaks off.

If any of the above helped a bit, or better than a bit, that's great. You might also find that one thing helped and another thing may have seemingly made the squat worse - that's all valuable information.

None of the above is getting into strength or flexibility particularly - it's getting into opening up some nervous system channels to help reduce threat perception to the body.  This experience of getting further or feeling smoother, or for that matter something feeling worse, i hope, shows that there's a lot going on perceptually within us, and that we respond very quickly to information shifts in that system.

This rapid response to shifting stimulus also shows us why we need to test something right away so see what affect it's having because the effect IS so immediate.

If none of these drills seemed to  help, that's information too, and i'd like to hear from you about what you noticed or didn't notice after either any of these drills individually or putting them together.  That suggests that there's something else we haven't hit on yet that may be keeping your body from feeling safe to take the next step.

Complex Systems. To state the obvious, the variety of responses to these protocols also shows that we're really individual. What flips the switch for one person - even someone who seems so similar to another person - may be entirely different for that other person. We are COMPLEX systems - tons and tons of things are intertwining. It's this complexity that keeps me from saying "if you can't squat you just need to do X and you'll be fine" - if i hear someone say "just stretch" one more time, well, i'll get over it. Never mind me.

Ok, that's it for today.

I hope to hear from you - or your questions - so in the next couple days we can move towards a path for YOU that will help your squat. Love yourself today as you practice.


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1 comment:

Tom Rooney said...

I've been trying to work on my squatting over the past few weeks. I cannot sit rock-bottom without a counterbalance assist (KB or something to hold on to), but I can get down below 90 degrees (maybe 110-120) under my own power.

Proprioceptive Assist: The suggestions did not increase the depth of my squat. I practice R-phase Z health and train barefoot or nearly so.

Balance/Proprioceptive/Strength Assist: Yes, holding on to my desk definitely helps me go deeper.

Eye position: No help going down (I guess I look down anyway), but it sure did feel a lot easier going up when I looked up.


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