Upgrade Your Movement Habits To Beat Chronic Pain

#3 Movement Exploration Part 2: Upgrading Movement

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Welcome to episode 3 of beating chronic pain. The podcast that helps you get unstuck from chronic pain and back to living your life again with ease and comfort.

I’m your host Tom Wilson and I’m thrilled you’re here because today we’re carrying on with our series on movement exploration. If you’ve been following along so far you’ll know that movement exploration is a powerful tool for getting out of chronic pain. This series is unpacking the necessary steps which will help you get out of chronic pain and back to freedom again. When I speak with people who are in pain, it’s often the really simple things in life that they miss being able to do. They aren’t able to play with their kids, or they can’t take the dog for a walk without over-doing things and ending up in terrible pain. Even just having a decent sleep without the pain waking them up is a rare event.

These steps that I’m going through in this series are designed to help you see the way out. You don’t have to be stuck in chronic pain with a gradually shrinking world. There is a proven process which helps people learn and move their way out of this situation.

The first step to breaking free from chronic pain is to uncover your movement habits. The only way we’re able to change them is to bring them out into the light and take a good look at them.The brain-friendly way we do that is by getting feedback from our senses - particularly our kinesthetic senses. These are the senses which give us information about how we move, the position of our limbs in space, the speed and force with which we move, etc. Uncovering your habits sets the stage for being able to make some changes. Having that awareness of the way you move is absolutely crucial for being able to take the next step.

The second step, which we’ll be covering today is all about upgrading your movement habits.

What does it mean to upgrade your movement habits? Well upgrading, as you know, is taking something of a lower quality, improving it and bringing it up to a higher quality.

So if we’re talking about movement habits then it means we have to have some way to measure your quality of movement so that we can figure out whether one way of moving is an improvement compared to another way of moving.

I remember when I was in my early 20’s I started watching an international tennis tournament. I don’t know how that ended up happening because I don’t generally enjoy watching sport. I am much more interested in playing or doing the sport myself. But anyway, there I was, getting quite engrossed in this new game, which I’d never really paid much attention to before. I remember becoming quite intrigued by Roger Federer because at the time he seemed like an unstoppable force on the tennis court. He seemed to be able to beat anyone who came up against him and it was quite amazing to watch. I was very interested in the way that he moved. He seemed to have this graceful quality about his movements. Everything looked easy for him. He never seemed to struggle or force anything - yet he was deadly effective. Some of the shots he made seemed impossible but he seemed to do them with ease.

Perhaps you’ve seen other people like this… People who seem to move with grace and ease.

So what’s actually happening there? Why do these people appear to be so effortless in their movement? What is it that might make you say that this person has a quality movement?

Well… also in my 20’s I went to university and got a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering. A large focus of the training was different machines that many of us use in everyday life. Refrigerators, heat pumps, water pumps, car engines and also some less common ones like wind or steam turbines. Now if you don’t know what happens in engineering school, it’s this: playing pranks, drinking beer, and doing maths. Yeah, there was beer running in my veins and equations running through my dreams during that time in my life. Thank god that’s changed! One of the equations that got drilled into my mind was the one for efficiency. The reason is because all of these different machines have different efficiencies and so I used that equation a lot!

In engineering terms efficiency looks something like this. Energy out divided by energy in. That means figuring out how much useful work a particular machine does for you compared to how much energy you had to put into that machine to make it do that work.

If you think about a petrol car engine the efficiency maxes out at about 30%. That means if you put in 100 units of energy in the form of petrol, then you only get 30 units of energy out in the form of the car moving you around. That means 70 units get wasted. It gets dissipated as heat or ejected as unburned fuel into the environment. That’s a crazy thought right!? From the 90 million barrels of oil that is extracted from our beautiful earth every day 60 million of those are wasted.

This idea of waste is very important. It’s the difference between efficient (or quality) movement and inefficient movement. When it comes to movement I believe it’s what was separating the movements of Roger Federer from the other tennis players. I think he simply wasted less effort than other players and was able to more skillfully use the energy he put into achieving his intention.

I think that we could put 2 humans side by side and watch them doing the same movement. I think that visually and intuitively we have some idea about how efficient someones movement is. We could tell whether one person is doing the movement more efficiently or less efficiently than the other person. When a movement looks graceful and skillful it’s likely that there is little wasted effort. When it looks clunky or difficult, it’s likely that there’s a lot of wasted effort there. Perhaps next time you’re out and about with people you can just spend a few minutes watching the way that people move. Can you notice the ways in which people might be using a lot of effort to achieve their goal? Perhaps they’re just walking down the street. Can you identify the people who seem to struggle just with walking and can you identify the people who seem to float with ease everywhere they go? What do you think makes the difference?

Well I’m going to share one of the things I think makes a difference.

One thing we all have to deal with as humans moving around on this planet is gravity. It’s a constant force which we mostly don’t even think about. However its a really important thing that our brain deals with. Our brains aim during our development is to get us to stand up with our eyes on the horizon and be able to move around on this planet.

If you think about that, it’s actually quite a miraculous feat. The fact that we can balance in that way is extremely complex, but we don’t even give it a second thought until something goes wrong.

Have you ever balanced a long stick on the end of your finger vertically? Perhaps a broomstick or something similar? It’s something I’ve done a lot of in my life just because I’m a pretty physically playful person. I like to test myself physically and play with stuff. So I don’t know whether it’s something many people have done, but see if you can follow anyway. So picture a stick balancing on your finger with one end up in the air, and the other end resting on your finger. In theory, if you want the stick to balance there you have to have it perfectly vertical. Since it’s not possible to make it 100% perfectly vertical, you have to just get it approximately vertical. Which means that the stick will never stay there. It will begin to slowly fall to one side. The more it falls away from being vertical, the faster it begins to fall. If you do nothing, then the stick will just fall to lay on it’s side in a more stable position lying down. If you want to keep the stick balanced on your finger you have to constantly move your finger around underneath the stick to keep it balanced. When the top of the stick starts to lean too far to one side you have to adjust your hand to bring the stick back into a more vertical position. So it’s this game of constant adjustment to gravity. While never being in a perfectly balanced position. It’s dynamic. Always moving, always adjusting.

Now if you think about our structure as humans, we’re kinda similar. We’re very long and vertical. But we’re even more complex. There’s a heavy weight (our head) balanced at the top and instead of a stick we have a bunch of bones which have to stack one on top of the other. This is similar to balancing acts you might have seen circus performers do. They stack a bunch of cylinders or other objects one on top of the other and then they climb to the top and then balance on top of it. The way they stay balanced is by aligning all of the objects in such a way that their weight force is transferred through all of the objects down to the earth. The moment they get out of alignment, the stack starts to fall, so they either have to adjust and bring it back to alignment or else they fall from the top.

There’s a couple of points I’m trying to make here. The first is that this is a really dynamic process. People often talk about posture as though it’s some kind of static thing. You put your body into some kind of rigid upright position and you stay there. But it’s not really like that at all. There’s lots of delicate refinements that our brain is making all the time. It controls all the tension in our muscles to keep everything stacked up properly on top of each other. We are constantly falling though in a very small way and we manage to adjust before we fall completely.

The second point I’m trying to make is that if we are talking about efficiency, the most efficient way to stay balanced is to have all your bones stacked up nicely on top of each other. Not in a completely straight line, our skeletons aren’t designed that way, but in such a way that the force is transferred down through to the ground. As soon as your bones are not aligned anymore it means that your muscles have to contract to keep you upright. And if your muscles are constantly contracted it means they’re going to get painful and it also means they’re not free to do their job of moving you around.

Consider an extreme example of misalignment. Imagine leaning yourself way over to one side so one arm hangs down by your knee and the side of your face is pointing to the sky. If you can, give it a try. Imagine what it would feel like to walk around like this all the time. It would be exhausting. Your muscles have to do the job that your skeleton is meant to do. It wastes energy and therefore is inefficient. If you did this for any length of time you’d be in pain.

By comparison you might look at a healthy child of age 3. They have not long ago gone through a developmental process which has gotten them into an upright position and they’re able to move with a lot more ease than many adults. Their heads are often balanced beautifully atop their necks and they can turn and move with ease.

We are all somewhere on this spectrum between perfect alignment where all the force gets transferred through our bones and terrible alignment where we have to hold on for dear life with our muscles just to keep ourselves functioning.

When I was in deep chronic pain this was my experience. I was holding so much tension in my muscles that I was creating inflammation in my joints. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but my balance was not functioning all that well. My brain had gradually lost some important information which contributed to me balancing well. Remember the brain maps from the last episode? Well my maps had become smeared and to fix them I needed to do some work re-mapping myself.

I think that this balance thing is huge when it comes to efficiency. It’s one of the big things we have to wrestle with when it comes to wasting energy.

However it’s not the only thing…

Another way we waste our energy is by using the wrong muscles for the wrong things. For example, one of the most significant things I ever did in my life was training in martial arts. It shaped me in powerful ways. One of those ways, obviously, was the way that I moved. I learned experientially how to throw a punch that is powerful and causes damage. If you haven’t done any training in fighting, then it might come as a surprise to know that a good strong punch has little to do with your arms and much more to do with the power of your pelvis and back. This is because the largest and most powerful muscles in our bodies are located around our pelvis and our torso. When I throw a punch, the powerful muscles of my butt contract. That causes my hip joint to extend and then the power gets transferred up through my spine, into my shoulder girdle and all the way out into my fist in a kind of wave-like motion. As I said, the power doesn’t come from my arms, it comes from my butt and the muscles in my torso which transfer that force all the way up to my arm. The smaller, less powerful muscles in my arms, and hands are used for transferring that force to a very precise location. Someone’s nose. Haha. Well, only sometimes… Only in extreme cases where it’s necessary. My point is that I’ve practiced this movement tens of thousands of times. I am using my muscles in the way they’re meant to be used. It allows me to punch with power. Now the thing is that many of us get this backwards in our day-to-day movement. People are using their extremities for power because they’ve forgotten (neurologically) how to use the powerful muscles of their butt and torso properly.

This, talking from experience, is very painful. Little muscles are not meant to generate lots of force, so when they do, especially for long periods of time, they get very sore. If you’ve got a spot on the floor and it’s not too much trouble, then I suggest you try this experiment. Lie down on your back. Now roll over on to your front and pay attention to how you did it. Did you lift your head off the floor to do this? Did you lift your hands and feet off the floor? Were they in mid-air at any point during the movement? If this is the case, then it means you’re using your extremities to do unnecessary work. It is not necessary to have your hands, feet or head lifted in the air to do this movement. They can be lazy and rest without having to fight against gravity. The power to do this movement should be coming from your torso. The thing is that if you’re moving like this even during this simple movement then it means you’re doing it in nearly every single movement you do in life. The compounding effect of that is enormous and it can contribute a lot to your levels of pain and fatigue. Getting your muscles doing the right job that they are intended for makes a big difference to getting freedom and ease back into your movement again.

I think that this idea of wasting energy in our movement is large and complex. There are other ways that we waste energy too. However, what’s really important here is how we actually go about upgrading our movements and taking them from lower quality to higher quality. That, in my belief, is less about how it looks externally, and more about how it feels on the inside. There are certain signs that you can search for in your experience to let you know that you are doing something that is wasting energy.

To help people upgrade their movement habits I lead them through experiences of self exploration. I teach them the signs to look for inside themselves which would allow them to judge that one movement is “better” than another movement. When their brain clearly feels the difference between these 2 types, the movement pattern will change by itself. This is the good part. In a sense, this second step of upgrading is actually very integrated with the first step of becoming aware of your habits.

I’m going to share a few of the signs to look for in a moment, however the best way to learn these is experientially. Having a concept of these is useful for your mind, but experiencing them in your body is where the real magic happens. I will share some guided explorations on the podcast at a future date so you can start to feel these changes in yourself. However, you might want to start upgrading your movement right now. I mean, if you’re in pain and you glimpse that there’s a way out, then you may want to take some action on that already. If you’re interested in getting started now then you can go onto my website, click on the contact page, fill out the form and tell me that you’d like to learn how to upgrade your movements. I can then let you know some options for how we could work together.

But for now, lets briefly go over the concept side of things. Here are some things to look out for in your movement that can help you measure the quality of movement.

The first major one that I’d like to point out is your breath. Your breath is amazing. It’s this incredible thing that adapts to your movement and gives you outstanding feedback about your efficiency. Imagine you were a scientist doing an experiment on your own movement. Like all good experiments you’d have a control. Something that you can compare against to see if anything changes. Let use that movement I suggested before of rolling over as a control. The way you measure it is by rolling over and paying attention to exactly how your breath responds as you do. Perhaps you could do it a few times to give yourself time to feel what’s happening. Are there parts of the movement where you hold your breath? Are there parts where your breath stops or catches for a moment? Are there parts of your torso that don’t expand with your breath while you’re rolling? The idea is to just notice whatever you notice about your breath. These places where your breath holds or catches are places of inefficiency. Which is GREAT news. These are opportunities for improvement.

Now you could run your first experiment and vary something about the way that you move. Perhaps you would lead the movement with your head first instead of your hand. Maybe you would make sure your feet drag along the floor instead of lifting them up in the air. The types of things you vary in your experiments is important. I’ll cover the types of things you can vary in future episodes. But for now, just know that this is the general idea of how we make progress and upgrade our movement.

In each experiment you run you would notice what effect it has on your breath. Are you able to breathe easier when you do it this way compared to your first attempt? Can you complete the movement without holding your breath at all? Are you able to breathe deeper and with more of your torso when you do it in this new way? This feedback that your breath gives you is invaluable. As you do more and more of these experiments this begins feeding information into your nervous system about the most efficient way to move and it begins upgrading your movement on the fly!

Another sign to look out for is pain. If you’re running an experiment and you notice that a certain part of the movement gives you pain (even if it’s not in the part of your body that you’re moving) it’s a sign that you’re doing something which is inefficient. This is also fantastic feedback to try a different way of moving until you can find something which allows you to move without pain.

You can also notice the sense of how flowing the movement feels to you. Does a movement flow through your like a wave, or does it feel clunky, jerky or jarring in some way. These are all indications that there is something you’re doing (unconsciously) that is inefficient. These are all potential opportunities to upgrade what you’re doing so that all of your movement becomes easier.

Lets name another one… Does the movement feel hard to you? Does it feel like it’s full of effort. Like you have to strain or force your way through it? Again these are indications of inefficiencies. If you have to force your way through to do something then all it means is that you don’t quite know how to do it with skill. Think of Roger Federer again and the way that he could channel all of his effort into achieving his intention. He was a skilled mover and therefore didn’t need to use as much effort as you or I would have to to achieve the same thing (if indeed we could at all!)

So there’s some food for thought, like I said this stuff is best learned experientially, but we’re just going over the theory of how this journey of getting out of pain works.

Lets sum up the terrain that we’ve covered so far. Our first step, from the last episode was to uncover your current movement habits. Our second step which we covered today was all about improving the quality of your movement. That is, finding new ways of moving that are more efficient. Efficient movement, like that of Roger Federer, is where most of the energy that he uses goes towards his intention. His skeleton is aligned so that forces travel through him easily. He is balanced and therefore his muscles don’t have to be rigid and contracted. They can be free to do the job they are meant to do which is moving his body. He also uses the power from his pelvis and spine to do the hard work. His arms and legs are light and able to move with ease and precision.

In our quest for upgrading our movement, we have some powerful tools at our disposal. These tools are your senses. You can search for inefficiencies by using your senses. You can use things like your breath, your feeling of effort, the presence of pain to give you feedback.

You can then run experiments on yourself to figure out whether what you’re doing is so called good quality movement or whether it’s contributing to your pain.

As you run these experiments, you are collecting valuable information which your brain starts putting to use immediately. It will adjust your movement on the spot and you will begin to feel a little more like Roger Federer and less like an old creaky person.

This is great stuff. It’s the space where some amazing improvements can happen. I don’t want to set your expectations too high because this does take work. But I have seen some incredible changes to people who have had pain for a long time and it shifts in the course of an exploration session.

But once we’ve made changes like this, our work isn’t over. It’s important to find ways to hold onto those changes. To make them a part of our lives so that we get to keep them.

In the next episode we’re going to talk about how to integrate these movement upgrades into your nervous system so that they become a more permanent part of the way that you move.

So please join me next time. I look forward to connecting with you again soon and if you’re enjoying the podcast, please send a like or a subscribe or whatever it is that you do on podcasts

Til next time.