The Injury Fix: Non-Linear Unloaded Movement
It happens to us all; the aches and pains and constant soreness that results from our workouts. It doesn't even need to be our workouts actually. So many things can seem to disrupt "feeling good" that it can be frustrating. Hell, I'm about to turn thirty this year and I'm already starting to feel sore from being in a car too long, sitting on a long flight, or a loosely competitive game of flag football.
See, one of the gifts of fitness, specifically strength training, is that it prepares the body for life's tasks and mostly prevents catastrophic injury and downfall. Yet, its trade off is those sometimes serious, but most of the time not, injuries that nag us. The tightness in our rotator cuffs when we press too much, the tension in our knees from squatting heavy, or the shin splints that seem to derail our running efforts.
These are all things that have solutions. A few sessions of physical therapy, a good massage, gait analysis, corrective exercises, mobility and stability work, or form-specific lifts to groove a better pattern all provide benefits that get us out of pain and back into action.
Yet, in the last year or so I believe I've found another solution; one that you can do each and every training session. By incorporating non-linear unloaded movement into my daily training I've dramatically decreased my aches and pains (while training for the West Virginia Spartan Beast), and seen an impressive improvement in my mobility, stability, and coordination. It's been pretty cool if I'm being honest.
But N=1 is not a fair sample size and so let's extrapolate it outwards and look at the benefits I've been able to bring to my clients. Many of my people are men in their forties, fifties, and sixties - a population with long histories of injuries, aches and pains, immobility, and decreasing physical acumen.
A great strength and conditioning program can help strengthen weak muscle groups, build quality muscle, improve the metabolism, increase overall force output and neuromuscular connections. This is the backbone of their programs. Yet, one flaw of the traditional model is that it doesn't necessarily provide opportunities for clients to get out of the "box" that we train in.
What "BOX" do you speak of sir?
The metaphorical box in this instance is linear movement. Nearly every single exercise we perform in the gym is linear in nature, meaning that a resistance only moves through one of the three planes of motion. A great training program acknowledges the three unique planes: saggital, frontal, and transverse, but they often do not incorporate them within the same movement pattern.
Additionally, linear movement relies heavily on grounding, otherwise known as digging in your heels (or hands) and pressing against a constant force (the floor, a bar) in order to create maximum levels of force production. Once again, a great training program always has this element present within it, but often times lacks the opportunity to "let go" and allow the body to flow.
Lastly, linear movements are usually loaded - a correct decision when we factor that exercises such as the deadlift, bench press, lunge, and even a biceps curl are meant to put external load against the body in a singular plane. Yet, one of the flaws of loaded exercise is the stiffness it requires, and subsequently creates, because of the need to get "tight" in opposition of the resistance you are trying to overcome. The rules of a movement pattern change dramatically once someone applies an external resistance to it.
You can sit much deeper in an unloaded squat than you SHOULD in a barbell back squat.
Understanding the three limitations of linear movement helps us see that there are flaws in the system that we are currently using for our clients and for ourselves as trainees. It paints a vibrant picture that we must take our clients into three-dimensions of space - otherwise known as non-linear movement.
So They Can do Yoga...
is the traditional thought that comes across the mind of a trainer looking to incorporate non-linear movement into their client's lives. It's also the same thought that goes through the mind of an avid exerciser as they look for answers to their soreness, lack of mobility, and general need for something new.
It's assumed that your strength training should be just that and you can just do some Yoga on the side to balance the scales...
Two things about that:
You couldn't be more wrong in trying to keep the realms separate. In fact, putting them together might just be the best decision any of us can make with our training programs.
Unloaded Non-linear movement is SO MUCH MORE THAN YOGA.
See, yoga is a timeless and effective modality meant to get you into your parasympathetic nervous system - the one that is for calming you down and "letting go". The deep breathing, the position holds, and the music set behind the instructor all serves the purpose of getting you to relax and let go of the tension that binds you. Even if the movements themselves aren't beneficial - the ability to tune out the noise for a little while makes it redeemable.
The flaws though are present as well with the most notable (for the purposes of this article) - being the emphasis on getting to and end position before going to another end position. Depending upon the instructor there may not be much guidance on "HOW" to actually get into the pose they are calling for. Moreover, the emphasis on relaxing and letting go make actually set the stage for too much laxity in joints and not enough tension in the working muscles.
But, this isn't about yoga and I'm not able to spend much more time talking about it anyway - seeing as I'm not a yoga expert, have only done a few classes in my entire life, and have a completely different purpose behind this post. I just wanted to acknowledge what yoga "IS" before proceeding onward.
What then, do I mean by unloaded non-linear movement?
I'm referring to any movement patterns done without load with the intent to move in multiple directions. Nothing more and nothing less. So, with that definition in place let's look at all the things that qualify:
Dancing (all subsets included)
and probably a few more that are escaping me.
So, as you see here: I'm not talking about some tiny little corner of the fitness universe. I'm not trying to introduce to you a concept that is from left field, nor am I trying to oversell the benefits of something that is only beloved by a group of nuns in West Texas for it's ability to cook 5 minute rice in only three. There is proof.
It's just movement after all.
So whether you play sports, attend your favorite yoga class at lunch, or you throw down at your favorite dance club on the weekends - you engage in non-linear unloaded movement. Under this premise - all unloaded non-linear movement is great for you and your body.
In a life full of getting out of bed to sit in a car to go to a job where you'll mostly sit for eight hours only to sit while you drive home to sit on the couch and watch TV for bed; we need more than just deadlifts and curls to get "in shape". Our bodies need variety and complexity to unlock our joints, restore our mobility, and allow us to live a more complete and active life. Hence, the need for unloaded non-linear movement.
But we are talking about adding it into your program, which means that like anything that goes in a training program - there needs to be explicit purpose. And I'm here to talk about that purpose.
For me, unloaded non-linear movement has allowed me to heal old injuries, strengthen and mobilize joints, and develop a new level of control of my body. For my clients it has done just the same - less pain, more mobility, better performance. Specifically, I've been doing a lot of what is known as Animal Flow.
Developed by a former Equinox trainer, Mike Fitch, AF effectively combines elements of yoga, break dancing, and martial arts. Check out more here. I took a 2-day in-person workshop to learn my flows, but you can definitely find a lot out there in the freebie world too. (Although I recommend in the live course.)
For myself and clients, I've been placing it as a "super set" behind loaded movements such as deadlifts or as a warm-up to get the body to recognize and adapt to new positions. In either place, it functions as a supplement to a standard strength and conditioning program. In no way would I recommend abandoning what works in favor of this "new and exciting thing".
An example is as follows:
1. Sumo Stance Barbell Deadlift 8 x 5 1a. Loaded Beast to Wave Unload 8 x 4
1b. Standing Overhead Press with DB 8 x 10 1c. PVC Pipe Hinge Groove to Thoracic Rotation 8 x 10
2. Set Crab to Scorpion to Crab Turn Overs and Reach 4 x 30s 2a. Plank Saw 4 x 30s 2b. Barbell Hip Thrusts 4 x 12
2c. Swiss Ball Hamstring Roll ins 4 x 20
Science shows we mostly know what the hell we are doing already, so there is no need to go blowing up the whole foundation. Although, I do think we can keep improving our practice by intelligently adding unloaded non-linear movements. And that's exactly what I'm proposing here:
Start adding movements like this, these flows, to you and your clients programs immediately. Feel free to even steal my program above, assuming you are comfortable coaching all of the aforementioned movements.
Now, I know what you are thinking - because I once thought it too. Earlier in my career as a personal trainer I saw shit like this and thought, "why don't you spend less time moving around like a snake and more time lifting weights?" or "they only do that because they aren't strong enough to lift or tough enough to sweat".
And like much of my earlier 20's: I had no freaking clue what I was talking about. The powerful juice that was my ego, too much testosterone, and whiskey ginger made me believe that you couldn't get in shape unless you lifted all the weights for all the repetitions on the all of the days.
You know....I knew it all back then. Didn't we all?
Here are the core reasons I am employing unloaded non-linear movement as a coach and as a trainee myself:
Develop New Movement Patterns - looking at the ways the body is capable of moving without added loaded is imperative to understanding the truest function and capability of the body itself. The muscles move bones around the axis of joints while the fascia helps maintain tension in angles that are unlike modern human life, but still capable under the umbrella that is "human movement capacity".
As crazy as it may sound - it is possible to improve the numbers on your lifts by improving the quality of the underlying patterns. Your deadlift may be stuck at a particular weight because your hinge isn't right and not because you haven't trained enough...
Exposing the body to new patterns, new angles, and new resistance profiles may just be the key to unlocking your performance capability.
Improve Mobility and Stability of Segments
Building off of the previous point - unloaded non-linear (UNL) movement often places the body against unique forces, specifically unique resistance arms, for which it must learn to create force against. It is these unique angles and forces that allow for the body to develop mobility and stability at the joints of the body.
For example, the flow in the video earlier places a lot of stress upon the wrists. This stress may be a lot in the very beginning of a person's journey with UNL movement, but over time it becomes an asset as the body develops strength in the fascia, tendons, and muscles that stabilize the wrist joint. Increased the depths for which the wrist can flex and extend improves one's mobility.
This same effect happens at the hips and ankles as well as the shoulders and thoracic spine. Learning to move the body in new ways requires accessing new degrees of freedom at the joints and then building the requisite muscle, fascia, and neuromuscular control to own that mobility and stabilize the system. This challenge translates to lifting:
A great example for me personally is my ability to regain the strength in my shoulders after six to eight months of dedicated flow. Here is a video of me strict pressing 135 for a repetition. I'm certainly not going to win a strongman competition, but for me this was huge. I've had multiple slap tears and injuries to my right shoulder over the years (being short in baseball forces you to throw harder to create minimum effects). Simply put, emphasizing unloaded non-linear movement in conjunction with logical loaded-linear movement has allowed me to heal my shoulders and begin pressing heavy overhead again. That's proof for me.
Decrease Risk of Injury by building the Fascia System The fascia is an interesting system. It is one in which I shouldn't begin to describe in detail here in this blog, but I want to try my best to keep it short and sweet. Fascia is a web-like structure that functions as a communicative device throughout the body. Picture the myriad of lines under the ground we walk that connect us to the internet anywhere we go...the fascia works very similarly. When you move your left foot there is a signal that helps position your right shoulder, your thoracic spine, and more. It runs the other direction too. It is this intricate webbing that makes so ..many of the amazing sporting feats, dance routines, and yoga positions possible.
These positions, and the speed for which we can achieve them, occur because the fascial system communicates information faster than any other part of the body, thus allowing it to reorganize all of the muscles, joints, and bones it must to get the job done.
In theory it is the tissue we work on when we foam roll, use a lacrosse ball, or jam one of those foamy drill bits into our thighs. The concept is to "break free" the fascia and allow it to re hydrate, thus improving conduction and pliability. The science here though keeps going back and forth and so we won't discuss this at risk of losing the core message. But, training new patterns does allow the fascia to strengthen its connections, improve its transmission rate, and allow for the body to achieve new ranges of motions (by convincing the fascia to "allow" the body into them). This mechanism over time improves all aspects of mobility and stability by improving the fascial system itself.
Provide a Well-Rounded Training Experience to ourselves and our clients
Lastly, no modality in excess is good (unless your training goal requires it).
Only lifting heavy leaves a lot of physical characteristics impossible to achieve. This may not matter if you compete in powerlifting or bodybuilding, but for the purpose of life, this is not optimal.
A runner who doesn't lift often faces a myriad of injuries in their careers, disrupted metabolic function, and other issues - ones which can be combated with a healthy resistance training program, scheduled periods of no running, and a diet full of proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats.
Unloaded non-linear movement is just another tool to place in the box of options for you as an exercise enthusiast or as a professional trainer. Leaving it out is unwise as its benefits impact every aspect of your fitness as well as your overall health and wellness. The benefits to strength, performance, mobility, stability, injury-recovery, and beyond are documented.
The vast majority of the western world doesn't need bigger muscles, bigger deadlifts, or faster mile times: They need to lose some weight, feel less pain, take less prescriptions, and learn to move more often.
Let's not fight over silly shit anymore, or point at any modality of exercise and call it dumb. Let's strive to find the truth of the body without filtering it through our own emotions, our biases, and our own opinions. Let's work together to motivate each other to get off our tails and move a little, eat some vegetables, drink water, run some, lift weights, and respect each other.
Non-linear unloaded motion is just another way to do it...
A pretty damn good one if you ask me.