// The fitness thinker

by Jeremy Chance

Have you ever considered that how you think about fitness training is as equally important as what you are actually doing?

By how, I mean the quality of your human consciousness – which involves your intent, your focus, what you are in contact with, what you know about it and the feelings that you experience while training. The originator of the Alexander Technique, F Matthias Alexander, was a pioneer in this subject of mind body connection. Through understanding his ideas, an extraordinary additional layer of fitness training is available.

Firstly, understand this: the quality of your consciousness while training is a key factor that will determine whether or not you have an injury-free outcome when training. This is not the mumbo jumbo of pop psychology – it all revolves around the physiological concept of ‘recruitment’.

Every individual voluntary muscle is comprised of a different ratio of white, fatiguable fast-twitching type IIx or IIb muscle fibres (using anaerobic glycolytic respiration) and red, non-fatiguable, slow-twitching type I muscle fibres (using aerobic oxidative respiration). What is not as well understood are two key operational outcomes from this multi-layered structure of muscle fibres:

1. Recruitment

The quality of our intention is the prompt our nervous system uses to decide the recruitment mix of these two kinds of fibres within each and every muscle.

2. Conversion

We have another kind of white, fatiguable fast-twitching (type IIa) fibre which, under two simultaneous conditions (active and stretched muscular activity) will be genetically triggered to morph into a red, non-fatiguable, slow-twitching (type I) muscle fibre – and it is also the quality of our behaviour that decides when this conversion will occur, and whether it will persist.

Recruitment and conversion

When we require great strength, speed or power for short durations of time, our system will recruit the fatiguable white muscle fibres. Because of their method of respiration, they are able to deliver us a burst of power over a short period of time. They are also wired into the ‘motor command’ system of movement, an intention-driven mechanism in the human brain designed to deliver us power over a short period of time, but with an unusual quality of then ‘faking’ a perception so that we cease the behaviour that initially prompted our demand. An example is the phenomenon of carrying a heavy bag. Initially it feels easy enough, but over time it appears to get heavier. Of course, it doesn’t get heavier, but our perception is that it has, so eventually we stop carrying it.

On the other hand, a need for long-term sustained support will prompt our nervous system to recruit the non-fatiguable red muscle fibres. This may be postural, such as sitting upright at the computer for hours, but it could also be active, such as long distance running. We can then easily carry on the behaviour for long periods of time without fatigue. The deep intrinsic muscles of our spine, for example, ‘should’ be predominantly comprised of these non-fatiguable fibres. I say ‘should’ because it is often the case that the necessary conversions of white fibres to red fibres have not occurred within these muscle groups for reasons too complex to explain here. In these cases, people find it almost impossible to sustain long periods of upright sitting.

Comprehending these basics of muscle fibre recruitment enables us to understand how human consciousness influences the quality of our movement. By thinking forcefully about your fitness training regime, you will cue your nervous system to recruit the fatiguable, white muscle fibres. How beneficial – or detrimental – this may be is dependent on what you are attempting to achieve.

A popularised concept in fitness training is that of ‘core muscles’. This refers to the more deeply-situated intrinsic musculature of our locomotive system that functions to maintain the stability of our structure while we are stationary or in movement. Complimentary to these intrinsic muscles is the more superficially-situated extrinsic musculature that functions to move our limbs or torso according to our wish at the time.

The composition of red and white muscle fibres within intrinsic and extrinsic muscles should be weighted towards the function of each, with the larger, more powerful muscles in our body recruiting greater amounts of the fatiguable white muscle fibres, and the core muscles heavily recruiting with the non-fatiguable, red muscle fibres (whether these fibres are available in sufficient numbers for recruitment is an outcome of the conversion process mentioned in point 2 earlier, the subject of another article).

Put your arms in the air
Try this experiment. Get a stop watch or clock with an alarm or a second hand that you can easily see. Set it for one minute. Now, hold up your arms for 60 seconds (or 30 seconds if that is too long). You will repeat this exercise two times.

First time
Raise both arms, and take the attitude that it is an easy thing to do. Remember your arms are part of the whole support system of your body, and be aware of the space around you, with your arms resting in this space. Trust that every part of you is involved in giving support to the arms, so you can ‘let them be’ while you take in information from everything that surrounds you.
When your timer goes off, put your arms down, noting how they felt and how long it felt you had them in the air.

Second time
After resting, repeat the arm-raising movement, change your attitude and start thinking about how difficult it is to hold your arms up. Focus narrowly into only your arms. Forget about the room, your body – just think of your arms and the muscles that must work hard to keep your arms in that position. Keep thinking ‘I have to make an effort to hold my arms up, I have to keep telling them not to drop down’.

When your timer goes off, put your arms down, noting how they felt and how long it felt you had them in the air.

The first time was probably much easier than the second time, because your attitude caused the non-fatiguable red fibres to come into play. The second time, your attitude caused the fatiguable white fibres to come into play. Remember: every muscle has both kinds of fibres, but the more our attitude changes, the more we start developing the red non-fatiguable fibres to give support to everything we do.

Fitness training thinking

Bearing in mind the above experiment, consider what happens when I start demanding that my core muscles give me stability – when my attitude towards developing my core muscles is that I must put a lot of effort into it; a number of harmful things occur.

Firstly, there is confusion for my nervous system. Support is not a function of direct motor command, but when we think this way, motor command is the system we are using, so we are already confusing the design of our system in thinking this way, building up harmful tendencies which paradoxically lead to the atrophy of our core muscles.

Secondly, once we stop thinking in this forceful way – which our motor command is encouraging us to do against the very wish of our own training – the core muscles stop supporting us in the way we want them to, because we actually trained them to behave this way. The result is the opposite of our initial training intention. As long as we keep up the effort, there is no problem. However, once we stop we can experience dramatic levels of atrophy of the core muscles (intrinsics), which further prompts the extrinsic musculature to take over the function of our core muscles.

Thirdly, this way of ‘efforting’ ourselves also disengages one of the critical conditions necessary for the conversion of white muscle fibres to red muscle fibres: the need for stretch. We have contraction, but we do not have stretch. So type IIa fibres continue to be genetically programmed to remain as the fatiguable type IIa fibres; not a good thing for ‘core support’.

Fourthly, this in turn becomes a source of injury. A lack of appropriate tension, rather than excessive tension in our core muscles, is often the source of injury. So when the larger, grosser (extrinsic) musculature begins pulling us around, we no longer have the protective intrinsic holding to ensure appropriate coordinated behaviour.

Fifthly, this creates another experiential challenge. When our extrinsic muscles begin to habituate themselves to carrying on the work of an atrophied core system, it leads to gross and excessive pressures at inappropriate joints, guaranteeing wear and tear issues beyond the normal demands of our locomotive system.

Finally, the inappropriate distribution of our muscular workload leads to a feeling of disconnectedness. We feel isolated points of soreness and pressure, and lack a sense of holistic connection and the sense of wellbeing which accompanies it.

How to be a fitness thinker

The increasing occurrence of back pain and injury resulting from a zealous application of ‘making’ the core muscles work more is a telling indicator that something is not working in the way we imagine it is – and the science is there to explain why. We are developing a mindset that promotes rigidity, telling our core muscles in a conscious and deliberate way to work harder, despite the fact that this goes against the neurological design of our nervous system.

There is a definite need for core muscle support and stability in our movements, but the methodology that is currently accepted as appropriate to achieve this aim is debatable. So, if not that way, then how?

To understand how is to experience F Matthias Alexander’s discovery that head movements integrate vertebral coordination. This simple concept gives us a means to coordinate core muscle activity with the demands of bigger movements. Even if we try to impose our own idea on the actions of our core muscles, it won’t work in the way we want it to. Instead, we need to integrate our coordination by including a holistic perception of movement, involving the head’s primacy as an integrating factor, and from there flowing into the specifics of whatever exercise we are exploring. Put simply: head movements integrate vertebral coordination which, in turn, integrates speech and limb movements.

This involves being with your whole self to encourage the integration of the specifics of our exercise with the unity of our locomotion. It is essential to unify these two sides of one whole in our intention/attention, and to do it in the order of our whole self in relation to the parts we are exercising, i.e.,from unity down to specificity. The direct and effortful way of only thinking about the specifics of an exercise, and pushing core muscles to rigidity without any awareness of how this is affecting the holistic integration of our locomotive self, is a sure way to generate soreness, pain and eventually injury.

On the other hand, if we are aware of our holistic locomotive self, specific exercise training takes on a beneficial new dimension due to the genetically triggered production of more non-fatigable red type I muscle fibres which, in turn, generates increased stamina, strength and wellbeing.

Alexander’s discovery was that this whole complex system is rendered simple by our integrating head/spinal coordination happening in a unified field of attention – a field in which you see, hear, smell, taste and feel what you are doing. Put simply: we operate our intention/attention and our locomotive system integrates with that, including our core support. So, next time you are training a client or exercising yourself, try thinking of the body as a whole, directing your attention to your head, neck and spine while being aware and interested in how much or how little tension you may be generating. You may just discover a new gear in your exercise performance and wellbeing.


Jeremy Chance
Jeremy has studied and practiced the Alexander Technique since 1969. An international presenter, he runs a successful teacher training program from two campuses in Japan. With BodyChance, Jeremy brings the proven science behind the Alexander Technique’s discoveries to today’s health and fitness professional. He has featured in the
Sydney Morning Herald, Woman’s Weekly and on ABC television. For more information call 1300 305 737 or visit www.bodychance.com

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