“I can’t go any farther.” I’d been demonstrating a movement during a breakout session at the seminar.
I had been asked to demo an upper body drill. That’s when I hit the sticky spot where I couldn’t make my arms slide any farther up the wall.
It felt like I was too tight to make the movement happen.
The instructor of the workshop came over and did a quick test with me to see he could move my arms in the direction I was trying to demonstrate. He could. Armed with that information, we now knew that this wasn’t a flexibility issue – it was a neural control issue. Said another way: my nervous system was disallowing the movement despite the fact that my tissues could stretch that far.
‘Neural control’ is a term that you may not have heard of before, but one that is important to understand if your goal is to have better mobility, heal old injuries and become more resistant to future ones, and expand your strength for all of the activities you love to do.
Flexibility/Mobility…Aren’t They The Same?
They are not. Flexibility is what you can passively move your limbs and joints into. For example, lying on your back and pulling your knee to your chest demonstrates your flexibility, or your passive range of motion for hip flexion.
If you were to stand up and do the same knee to chest motion without using your arms to pull the leg up, that is your mobility, or your active range of motion for hip flexion. It is vital that you have mobility if you want to actually improve the amount or range of motion and control you have with your body.
So what is controlling your ability to tap into mobility in your body? Your brain. You have an incredible number of neurons in your brain. Smart scientists who’ve counted have determined you have 100 billion neurons in your brain.
Why are neurons important?
They’re the building blocks of your nervous system. They use chemical and electrical signals to send information throughout the body, and thus, make the body do things.
Clear Communication From Brain To Body
And Back Again
Your brain and body are in constant communication to make everything happen in your body. This is your nervous system at work.
The communication of the neurons in your brain to a muscle, or muscles, in your body is vitally important for you being able to move and control that muscle/muscles.
Sometimes though, the communication gets a little messy…
You see, it’s a two way street with your nervous system and your soft tissues. The nervous system creates the contraction of the soft tissue, but there are also sensory receptors that respond to pressure and distortion in the soft tissue (called ‘mechanoreceptors’). They send this information back to your brain about what’s going on in that area.
So in the case of an injury, the signaling from your tissues to your nervous system can decrease, it can be disrupted entirely, and it can be altered from an information-rich signal to an information-shallow one.
This is why, ‘previous ankle sprain’ is a strong indicator of future ankle sprain risk. In addition to retraining the ligamentous and muscular tissues of the ankle, the signaling to and from the brain via the nervous system needs to be re-trained.
It’s not just acute injuries like ankle sprains that may have to contend with ‘messy’ communication on the two-way highway between the nervous system and the soft tissues of the body.
Misuse and disuse injuries can get caught up in sub-par communication, too.
Not moving a joint through its complete range of motion for a period of time will mean that the nervous system signaling, the ‘neural drive’ to that area will slowly decrease.
You may have heard the terms ‘glute amnesia’ or ‘dead glutes’, but these are inaccurate for what is actually going on. If you have not maintained a strong neural drive signal to your major glute muscles for whatever reason, you’ll simply stop sending as much neural drive to the area. The glutes have not forgotten, and they are not dead.
It’s simply that the signal from the nervous system to the glute muscles hasn’t been trained regularly enough to maintain the capacity to send that signal with force and intensity. Your body is always making specific adaptations to the demands being imposed on it. It’s “use it or lose it” at work.
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It’s True For More Than Just Movement, Too.
From the book You Are The Placebo, “Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, M.D., showed that when new memories are formed, the number of synaptic connections (where the neurons meet the synapses to send the signal) in the sensory neurons that are stimulated doubled, to 2600. However, unless the original learning experience is repeated over and over again, the number of new connections falls back to the original 1300, in a matter of only three weeks.”
What you think about, what you learn, how you respond…everything responds to repeated use of those neuron pathways.
Expand Mobility, Build Control, Layer Strength
Here’s how you can look at things:
Mobility > Control > Strength
That’s an oversimplification of the system and process, but it will serve our purposes for this conversation. First, build mobility. Learn to control the entire range of mobility you have access to. Layer strength on top of that.
To increase your mobility, you’ll need to have adequate amounts of both passive and active range of motion. Passive range of motion is the degree to which your joint can be flexed, extended, or rotated, with external assistance. Active range of motion is the degree to which your joint can be flexed, extended, or rotated, from force you can generate yourself.
You need both if you want to feel good, function well, move freely, and build durability in your body.
Static stretching alone will not accomplish the mobility goals you desire. This is because of that two-way highway that runs between your nervous system and your soft tissues. If your joint is going to have a certain range of motion, your brain needs to be able to control that range of motion.
If you are trying to do pigeon pose in yoga class, you use gravity and the floor to compress yourself into the position, and you may be able to achieve it if you have the passive range of motion in your spine, hips, knee, and ankle, to do so.
But if you flipped over on your back and tried to create the pigeon pose position with your leg, could you get anywhere near the position you get into on the floor? This active range of motion is the amount of ROM you can actually control, and is the more true sense of the mobility you have for pigeon pose.
If you can’t control it, you won’t own it.
Your tissues change length, as well as the amount of tension they hold, as you move. As you expand your mobility, you will need to build control across the entire length-tension relationship of the tissue. Most people can function in the mid-ranges of tissue length and tension without major issue. It’s when the tissues are in their end-ranges of length – fully shortened, or fully lengthened – that people tend to discover an area of opportunity.
In the video below, where I’m demonstrating my passive and active range of motion in knee flexion, my quadriceps is in its end-range position by being fully lengthened. And my hamstrings are in their fully shortened positioned.
First, I demonstrate my passive range of motion by using the external force of my hand to flex the knee, pressing my calf towards my hamstring. Then I maintain as much of that knee flexion as I can under my own power by contracting my muscles, and let go with my hand. This is the amount of active range of motion I have. Notice that to maintain as much of that passive ROM as I can actively, I have to flex the quadriceps and hamstrings in their end-range positions with as much force as I can muster.
When you can control more of your range in the length and tension of your tissues, you will be more resistant to future injuries. Remember, injuries only occur when the force on the tissue exceeds the capacity of what that tissue can handle. If you build your soft tissues to be capable of handling more force across their entire length-tension relationship, you become more capable of resisting breakdown in more positions. Body durability, for the win.
After building mobility and control, then it’s time to layer strength on top of this strong, durable, foundation you’ve built. Take on something new. Return to a sport you love. Go have an adventure!
How To Take Action With Neural Control
The concept of neural control is basic in nature, as I’ve shown you here, but the rabbit hole to dig into this stuff is deep. So for now, I’ll stop here on the education part and give you a few action items. (Just know that there is more – way more – to your nervous system and how it works with your soft tissues.)
Explore your complete current range of motion for every joint every day. Yes, truly, every day. Remember, neural pathways are supported best by repeated signaling. Members of my coaching program, The Unbreakable Body, have a comprehensive Daily Movements Series that they follow each morning or evening. Whether I’m in the desert, or in my bedroom, I get this Daily Movements Series done every day.
Discover and build strength in your end-ranges of your soft tissues. If you’ve never tried to contract any of your muscles when they are fully lengthened or fully shortened, you’re in for an interesting new experience.
When trying to contract your tissue in its end-range for the first time, it’s possible for it to feel confusing – like you can’t figure out how to do it. It’s possible for it to cramp – but remember, cramps are actually incredibly useful provided you understand them, It’s possible for it to feel like it requires a huge amount of physical and mental effort to make even the tiniest amount of contraction in the muscle.
These experiences are normal, and simply a part of the adaptation process for your body.
The good news is that neural drive that you’re trying to send to that tissue in its end-range can be trained to improve. Just like the strength in your biceps will increase as you repeat the effort of performing a biceps curl…in time your body adapts to the specific demands you are imposing on it.
To learn more drills and movements to build your end-range control and help yourself expand your mobility and your strength, The Unbreakable Body coaching program delivers 100% customized twelve week training plan to help you do just that. You can learn more about The Unbreakable Body and how to build your own mobility, control, and strength, HERE.