How Somatics Can Help Rowers Relieve Muscle Pain

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in the modern Olympic games. It is still popular today in high school and collegiate sports (more commonly known as crew), and as a workout routine at the gym. There are two different kinds of rowing:

  • Sweep rowing, in which the rower has one oar, held with both hands, and rows on one side of the boat
  • Sculling, in which the rower has an oar in each hand.

Sculling is the form of rowing most of us are familiar with. It’s the rowing used at gyms on rowing machines. When you add the element of competition – or the goal of getting a workout through vigorous repetition, there are several things to watch out for in order to prevent injury or muscle strain.

Most rowing injuries are caused by poor technique or overuse. Overuse can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The repetitive action of rowing can cause low back pain, knee problems, shoulder pain (rotator cuff), arm and wrist pain, sciatica, rib stress fractures, and chronically tight quadratus luborum (QL – “hip hiker”) muscles.

Rowing is a wonderful full body sport, using the muscles of the back, lats, quadriceps, abdominals, biceps, triceps, rhomboids, trapezius and gluteal muscles. As the legs extend and push forward, the abdominals, arms, lats, rhomboids, and shoulders contract to pull the oars to the chest. Those who work out with rowing machines will likely not row with the same speed, force, and duration as collegiate rowers. However, since the muscles involved in both “gym rowing” and competitive crew are the same, proper technique and rhythm is critical no matter what your goal if you want to prevent an overuse injury.

This video explains proper rowing technique for “gym rowers” using the same technique used in competitive crew.

There is a lack of full extension through the front and back of the body in rowing.

As in cycling, the body contracts forward into a Red Light Reflex, but with full extension of the legs and trunk, due to being in a seated position. Here’s an excellent slow motion video that demonstrates proper sculling. While smooth and powerful, notice how the muscles of the front and back of the body never fully lengthen. The chest muscles never fully expand, and the oblique muscles of the waist are slightly contracted; this causes the intercostal muscles between the ribs to become tight and the ribs to pull down toward the hips.

Low back pain, tight shoulders, and tight hips are common in rowing.

It’s pretty clear that the repetitive pulling of the oar forward will, over time, cause the rhomboid and trapezius muscles to stay tight. If one rows with an arched back, or a twist in the pelvis, as with “sweep rowing,” strain is put on not only the shoulders, but the low back and hips as well.

In the photo at right, notice the torque of the trunk to the left in the first rower. Here’s a video that shows the same torque that occurs if you’re “sweep rowing.” The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators repetitively contract in the “catch” phase of the stroke. Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the QL’s (quadratus lumborum) and a slightly hiked left hip would not be a surprising outcome for this rower after  an extended period of training.  This is a classic trauma reflex – habituated SMA may be useful for crew perhaps, but potentially painful and disruptive for daily movement and a smooth walking gait.

Sensory Motor Amnesia can develop due to repetitive movement, even if the movement is done properly. In order to prevent SMA, try incorporating Somatic Exercises into your daily workout routine.

Somatic Rowing warm-up:

Somatic Rowing cool-down:

For pain in the arms and wrists, refer to this video and blog post.

Contact Martha for information about how Hanna Somatics can help your collegiate or professional sports team prevent overuse injury and recover faster from workouts.

Many thanks to Kanwei Li, a former collegiate rower, for his photo and input.

How Somatics Can Help Cyclists Relieve Muscle Pain

Cycling is a versatile activity – one that can be done casually as a form of transportation, a weekend hobby, or one that can be done competitively. Cycling, whether for competition or for pleasure, has the potential for serious injury, sensory motor amnesia and a host of painful muscular conditions. The most frequent problems facing cyclists are accidents, knee problems, iliotibial band pain, low back pain and hamstring strains.

In cycling there is a high risk of trauma.

When you lose your balance on a bike, the consequences can be long-lasting. A bike crash instantly invokes the Trauma Reflex – the somatic reflex of contraction, and retraction of the trunk rotators of your body in response to a sudden loss of balance and the need to avoid further injury. The waist muscles contract unevenly on one side of the body, and the result is a slight twisting and side bending of the torso.  A cyclist who experiences Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the form of a Trauma Reflex will develop a pelvic imbalance, altered gait (or cadence on the bike), hip joint tightness, uneven weight distribution, and compromised balance.

Cyclists round forward in a hunched posture for long periods of time.

The rounded posture of cyclists is a pattern of muscular habituation that is useful for efficiency, power, and speed. However, this rounded posture of cycling is  a classic Red Light Reflex – the front of the body is contracted, the shoulders are tight and rounded forward and the back is lengthened, yet tight.

There’s a “co-contraction” between the front and back of the body – an agreement of sorts – that makes this useful form of Sensory Motor Amnesia great for cycling, but inconvenient and potentially painful for everyday life. The constant co-contraction of the abdominals and lower back can cause chronic lower back pain.

There is limited hip movement in cycling as leg movement comes from the hip joints.

In cycling, the muscles of the quadriceps (thighs) are recruited and developed more than the gluteal muscles. Because of the repetitive and powerful churning of the legs, there is little movement of the hips in cycling. As I wrote in my post on running, limited hip movement contributes to iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain and hamstring strains. SMA can occur in the hamstrings due to habituation; the legs are never fully lengthened, so the hamstrings learn to stay contracted in order to coordinate with the quadriceps. The knees bend, but the leg never fully extends. Both the quadriceps and hamstrings maintain a specific muscle length in order to “get the job done” well.

Shoulder hunching can become a habit if you’re not careful.

Cyclists using bikes with upright handlebars are in a less stressful position because of the placement of the handlebars. Though they don’t hunch over as much as using a standard road bike, there is still a tendency to hunch the shoulders slightly when reaching for the handlebars.
Lengthening the spine to keep the back muscles long as you hinge at the hips to sit up will ease back pain. Here is a good demonstration that illustrates how to elongate your spine as you ride on a bike with upright handlebars.

Try these Somatic Exercises as a warm-up before you ride:

Try these Somatic Exercises to cool down afterward:

Contact Martha to find out how Hanna Somatics can complement and strengthen your current athletic training program.

How Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously. 

University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantar fasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I’ve worked with say that they figured they could just “run it out” thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here’s why:

  • When you’re injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long-term compensation develops into Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn’t doesn’t change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA) before you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It’s slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain, and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn’t rotate gently doesn’t allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis are rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint – what I like to call “running with your legs instead of your whole body.” This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here’s a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and “supportive” running shoes reduces the foot’s ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to “heel strike” when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there’s a trend toward more minimalistic and “barefoot” running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy “warm up” before running:

  1. Back lift – for control of the back muscles
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl – for control of the abdominal muscles
  3. Side bend – to equalize waist muscle function
  4. Steeple twist – for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  5. Walking exercises – for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

  1. Reach to the Top Shelf – for full body lengthening
  2. Hamstring pandiculations – if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)
  3. Standing calf release – if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase the Pain-Free Athletes DVD and more!

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog, Recover Your Stride.

Football, Somatics, and Post Concussion Syndrome

I will be writing a series of blog posts about sports and Somatics, but for today I’d like to focus on concussions, and the muscles that contract secondarily due to the kind of impact that would cause a concussion.

Superbowl 2012 was a nail-biter…

…and I loved every minute of it. I love watching movement… and football players really know how to move. I  have profound respect for the extensive training that goes into being able to sprint, jump, dodge, fly, fall, and manage to stand back up and do it all over again on a dime.

Football season is over, yet many of these players will now start the job of rehabilitation to get them back to top form for next season.

Football is a terrific spectator sport, but brutally hard on the athletes. It is a sport whose players could benefit from Hanna Somatic Education. Why? Because football involves serious repetitive injuries, with concussions causing a great deal of concern.

Sensory Motor Amnesia and professional sports go hand in hand.

The most common injuries in American football are to the knee, ankle, leg, pelvis, and shoulder, and head: snapped ACLs and MCLs, dislocated shoulders, ankle sprains, hamstring strains, and concussions. All of these injuries can lead to some form of compensation while the injury heals; compensation triggers the brain to put certain muscles on “cruise control” (Sensory Motor Amnesia). A bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia could ruin a player’s career – and to a lesser extent make full recovery very costly and time-consuming.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that can change the way your brain works. Concussions warrant immediate and expert medical attention. However, those suffering concussions also have secondary muscular pain that is often associated with what doctors call “post concussion syndrome.” It is believed that PCS can develop due to an actual neck injury associated with the accident that caused the concussion.

Here’s the rub: It’s never just one muscle causing the problem.

The “neck injury” that is most written about in regards to PCS is one of myofascial neck pain. The tight neck muscles pull the vertebrae out of alignment. Seeking chiropractic care can be helpful, but reeducating the muscles that coordinate together with the neck (and that contracted in response to the injury) will yield rapid, long lasting results. It will also be vastly less expensive than treatments that seek to “fix” the muscles symptomatically.

The muscular response to a concussion has been identified as almost identical to “whiplash:”

  • the head snaps forward and back suddenly
  • one side of the body retracts (if there is a side impact)
  • the muscles of the neck and shoulders contract strongly
  • the muscles of the front of the body contract
  • the muscles of the back, which go from the sacrum up to the base of the skull, contract strongly

How do you really release and relax muscles that have been violently contracted during the accident or “hit” that results in a concussion?

Pandiculation gently releases the muscles of the neck, shoulders and back and restores proper muscle function.

Pandiculation – tightening, lengthening and relaxing of muscles – is the safest and gentlest way to restore proper brain to muscle function. “Hands-on” pandiculations, which are done one-on-one during clinical Somatics sessions, allow the practitioner to guide the client through many different combinations of movement (within their comfort range) that involve the tight muscles. You will reeducate the muscles to stop contracting so that the pain ceases.

In this post I present a few gentle seated pandiculations for neck pain relief. The Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD has even more easy, gentle Somatic Exercises to relieve neck and shoulder pain at home.

Concussions can happen in any sport: skiing, horseback riding, ice hockey, soccer, boxing, lacrosse, volleyball, cyclocross, cycling, and basketball. A concussion is a medical problem that requires medical attention. The secondary muscular pain that accompanies a concussion is most efficiently reversed with Somatic Education.

Why Iliotibial Band Stretches Don’t Work (and What Does)

Iliotibial Band Syndrome is a common problem with runners and cyclists and those who have suffered an injury.

The iliotibital band, commonly known as the IT band, is a band of tissue extending from the hip, along the outside of the thigh and knee.  With “Iliotibial Band Syndrome” the IT band becomes very tight and sore, making it difficult to exercise.

How does Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) occur and what can you do about it?

ITBS occurs when the IT band becomes inflammed during repetitive flexion and extension of the leg in running, biking and hiking. I would offer another perspective, because not all runners, cyclists and hikers suffer from a tight IT band and/or accompanying knee pain.

ITBS is actually the result of a Trauma Reflex

The most common muscular pattern I see in people with IT band pain is the Trauma Reflex. The photo at right is of a recent client – a soccer player – who complained of right sided iliotibial band pain, hamstring and knee pain. It is a perfect example of the trauma reflex.

Notice the following:

  • The waist muscles on the left side of his body are tighter, hiking the left hip up higher than the right.
  • His left shoulder is pulled down in response to the tightening of the waist muscles.
  • The shift in his pelvis causes him to shift his weight to his right side.

When this occurs, the pelvis is pulled out of balance and twists slightly. This can occur if you’re a runner who slips in the mud, or a cyclist who falls off his bike. This Trauma Reflex alters the gait in such a way that one will run or walk as if he were a car with one flat tire. This kind of accumulated muscle tension on one side causes the IT band to tighten in order to stabilize the relationship between the pelvis, hip and knee. In this client’s case, we did a clinical session for the trauma reflex, and in one hour, his hamstring, knee and IT band pain disappeared once he learned to even out his waist muscles and regain symmetry in his pelvis.

Why doesn’t stretching help?

Stretching fascia that is attached to muscles that are constantly contracting suggests a lack of understanding about how the muscular system works. Fascia is tight because the muscles are tight. Muscles become tight through habituation – in the case of IT band pain – a Trauma Reflex, which creates a postural imbalance. Because muscles are controlled from within – both voluntarily and involuntarily fascia will become more pliable once the muscles relax. Fascial work is an example of attempting to fix the problem from the “outside in” when in fact, it can only be fixed from the inside out – through sensory motor retraining. Learn to change the way in which you sense and move your muscles you are on road the targeting the root cause of your pain: your brain.

Try this easy pandiculation for IT band pain relief:

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to learn to relieve your muscle pain in the comfort of your own home.