How Somatic Education Can Improve Fitness Training

I’m preparing for a series of upcoming presentations, each one to a different audience. I will be speaking and teaching to military personnel, fitness and strength trainers, people with back pain, and rehabilitation specialists.

The terminology I use may be tailored to the audience, but the focus will be the same for all: the basics of Hanna Somatic Education:

  • Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and why it’s one of the most important conditions to understand, when addressing muscle pain and dysfunction.
  • The Three Stress Reflexes that all humans respond with in regards to stress, and how they cause muscle imbalances and pain.
  • Pandiculation is the safest, most effective way to reset muscle function and length for pain free movement and optimum muscle control.

Fitness training can benefit from Somatic Education by incorporating a basic understanding of the simple points cited above.

Fitness training is sensory motor movement training.

Programming your brain is more important than strength training and aerobics. Central nervous system programming must never be neglected at all stages of training.

— Mel Siff

In the above quote, Mel Siff is talking about somatic education: the ability to train your brain to sense and control your muscles and movements. It’s about more than just performing a movement with strength and power; it’s about quality of movement. If your brain isn’t in control of your muscles and movement, it doesn’t matter how strong you are; your movement won’t be effortless and efficient. Aerobic strength is important – but if your brain is recruiting muscles it doesn’t need for a specific movement, because certain muscles are involuntarily and habitually contracted (Sensory Motor Amnesia), you’ll be working too hard.

Sensory Motor Amnesia is the result of habituated adaptation to stress reflexes.

The brain and nervous system respond to everything in the environment – accidents, injuries, surgeries, sudden falls, long hours in a car or 40 hours a week on a computer. The brain teaches the muscles, due to continuous stress, to contract and adapt, altering the way in which you move – often without your even realizing it.

What your brain is no longer aware of can negatively impact your athletic form, “movement memory,” and ability to recuperate from injury. This also creates postural imbalances (pelvic imbalances, leg length discrepancy) that can result in injury.

Training functionally “amnesic” muscles can, over time, result in chronic muscle pain and structural damage.

Stress reflexes occur in full body patterns of muscular contraction.

When stress occurs suddenly (accidents, falls) or over long periods of time (emotional stress, seated work), the brain contracts the muscles in a pattern – a kinetic chain. It’s never just one muscle causing an imbalance or movement problem. A fitness trainer who is able to spot a full body muscular imbalance through proper assessment before training begins can help prevent injury and improve form and quality of movement.

Look at the weightlifter in the photo at right. Notice the slight imbalance in the center of the body: his waist muscles on the right are slightly shorter than on the left. The bar isn’t level. Being able to see these slight differences and teaching an athlete to regain balance can keep him playing for a long time.

Slumped shoulders, overly contracted abdominals, over-arched back muscles and hips that don’t move easily are all signs of sensory motor amnesia.

Pandiculation is more effective and safer than stretching.

Most people find stretching unpleasant and painful. Muscles that have learned to stay contracted must learn to release and this can’t be done by stretching. Learning the subtle, but very important difference between pandiculation and stretching will set you apart from other fitness trainers. Your client will learn to reset their muscles – without strain – something they can also learn to do it at home with somatic exercises. As Mel Siff advises, they’ll be training their brain to make their movements smarter.

Pandiculation uses all aspects of a muscle’s ability: eccentric, isometric and concentric – all in one, slow intentional movement. Pandiculation increases one’s awareness of the muscles involved in the movement pattern (envision a cat or dog “stretching” upon getting up from rest) and gets the nervous system ready for action. A trainer can learn to pandiculate any movement – from the “butterfly” to the “L” sit to the “woodchop.” No matter the action pattern involved in your sport, you can pandiculate it.

Hanna Somatic Education simplifies things.

If you can see patterns in your clients (and yourself): flexion, extension, side bending, and rotating, and teach them to regain symmetry within these patterns, your clients’ muscles will balance out, and their quality of movement will improve.

In Hanna Somatics, less is more. Slower is better for regaining muscle coordination. Then it’s on to ballistic, quicker movement. And this is the territory of the fitness trainer.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for our Pain-Free DVD series.

Contact Martha to find out how to bring her to your fitness center to conduct Somatics for Fitness Trainers workshops and clinical sessions.

Do You Really Need an MRI?

Many clients come to me with chronic back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain) having already scheduled a visit to their orthopedist for X-rays and MRIs. Most of them haven’t had a recent accident or injury – it’s just that they don’t know what else to do when it comes to their muscle pain. Many return after having had X-rays and MRIs; predictably, these diagnostics didn’t show anything and yielded no answers.

Many articles have been published about the burgeoning costs of unnecessary diagnostics. One of the most disturbing statements in Overtreatment in Action was:

“According to Bloomberg, companies like WellPoint and Magellan Health Services believe that expensive and unnecessary CT and MRI scans cost them roughly $30 billion a year.”

Another article questioned whether or not the availability of MRI machines can be tied to a rise in unnecessary back surgeries. It says:

There is no clear data to prove that lower back surgery is the best option for patients’ well being, particularly compounded with the risks of hospital-acquired infections or surgical complications.

MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans have their place in medical science to aid in diagnosing a potential disease or pathology, or a bone fracture/break. Yet most cases of tight, painful muscles have little to do with a genuine medical condition and everything to do with the way in which we physically adapt to the stresses of our lives. Doctors typically look for structural problems when the root cause of most muscle pain is functional in nature. Unfortunately current medical school education does not focus on functional movement nor the sensory motor system that moves our muscles and bones. What these expensive, specialized machines are incapable of diagnosing is exactly that: muscle function and muscle movement.

Sensory Motor Amnesia cannot be measured by an MRI or an X-ray, nor can it be fixed with surgery or drugs.

Most chronic muscle pain develops over time due to one’s habitual, muscular responses and adaptations to stress: sudden accidents, injuries, emotional stress, and repetitive tasks. It is something one is doing or a way one is thinking and reacting to life that causes a gradual accumulation of muscle tension to the point of chronic muscle pain.

When faced with a certain stress, the brain – the command center of the muscles – teaches muscles to stay tight and involuntarily contracted. This state of habitually tight, “frozen” muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia(SMA). SMA contributes to back, neck and shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain, and inefficient movement; tight muscles cannot contract and relax properly. Trying to move well with SMA is like trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on.

No wonder so many back surgeries don’t “cure” back pain — in some cases it even exacerbates it. Most back pain is functional, not structural. Change the way you sense and move your body and your pain will go away.

How do you know if you have Sensory Motor Amnesia?

Do you feel as if your movement is not as efficient as it used to be? Think about your lifestyle and history of accidents or repetitive tasks.

  • Do you spend a lot of time sitting? If so, how do you sit?
  • Have you ever taken a fall or had an accident (car, sports, lifting)  in which you had to compensate until you felt better?
  • Do you drive a lot? If yes, how do you sit in your car?
  • Do you arch your back excessively? Slump forward?
  • Do you stand with equal weight on both feet?
  • Do you hold children on your hip? If yes, for how many years have you done that?

Try this: move slowly and gently – bend, twist, shift from one leg to the other. Notice what you can and cannot do. Maybe you can move easily tothe left, but not to the right. This will begin to shed light on your problem.

If you think your problem is due to what you do all day, how you move and how you have learned to compensate with your muscles, your healthcare dollars are better spent  going to a class, workshop, or private clinical session of Hanna Somatics than seeking technological answers for a problem that can only be “fixed” by you.


Foam Rollers: Do They Really Help Sore Hips, Glutes, and Muscle Pain?

Many of my readers have asked me about foam rollers. Screen Shot 2012-03-15 at 9.38.58 PMWhat do I think about them? Can they really eliminate muscle pain that develops over time?

If you’re looking for more than temporary relief – no, they don’t. In fact, they might even invoke the stretch reflex, making your muscles tighter than they were before. Do they help move lymph through your body after a tough workout or run? Possibly. Do they teach your hips to move better and more fluidly so that you don’t have hip pain, and, in turn, knee and foot pain? Definitely not.

Tight muscles that you feel need to be “rolled” are often in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is the condition of chronically contracted muscles that won’t “turn off.” These muscles have learned to stay tight due to accidents, injuries, surgeries, overtraining, and stress. They are stuck in a constant feedback loop of contraction. No amount of foam rolling will reverse sensory motor amnesia.

The way you move is a reflection of what’s going on in your nervous system.

The point being: if you don’t address the nervous system and how it controls muscles and movement, you won’t create much improvement in your ability to relieve tight hips, glutes, iliotibial bands or the like after a workout, run or day at the office.

SMA is a reflection of one’s nervous system: SMA doesn’t really show up until there’s enough pain and restriction of movement that you finally take notice. It is the “canary in the mine shaft” in regards to muscle dysfunction. If you find that your hips are always tight, your gait is “off,” your pelvis is twisted or your leg length is uneven, your brain and nervous system has ceased to be able to coordinate your muscles properly. It has lost awareness.

How do you regain sensory awareness and relieve muscle pain?

Through opening up new pathways in your brain and doing movements you might not usually do (this applies to athletes every bit as much as the seated office worker) you teach the brain and muscles to move more intelligently. This is the key to not needing to use foam rollers, Thera Canes, or other gadgets to release muscles and improve flexibility.

Muscles that you’re told need to be rolled after every workout so that they don’t develop adhesions can be easily and rapidly released through the technique of pandiculation. Pandiculating muscles wakes them up at the brain level, reduces accumulated muscle tension in the muscle, and allows the brain to more accurately sense and therefore move the muscle. This kind of intentional “re-boot” of muscle function makes a whole lot of sense. Animals pandiculate – 42 times a day in some cases. This means that animals don’t get muscle strains and pulls because their nervous systems are always in constant control.

If your hips, quads, back, or iliotibial band are always tight after a workout or run, I would suggest incorporating some preventive somatic movement in your workout warm-up.

Tight hips? Remember: tight hips are caused by tight back, waist, and abdominal muscles that don’t allow for movement in the pelvis when you walk. Check out these Somatic Exercises for the hips. You may also be interested in my Leg & Hips Joints DVD.

Iliotibial band pain? Watch this video. Learning to release the hips and regaining a smooth gait is the key to being able to prevent iliotibial band pain.

Back pain? Try arch and flatten, arch and curl, the back lift, and cross lateral arch and curl (from Pain Relief Through Movement).

Several blog posts ago I provided suggestions regarding Somatics “warm-ups” and “cool-downs” that can help improve one’s muscle function during a workout. Go back and review them. You’ll be glad you did.

Ed Barrera, Hanna Somatic Educator, soccer player, and owner of GravityWerks in Washington state plays 5 soccer games a week and competes yearly in the US Veterans World Cup. He never has muscle soreness after games or competition – and never gets injured! His daily routine of Somatic Exercises in the morning and evening and before every game are the secret to his pain-free life.

Somatics Workshops in Europe – May 2012

This past year has been one of growth for Essential Somatics® and the work of Hanna Somatic Education. I have written a book – Move Without Pain – and produced 4 instructional pain-relief DVDs that teach people how to apply the methods and movements of Hanna Somatics for long term muscle pain relief, and freer, more efficient movement.

Somatics workshops in Europe – May 2012

The good news is that May 2012 sees me in the United Kingdom and Europe for 3 weeks teaching Hanna Somatics.

Here’s what will be available:

  • Movement workshops
  • Private clinical sessions
  • Somatics fundamentals intensives

What you can expect from a Hanna Somatics workshop or session with Martha Peterson:

  • Core fundamentals of HSE: philosophy, techniques, science and movements of Hanna  Somatics
  • How this work is different from any other method of pain-relief you’ve experienced
  • How to apply these methods and tools to your life (fitness routine, rehabilitation, biomechanics)
  • Experience profound and rapid alleviation of pain and freer movement from hands-on clinical sessions.
  • Learn life-long tools to keep your life pain-free.

Everyone can benefit from Somatics:

  • Those with recurring muscular pain and inflexibility who have “tried everything” to relieve it
  • Fitness trainers, Pilates or yoga teachers wanting to learn to apply Somatics principles to their teaching
  • Medical professionals looking for new and safe methods of helping their patients with functional muscle pain
  • Massage therapists, dance teachers, physiotherapists, and other health professionals
  • Athletes, dancers, hikers, runners
  • Those with “poor posture”
  • Office workers, teachers who stand all day, those with a stressful or physically demanding job
  • Those who want to continue to feel good and move easily for as long as they can – no matter their age!

I have enjoyed corresponding with people from all over the world, through email, Skype, and blog posts comments. Now is the time to get together in person to learn more about refining the Somatic Exercises, experiencing deeper, more individualized clinical work, and applying these techniques and methods to your life. The human brain has an extraordinary ability to teach each one of us to  to “fix” ourselves. This information is accessible through Hanna Somatic Education; it is what sets it apart from any other method available.

Come learn more about Somatics!

Seated Somatic Exercises for the Office Worker

About 90% of my Somatics clients sit all day long at their work. Many who don’t have desk jobs sit more than they need to merely out of habit. Long-term sitting is a fact of life for a majority of the population and it has become a public health hazard.

Nowadays many people are catching on to the fact that there is an alternative to long hours spent seated at the desk. One of my blog readers works at a standing treadmill desk and finds it very useful for preventing back and hip pain.

Personally, I’m an advocate of seated Somatic Exercises for about 5 minutes every hour, then getting up and moving any which way you possibly can, whenever possible.

When people sit for long periods of time – especially under stressful conditions, they forget how to do basic, necessary human movements that should be a part of our daily life. Sitting facing a computer demands that we look straight ahead – no twisting, bending, reaching, or squatting necessary. Emotional stress adds another level of stress to our muscles. Our brains – the command center of our muscles – teach our muscles to accumulate tension based upon the task at hand. We become used to slumping, sitting over-arched in our backs, or twisted or collapsed in our torso as we reach for our computer mouse to that we no longer are able to distinguish proper, healthy posture and biomechanics from potentially harmful holding patterns.

Diane came to me several years ago with excruciating headaches, and chronic neck and shoulder pain that required her to go on disability. She had a high stress job working 10-hour days in the financial sector; it was both stimulating, and demanding. She explained that she would sit down at her computer in the morning, open up her emails, and often not look up or move from her desk for hours at a time.

Diane had seen chiropractors, medical doctors, physical therapists, and had cortisone shots; nothing helped her find the answer to her muscle pain.

I saw her four times over the course of six weeks for private clinical Somatics sessions. We use assisted pandiculations and gentle somatic exercises to teach her to eliminate accumulated muscle tension in her back, waist muscles, hips, legs and abdominals. She began to feel her body differently as the pain diminished over time. She went back to work with a renewed awareness of her body, the ability to move her neck, shoulders, and back without pain, an understanding of how to sit properly, and tools to help her self-correct should she find herself falling back into the same unhelpful patterns.

Sitting correctly relieves back, neck, and shoulder pain.

Many people over-arch the back when trying to “sit up straight.”

The single most valuable piece of experiential learning for Diane – which she learned in the very first session – was the “seated awareness exercise” from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Diane wasn’t aware of her habit of over-arching her back; she thought that she was sitting up “straight,” when in fact, she was contracting her back muscles tightly every time she sat down to work. Her upper body was pitched over her thighs, her shoulders were in front of her hips, and her spine was arched in a bow, rather than stacked on top of her sit-bones. When she learned to release her back muscles and sit up on top of her sit-bones, the tension released all the way up to her neck and shoulders.

Check out Pain-Free at Work for Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk for renewed energy, reduced muscle tension and improved movement.