One of my favorite people on this earth worked with me for quite a few years to improve his strength and stability. In his free time, he ran the trails near where he lived- several miles amounting to 7000 to 8000 steps each jaunt, several times a week.
When I looked under the hood at his strength, he did not have enough calf strength to lift his body weight once- on either ankle.
He did not have enough ankle strength to move his body weight- let alone 4-5 times his body weight and yet he was able to run for thousands of steps, several times each week.
In my attempts to strengthen his ankles, we tried everything. From isometrics to non-weight bearing with elastic bands to modified weight bearing to weight bearing to modified plyometrics.
Bless us and his ankles- they never got stronger.
He did not have any other underlying conditions that would have accounted for this lack of progress. So how is this possible? To understand, we have to think like neurologic PTs.
Our movement patterns can be thought of as neurologic habits. When we are born, we have no habits. The potential of our movement patterns is like a smooth, brand new linoleum floor. It is limitless. If we were to roll a marble across the surface, it would go in the direction of our force- with very little resistance.
The downside of this high potential is completely low efficiency. This surface that allows for limitless potential of our marble (our movement patterns) to move anywhere, is supremely inefficient. Thousands of potential outcomes can occur. Our marble could roll under a table, or get stuck under the fridge. All of us have felt this high potential and lack of efficiency- and we call it lack of coordination. I am learning to play tennis right now, and learning to stabilize my wrist feels like something I cannot anticipate. I lock up multiple joints- at my elbow and shoulder- as my neural network learns to create stability at the wrist.
Our own linoleum floors ( or motor systems) are hard wired to create efficiency. We learn, socially and over time, to carve motor pathways that are the most efficient. We expend the least amount of available energy to get the best outcomes.
You can think of this maturation and development of efficiency like us using a jack hammer to create pits in the linoleum floor where we want the marble to roll. If I am a tennis player, I will create a pit that helps me model my wrist to get the ball over the net. If I am a walker, I create a pit that promotes my walking. In the case of our runner- he created a large pit in his smooth floor using his available means of running to get it done. In his case, he did not have the strength he needed for healthful gait patterns to emerge- and so his pits evolved so that he could get the movement done (without having what he needed to do it sustainably).
The problem with this pit scenario, is that, as you can expect, it is super difficult to fill these pits back in. If we push a marble across the floor, everything falls into the pits we have already created and can’t get to other, smaller pits we are trying to create.
In the case of my friend, he had ran for so many miles on weak ankles, it was nigh impossible to establish a new method of running- let alone establish some new ankle strength.
If you are having difficulty building strength or establishing new motor plans, please check in with yourself on the following reflections:
1) What are you willing to give up?
To transform a motor plan, what pit are you willing to fill in? This may mean that you avoid a movement (in the case of a runner, that may mean running) for a period of time. When I was recently at a biomechanics course, the consultants discussed the avoidance of movement during the phase in which new strength and motor plans were developed – often 3.5-4 months (!)
I am currently learning to play tennis, and my coach told me the worst thing I could do right now, is get out and practice hitting from a machine, because all of my newbie bad habits would get solidified with every hit.
2) If you are having challenges in your current movement and you are not willing or unable to give anything up, accept that strengthening and changing motor plans may not be for you at this time.
This is a fine choice! This is ultimately where my client remained and I wholeheartedly respect this decision. You can always circle back to this at a different time when you have different bandwidth.
3) Are you eating enough?
Having enough fat, protein and carbohydrate is crucial for growth and healing processes within biologic tissues. I have absolutely no clue about what to eat or how to eat- just wanted to make a note you need to be consuming enough calories (and a mixture of the above macro nutrients) to engage in this growth business.
4) Are you working out with an injury?
Most of us (unfortunately) have chronic challenges that we have dealt with throughout our physical lives. I have some instability in my neck which grumps up the tissue around my shoulder. But I do my best to keep it out of an acute phase. These old sensitivities are fine to work around and through while conditioning.
However, when tissue is actively injured (an acute bout of a chronic condition or a new acute injury) strength training and working out is always contraindicated. This is a call to give your body rest and recovery, go see your PT, and initiate rehabilitation when ready.
5) Are you practicing with right effort and consistency? Are you always over or under doing?
Both doing more than what you are strong/ mobile enough for and not doing enough will create plateaus in your progress. Injury can be a huge barrier to consistency of strength and training throughout our lifespans. I would really like for that to shift, and that is part of why I believe so strongly in safe and progressive strengthening.
6) And finally- are you getting enough rest?
Rest does not necessarily mean sleeping soundly 8 hours a night. But are you getting bodywork, meditation, recovery practices for your mind and physical body into your daily routine?
If you are in the midst of fighting off the flu, dealing with challenges with your parent's health or you are going through a divorce, that physical and emotional toll leaves no energy for learning or building. Get some rest, be there for yourself and others, and come back to the work when you have energy reserves.
Working with neurologic flexibility requires a good sense of humor, rest and ease. It requires that we try things we may not be good at (and may never get good at). It is important to know that this is generally an extremely safe situation (to try something new, that is)- and frankly- super enjoyable. I actually love not being good at something as an adult- it gives me a sense of childhood to just do something because it is fun. The good news is that if you don’t like the process or the effects it has on your body, you can always go back to your old pits.
Until next time, happy moving!
Our old motor plans are as familiar as gravity- like water running downstream. Creating new pathways requires so much effort- like a salmon swimming upstream.