Imagine this experiment:
You take a long stick, like a broom handle or a wooden dowel, and stand it vertically on its end.
Next, take a weight, let’s say a 10 or 15 lb. kettlebell, and place it on top of the stick, keeping it balanced.
If you don’t have a kettlebell, you could use a cantaloupe, or a basketball, even a gallon of milk if you dare.
One hand steadies the stick, the other steadies the weight.
Now in this little drama, the stick and weight together represent a body of sorts, a skeleton.
The stick supports the weight against the constant pull of gravity—just like your skeleton.
The joint between them creates the potential for both movement and support, similar to the joints you have throughout your body.
You play the role of the muscles, holding the weight and keeping it oriented on top of the stick.
Your job is to prevent the weight from falling off the stick.
Now, if you placed the weight more or less centered over the stick, your job is easy.
Your muscular cost is minimal.
You might have it so well centered that you need only the tip of your finger to keep it balanced.
And if you wanted to move the weight, turning it left and right like a head scanning the horizon, you’ll find that, too, takes exceedingly little effort, as long as the stick stays centered under the weight while you do it.
But now, what happens if you slide the weight just a little bit off center of the stick?
Remember, your job remains the same: keep the weight oriented on the horizon, no sagging or dropping even a little bit.
What’s your experience like now? What’s your muscular cost now?
Did it go up or down?
Well, it’s more.
You may have to use your whole hand to steady it now.
And your shoulder may be starting to fatigue.
Because the function of the stick, supporting the weight, has now been compromised by the weight being off center. The stick is still the stick, the weight is still the weight. But until their relationship is addressed, you must replace the superior strength of skeletal support with muscular compensation. Is there any way the stick can be off center and you do NOT do this? No.
No matter how strong you may be, or how relaxed you want to be, you must expend more muscular effort—because gravity doesn’t stop, and the job of maintaining orientation is primary.
And the further off center the weight sits, the more effort you have to expend to do the same job.
This defines inefficiency, no?
But it gets worse.
Because now, if you want to move that weight—turning it left and right as you did before—any effort to move it is added to the compensatory effort you’re already spending to keep the weight from falling.
That work does not go away.
Because muscular compensation for poor skeletal support always supersedes muscular effort for movement.
And if you don’t know about that little rule, you get tired real fast.
Or sore, or you get pain. Things get expensive.
Finally, go ahead and restore the weight over the center of the stick.
Feel your burden lift.
That’s due to the accuracy, the specificity of the support.
Take a moment and appreciate the relief, both physical and psychological, you experience.
The dignity of the stick and the weight have been restored.
Turn the weight left and right again. Feel how simple that is, with the proper support in place.
Here ends our little experiment.
This is as simple and direct a demonstration as you’re likely to find of how posture works—not how it looks, how it works.
It is a simplification.
After all, the stick has no joints between the bottom and the top.
Between your head and the floor, your spine alone has 24 vertebra, then there are your two spherical hip joints, two knees, and the feet and ankles each with 26 bones in them. There are a lot of relationships to manage.
But this demonstration illustrates the hierarchy your nervous system follows as it recruits and distributes muscular effort. It will always spend resources on those places where support is compromised, prior to and during your transition to move. And it always will.
What does this mean?
Well, it means that, for example, if you play violin, the way you stand determines a lot about how you’ll play. Because wherever you maintain these blind spots, for instance your ankle is poorly aligned, you body will spend significant muscular resources there first, before you play a note, and while you play.
Well, your ankle is a relationship that sits beneath 98% of your body weight. And if things are off center there, it creates a shearing force, force that passes at an odd angle to the stick of your leg, and your foot. And it’s a massive shear, because it’s a huge mass. It’s most of your body weight that shears. And your body must spend the muscular cash to stabilize that problem.
This means you will be playing the Brahms concerto with what’s left over.
You are playing with the leftovers.
Skeletal support is what the muscles must provide first. It’s the skill that potentiates all others, and gives your movement biological integrity and longevity.
Once you understand this fact, it becomes obvious why you should train this particular view, which is one of the hallmarks of Awareness Through Movement®.
photograph by Kelly Sikkema, @kellysikkema