An Athlete’s Relationship With An Exercise Environment Via Afferentation & Energy

An Athlete’s Relationship With An Exercise Environment  Via Afferentation & Energy

Sensory information dictates our perception of the world around us-whatever world that may be to you. That world may be walking down the street feeling the sunlight on your face, holding a barbell in a gym, or sitting at a table holding a loved one’s hand. Our brain needs accurate sensory information from our environment, in order to connect. Sensory information includes the linkage of both the external environment (sensory) and internal environment (emotions). Representations of our environment can occur with both real and remembered stimuli (1). Human behavior and motor control is based upon ACCURATE sensory information (19,21,22). Vision, vestibular, and somatosensory (pain, touch, temperature, and proprioception) input provides our brain with the information it needs to make accurate motor and behavioral responses. The brain needs this afferent information in order to feel safe and know that it can protect itself against threat. You need the ability to sense and feel.

Allostatic Overload: Stress and Emotional Context Part I

Okay, I get it... ‘Allostasis’ has become the new catch phrase. However, I think it places an emphasis and understanding on the consequences of training adaptations. No, not every adaptation we make to training is positive for health and well-beingg; training can be associated with a cost. Consequence can have both a positive and negative result, but cost is associated with a price to pay. Training is stress. Stress can change the way we think, process information, and behave. As a coach, you need to be a thoughtful stress manager and understand that everything you do has a consequence.

Before an adaptation to training can be acquired, the payment in stress is required. The consequence of that stress depends on how it is managed. As strength and conditioning coaches, we are stress managers. Stress is a bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium (8). Exercise is planned stress (i.e. periodization). The same chemical response occurs if you break up with your significant other, have an upcoming exam, or are lifting 90% of your max for multiple repetitions.

“Scientific understanding of stress and adaptation, have changed a lot in the past century, but periodization has not changed with them” - Martin Bingisser

The chemical response to an acute PERCEIVED stressor/adversity is initiated by a stimulus which activates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to globally effect the major organs of the body. The hypothalamus, specifically the paraventicular nucleus releases corticotrophin-releasing Hormone (CRH), this activates the anterior pituitary to release adrenocorticotrophin-releasing hormone (ACTH), which causes the Adrenal cortex to produce corticosteroids (cortisol in humans). The associated physiological responses are activated: sympathetic nervous system (SNS), release of catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) accelerate heart rate, vasoconstriction of blood vessels, mobilization of energy resources, increased ventilation, inhibition of digestion, growth systems, and reproductive systems. This response will also be anatomical, humans will increase muscle tone and increase recruitment of extensors.

An inverted U-shaped relationship exists between stressor exposure and adaptation. There is an interplay over time between current stressor exposure, internal regulation of bodily processes, and health outcomes (6). On the adaptive side: small to moderate amounts of stressor exposure (stimulation or challenge) leads to increased health and improved physiological (immune, skeletal, muscular) and mental function (cortical plasticity and executive function). A tipping point occurs when a healthy challenge becomes a progressively unhealthy stressor (chronic, repeated exposure) and can result in long term, negative health outcomes (compromised immune function, neurogenesis).


Figure A and B. Correspond to two different athletes reflecting how much stress they can handle with and without an associated cost. Some athletes may be better equipped to handle more stress without negative health outcomes than others.

Homeostasis is a term used to describe the regulation of internal settings or set points that the body likes to maintain within a certain range. For example, pH between 7.35-7.45, sodium between 135-145 mEq/L, total serum calcium concentration between 8.5-10.2 mg/dL, or blood glucose between 79.2-110 mg/dL). When homeostasis is disturbed due to a stressor/imposed challenge, the brain and the body do not immediately seek to return to homeostatic balance. “Homeostasis resets itself in response to stress exposure” (6). The resetting of set points is allostasis.

“Allostasis explains how regulatory events maintain organismic viability, or not, in diverse contexts with varying set points of bodily needs and competing motivations.”- Jay Schulkin



Allostasis means adapting to change. Allostatic accommodation is an acute imposed stressor which IS a microtrauma; for example, an acute stressor elevates blood pressure. An acute stressor will activate the SNS thus increasing cardiac output, blood volume, and vascular constriction. This will temporarily increase blood pressure (allostatic accommodation), which your body should be able to handle without a system cost (return to resting levels). However, if the arousal becomes chronic the brain will respond to the elevated blood pressure by creating vascular system changes such as thickening arteriolar smooth muscle and increasing vascular wall-to-lumen ratio (allostatic load). Allostatic load is the physiological change required to respond and adapt to a stressor or repeated accommodation. Allostatic load is the wear and tear of central and peripheral allostatic accommodation. Allostatic overload and pathophysiology occur when a high blood pressure is needed to maintain the same blood flow through a stiffer vascular system, which turns into a feedforward system. Allostatic overload is the expression of pathophysiology (abnormal physiology) by the chronic over activation of regulating systems (6). For our

example of blood pressure, an individual’s normal blood pressure can now be reset to a higher level which is hypertension= pathology.

The Brain & Emotional Context

“The brain is the central mediator of ongoing system wide physiological adjustment to an environmental challenge.”  - McEwen, 2004, 2007; Schulkin, 2003; Sterling, 2004; Sterling & Eyer, 1988

The brain as the higher levels in the system modulate and coordinate the activity of lower levels (8). “Allostasis involves the whole brain and body rather than simply local feedback,” and this is “a far more complex form of regulation than homeostasis” (18). Stress can be physical and emotional events, such as pain, discomfort, injury, distress; however, stress can also be a sense of angst inside that you don’t know or understand (reflect for a second...I’ll wait). A stressed system on an unconscious level can create a cortical response that leads to states and resetting neural pathways.

Most of our behavior is dictated by an emotion or feeling, not a thought. We have to associate an emotion with a physical task via the brain in order to dictate the APPROPRIATE physiological response. “A stressor must have sufficient magnitude to activate the emotional circuitry of the brain or the stress response will not be invoked by the organism: conversely, stressors that are of a magnitude sufficient to overwhelm the mechanisms of allostatic accommodation will produce greater allostatic load” (6). Emotional context drives training adaptations. As stimulus functions as a stressor depending upon its emotional valence (whether it is judged to be harmful or beneficial), level of intensity (threat or challenge) and personal importance relative to environmental context and personal beliefs, goals, and coping resources (6).

Emotional regions of the brain include the amygdala and basal ganglia, combined to call the limbic system. Amygdala is associated with threat value and avoidance behavior. The basal ganglia is associated with reward value and approach behavior. These emotional areas are most likely to show evidence of allostatic load which can increase probability of injury and negative health outcomes (2). WHY? Emotions overlay the chemical consequences of the training stimulus. The chemical environment is not just based upon the emotional intensities of training, but also of life. If an individual is PERCIEVING stress from personal relationships and school then trains repeatedly with high stressors, the same chemical response is overlaid. “Load can accumulate from daily low levels of stress in the environment,” (6). Exercise input involves both context and the stressor itself. The context is the environment, such as the setting (i.e. color of the room, volume of the music, or behavior of the strength coach). In an exercise environment the stressor can be number of sets, repetitions, intensity, velocities, or load.

“If you are stressed about the session or some other aspect of your life- you are essentially OVERLAYING THE CHEMICAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE IMPOSED MECHANICAL TRAINING STRESSORS ON A SUBOPTIMAL CHEMICAL BACKDROP. As a consequence, adaptations are inevitably compromised and risks, of injury or illness, escalate.” - John Keily

“Under chronic or repeated stress, the short-term gains of allostatic accommodation dwindle over time, while its physiological adaptations, become entrenched and automatic.” - Sterling & Eyer, 1988

Chronic, repeated stress will cause overactivation of the HPA axis leading to dysfunction of the Hypothalamus- Pituitary-Thyroid (HPT) axis and Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Gonad (HPG) axis. In the words of Dr. Ben House, “axes that function together, dysfunction together,” so you are not just dealing with a dysfunctional HPA axis, chronic stress will lead to HPT and HPG dysfunction; hello thyroid and testosterone production issues.

“Factor in aging process is the ability to secrete more cortisol when necessary and terminate the elevated levels when not necessary” - Schulkin, 2011

Physiological changes lead to changes in environmental perception, behavior, and anxiety (level of tension). A stress can become perceived as a threat and chronic stress can create change in neural pathways facilitating heightened perceptual processing of threatening stimuli in the environment (6). This threatening stimulus will be associated with emotional significance. A feedforward system is created involving chemical response to stress, neural signaling pathways, perception of environment or task, and behavior.

“The body is an entry point to the mind and the mind is an entry point to the body.” – Dr. Mike T. Nelson

What should you do with this information? STICK AROUND FOR PART 2...

About the Author


Michelle Boland

– Strength and Conditioning Coach at Northeastern University (Boston, MA)

– PhD. Exercise Physiology, Springfield College

– M.S. Strength and Conditioning, Springfield College

– B.S. Nutrition, Keene State College

– Follow on Instagram: mboland18

– Visit:

  • References
  1. 1. Anderson, A. K. (2005). Affective influences on the attentional dynamics supporting awareness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 258–281.
  2. 2. Bingisser, M. (2017). How your emotional state can be more powerful than your rep scheme. HMMR Media
  3. 3. Bingisser, M. (2017). Training, Fast and Slow. HMMR Media Cerqueira, J. J., Mailliet, F., Almeida, O. F., Jay, T. M., & Sousa, N. (2007). The prefrontal cortex as a key target of the maladaptive response to stress. Journal of Neuroscience, 27, 2781–2787.
  4. 4. Cerqueira, J. J., Pego, J. M., Taipa, R., Bessa, J. M., Almeida, O. F. X., & Sousa, N. (2005). Morphological correlates of corticosteroid-induced changes in prefrontal cortex-dependent behaviors. Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 7792–7800.
  5. 5. Ganzel, BL, Wethington, E, & Morris, PA (2010). Allostasis and the human brain: Integrating models of stress from social and life sciences. Psych Review 117(1): 134-174
  6. 6. Hodges, P.W., Sapsford, R., & Pengel, L.M. (2007). Postural and respiratory functions of the pelvic floor muscles. Neurourology and Urodynamics 26: 362-371.
  7. 7. Lovallo, W. (2016). Stress & Health: Biological and psychological interactions. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
  8. 8. McEwen, B. S. (2000). Allostasis and allostatic load: Implications for neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology, 22, 108–124.
  9. 9. McEwen, B. S. (2004). Protective and damaging effects of the mediators of stress and adaptation: Allostasis and allostatic load. In J. Schulkin (Ed.), Allostasis, homeostasis, and the costs of physiological adaptation (pp. 65–98). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
  10. 10. McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain. Physiological Reviews, 87, 873–901.
  11. 11. Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108, 483–522.
  12. 12. Samueloff, S. & Yousef, M.K. (1987). Adaptive physiology to stressful environments. CRC Press Inc: Boca Raton, FL.
  13. 13. Schulkin, J. (2003). Rethinking homeostasis: Allostatic regulation in physiology and pathophysiology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  14. 14. Schulkin, J. (2004). Allostasis, homeostasis, and the costs of physiological adaptation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  15. 15. Schulkin, J. (2011). Social allostasis: Anticipatory regulation of the internal milieu. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, 2 (111), 1-15.
  16. 16. Sterling, P. (2004). Principles of allostasis: Optimal design, predictive regulation, pathophysiology, and rational therapeutics. In J. Schulkin (Ed.), Allostasis, homeostasis, and the costs of physiological adaptation (pp. 17–64). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  17. 17. Sterling, P., & Eyer, J. (1988). Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology. In S. Fisher & J. Reason (Eds.), Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health (pp. 629 – 649). Chichester, England: Wiley.

Pain and the Brain: How to Take Control and Continue Progressing

Let me ask you a question: have you ever been in pain? Not fun right?

If you’re lucky, it only lasted a few minutes, or several hours, but there are those of you out there who’ve suffered for days, weeks, and maybe even years.

Maybe it was from a strained muscle during your last sprinting session, or a rolled ankle in a pick-up basketball game. Or maybe you injured your back years ago deadlifting, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Regardless of the cause, pain can be both frustrating and confusing. It can leave you feeling hopeless, consume much of who you are, and prevent you from doing the things you love or once loved.

If you Google “pain relief” you’ll quickly get 181,000,000 results that vary from medication and topical cream, to electronic devices and various stretches. Deciding the best course of action to take can be overwhelming and expensive.

When it comes to pain, like anything else, knowledge is power. And being able to understand what ignites your pain is often the first step towards getting back under the bar, on the field, or doing whatever it is you’re passionate about.

Pain Protects You

For starters, it’s important to understand that pain exists for a reason: IT PROTECTS YOU.

It’s there to alert you of danger, and signal for you to stop doing x before you become seriously injured. Not only that, it can make you move, think, and behave differently because it has your best interest at heart: survival.

Thus, whether you like it or not, pain is often vital for healing.

When thinking of pain and your body, think of Kevin McCallister protecting his house.

Photo Credit:  Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone

Instead of staple guns, paint cans, and a rope soaked in kerosene, you have a motor system, nervous system, endocrine, immune, and limbic system all trying to protect and alert your brain of potential damage.

And instead of the wet bandits, you deal with many sensory inputs that serve as threats to you and your body.

In other words, you have a system. And that system alerts your brain of actual or potential tissue damage when it’s under threat.

It’s also important to understand the amount of pain you experience doesn’t necessarily relate to the amount of tissue damage. Your brain is constantly receiving sensory cues and inputs, and has the final say on whether something hurts 100% of the time.


To get a better appreciation for how significant a role your brain plays in pain, it’s powerful to understand context and emotional stress:

- A cut on the index finger of a baseball pitcher may be much more painful than a cut on the index finger of a sweeper on the soccer team.

- The loss of a loved one, a bad break-up, or taking on more responsibility at work can increase both muscle tension and pain.

- You have the power to take control and inhibit your alarm system.

Understanding Your Danger Alarm System


Now that you recognize your brain is the boss and has the final say in pain, it’s also valuable to know that pain is NOT all in your head. There are specific physiological processes occurring that lead to pain.

Mechanical, chemical, and temperature sensors all tell your brain about changes in your body’s tissues, and your thoughts and beliefs are constantly influencing how you perceive these inputs.

After your brain takes into account all of the available information, it quickly decides if any of these sensors are sending danger signals. If so, pain is produced.

Photo Credit:  Butler, Mosey.  2013.  Explain Pain.
Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

The first important piece to appreciate about your danger alarm system is that sensors have an incredibly short lifespan of only a few days. Therefore, your current level of sensitivity is not fixed.

If you can reduce the demands for the production of that particular sensor(s), you’ll reduce the rate of sensor manufacturing, and in return, reduce sensitivity.

This may mean:

- Inhibition of particular muscle chains

- Decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity

- Decreasing daily mental and emotional stress

- Improving exercise technique

- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet

So, how does sensor and sensor activity relate to pain?

We don’t actually have pain receptors, but we do have nociceptors.

Nociceptors respond to everything. If something is potentially dangerous to your tissues, they’ll send a signal to your spinal cord and then your brain.

We have nociception happening all of the time, but only sometimes does it result in pain.

Wait, what?

Remember: when your brain receives an input it’s weighed with all other inputs and then makes a decision as to whether something hurts or not.

The second important thing to know when talking about your danger alarm system is that your brain is constantly changing and creating neurotags.

A neurotag is something that’s specific to you, and is very dependent on your past experiences. For example, if you were in a motor vehicle accident, the simple act of getting into a car may be threatening and cause an increase in muscle tension.

Here’s another example: the longer you’ve had a particular pain, the better your system gets at producing it.

  1. Furthermore, the stronger and larger that pain neurotag becomes, the easier it is for that particular pain to be ignited.

Think of your brain like a football team:

The longer you’ve dealt with your pain, the better your team gets at running your pain play. And you continue practicing that same play over, and over and over again, while neglecting other options in the playbook. Before you know it, your offense loses variability and can only run one play.

No team wins running only one play. You must teach your offense to be curious, creative, and run a variety of plays; this is when your danger alarm system can be shut off.

Learning to drop off these neurotags and replace them with better references can be extremely valuable.

Tissue Damage

Because your danger alarm system is in place to protect the tissues of your body, it’s important to discuss what’s happening locally, at specific tissues, that causes your brain to tell you to hurt.

In the case of an acute injury, your aim must be to return the injured tissue to a functional state as QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.

Sometimes rest is best, sometimes movement is needed, other times you may need to intervene via diet, drugs, or surgery.

Pain is sensed via tissues because of inflammation, slow healing, or the tissues become unfit and unused. Movement and massage become important tools for moving tissues and sending safe impulses to your brain to help it construct positive outputs.

All tissues have a healing time, and once the healing time has passed, your tissues don’t get another chance. Managing tissues initially involved in an injury will help manage your pain down the road.

Altered Central Nervous System Alarms

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Tissues that don’t heal properly can alter the processes of your highly adaptable central nervous system.

Remember: your brain is the command center of your entire alarm system and makes the final decision as to whether or not you are in pain. When dealing with continual impulses from weak, scarred, inflamed, or acidic tissues, your neurons and spinal cord adapt to meet the consistent demand.

At the dorsal root ganglion (DRG), a bulge before your peripheral nerve enters your spinal cord; messages from your tissues undergo some evaluation. Your DRG is sensitive and changeable and may send inaccurate signals to your brain, like telling it there is more tissue damage than there actually is.

Your DRG is also vulnerable to hormonal and chemical changes in your blood when you are stressed, which can cause signals that shouldn’t be perceived as dangerous as threatening.

The better your spinal cord gets at sending this danger message to your brain, the more sensitive your alarm system becomes.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

When your alarm system becomes more sensitive, Kevin McCallister has to go from setting up a few Christmas ornaments on the floor to installing a super alarm system with infrared and motion detectors. Now any little input will trip the system.

Signs and symptoms of a sensitized central alarm system (an offense stuck running one play) include:

- Persisting pain

- Pain that is spreading

- Pain that is worsening past acute phase

- Lots of movements (even small ones) hurt

- Pain is unpredictable

- Other threats in life: previous, current, and anticipated

When your nervous system is continually in fight or flight mode, your brain is priming your muscles accordingly. Big boys like your erector spinae, lats, quads, and pecs are always on.

These long-term motor changes make you behave differently, hold yourself differently, and even talk differently. It can be challenging to reverse these learned patterns.

Taking Control

Step 1: Understand and Educate

If you’ve made it all the way here, you’ve already begun taking control. Developing an understanding and educating yourself about the physiology of pain can reduce the amount of threat you feel.


Many of us don’t like not knowing, and knowledge can be powerful in helping reduce the hurt you feel.

Step 2: Identify Ignition Cues

Much of the article educated you on sensory inputs that inform your brain of threat. Discovering what these inputs, or pain ignition cues, are is what will set the stage for active strategies you’ll implement to inhibit your danger alarm system.

These inputs can come from many different sensory cues and scenarios.

They vary from overactive chains of muscle at your pelvis, thorax, or cranium. Or could even come from your vision or feet.

Non-physical ignition cues that are often forgotten include mental and emotional stressors, or a poor diet.

If you go to a health-care professional to help you identify your ignition cues, it’s important that they can answer all of your questions, and make clinical decisions based on your particular presentation and objective tests that he goes over with you.

Step 3: Learn Active Coping Strategies

With your ignition cues identified, you can now go about implementing active coping strategies. These may include:

- Learning about the problem

- Exploring ways to move

- Exploring and nudging the edges of pain

- Staying positive and establishing a supportive and enthusiastic team around you

- Making plans

- Finding de-stressing activities

Step 4: Your Hurts Won’t Hurt You

Once you begin to use active coping strategies, remind yourself that hurt doesn’t always equal harm.

Step 5: Pacing and Graded Exposure

Your nervous system needs you to gradually increase your activity level. Be patience and persistent.

- Choose an activity you want to or need to do more of

- Find your baseline

- Plan your progression

- Don’t flare up, but don’t freak out if you do

- Look at the whole picture. Stressors come from various places in your life

Closing Thoughts

Much of this article touches on what happens when pain persists long past the time it takes for tissues to heal.

If you’ve recently had an injury, remember to manage your tissues and manage other stressors in life, like getting better sleep, better nutrition, and making time for things like meditation.

If your pain has been persistent and worsening, think about what happens when your nervous system becomes sensitized and you install your super alarm system. Learn active coping strategies and teach your offense to run new plays.

Be curious, be creative, feel, and find yourself living a much happier and pain free life.

about the author


Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist. He works at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from the Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA. He was also a member of the Springfield College baseball team, and interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.


Butler, D., & Moseley, L. (2003). 

Explain Pain

. Adelaide City West, South Australia: Noigroup Publicatinos.

5 Reasons Why You Should Never Stop Sprinting

"Sprinting is laced into our DNA. It’s part of who we are as a species and represents one of our most primal instincts. Unfortunately, sprinting has fallen off the radar for most people because it’s no longer a requirement for survival. We don’t have to chase down our food or flee from predators on foot. Thus, it tends to take a backseat for everyone but competitive athletes.

While you no longer need to sprint for daily survival -- and though it’s physically taxing to perform -- sprinting doesn’t have to be reserved solely for athletes. Everyone can and should sprint because it’s one of the most powerful adaptive tools we have. Our physiology responds exceptionally well to sprints. When structured properly, sprinting builds muscular strength and power, improves the health of bones and joints, drives metabolism and fat loss, increases oxidative capacity and boosts brainpower."

Be sure to click below and checkout the rest of the article over at Livestrong:

Click Me ==> Why Sprinting Isn't Just for Athletes

about the author


James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram for the latest happenings.

The Brain and Movement: The Most Important Part of the Conversation

As athletes, coaches, rehab specialists etc. it is important to know the roll our nervous system plays in the way we move. The topic neurology of movement is so vast there is no way we can scratch the surface in one article, so I have included a few relevant and interesting examples. Before we get into it, let's start with some mind blowing facts about this amazing system. A single cell within the nervous system is called a neuron, and the connection between two neurons is a synapse.


Our brain communicates within itself and with our muscles to form thoughts and movements via signals that pass through our neurons and synapses. As described in David Butler's book Explain Pain,

"There are more possible connections in the brain than particles in the universe...  Babies make millions of synapses per second, 3 million synapses fit on a pinhead.  You, the reader, have a dynamic ever-changing brain; millions of synapses link and unlink every second  That means you could donate 10,000 synapses to every man, woman and child on the planet, and still function reasonably!"

Are you convinced our nervous system is awesome and worth thinking about? Good; let's talk movement.

There is an area of your brain called the motor cortex that is responsible for coordinating all your voluntary movements. The motor cortex was previously thought of as a well delineated map of the body with areas dedicated to each body part with everyone’s map being more or less the same. If you want to move your leg, the leg part of the map will become active, send a signal to your leg, and allow that movement to happen.

Recent evidence, however, tells us that these maps are more dynamic than we once thought. A study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience compared the motor cortices of skilled, right-handed violinists versus right-handed non-musicians. Imaging showed that the asymmetry between right and left cortices were much larger in the musicians than non-musicians. Hence, our brains are dynamic and adapt to imposed demand.


In other words, as we learn a new task we experience a “re-wiring” of our neurons to better manage that task in the future. We have all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect,” but I would modify that by saying “perfect practice makes perfect.” Consequently, it is important to avoid ingraining faulty movement patterns in your training or day-to-day life, or they will become a part of you!

Now let’s talk about engraining motor patterns. Athletes spend a lot of time working to improve mobility. Let’s face it, if your hips lack the proper range of motion to get deep into a lunge, significant gains will be difficult to achieve. But will dumping a significant amount of extra mobility into a segment immediately translate its way into our lifts? This is a question McGill and colleagues sought to answer. The researchers took a group of athletes with limited hip extensibility and put them through a 6 week program with the goal of increasing extension range of motion. At the end of 6 weeks, passive hip extension was significantly increased. The interesting finding is that the extra mobility was not observed during active movements. Simply put, although the athletes had this newfound extensibility in their hips, they could not translate it into active movements.

Does this mean we should throw out the foam rollers and other forms of mobility of work? Not at all; it just means we need to be more considerate of the nervous system. Every movement your body has the capacity to perform has its own program within your brain. The lunge you have done millions of times is encoded into your brain and has its own little movement map. If you suddenly gain an extra 5 degrees of hip extension, you may not immediately see the extra range in motion.

Although your tissues have the ability to "stretch" further, your brain map for that movement pattern only knows the original range of motion. The researchers concluded that "training and rehabilitation programs may benefit from an additional focus on 'grooving' new motor patterns if newfound movement range is to be used."


So next time you perform or prescribe mobility work, be sure to engrain the movement you are trying to improve. This can be done with simple cueing. If your client’s knee is collapsing in during a squat, wrap a resistance band around his knees to provide an outward resistance. If you’re looking for hip extension, get into a lunge with a band around your back thigh pulling forward. This will cause you to actively resist hip flexion thus engraining that extension pattern in your brain. Be creative with your cues and constantly switch things up to challenge the adaptability of the nervous system.

The idea of having brain maps for all our movements is pretty cool, but what if we could feed off other peoples’ brain maps when trying to refine our own movements? Well, we can. This is possible and can be explained by a fairly new discovery called mirror neurons found in the brain.

Have you ever witnessed a car accident and found yourself bracing as if you were part of the accident? This behavior can be explain by our mirror neuron system. These neurons fire when we perform a movement but also fire when we watch someone else perform the same movement. What does this mean to us movement geeks? By taking advantage of the mirror system we can better help our clients learn new movements. One of the rules of Gray Cook’s screening systems is “monkey-see monkey-do.” Being able to visualize a movement before performing it helps in our acquisition of that movement. Visualizing a movement does not help you learn as well as actual practice, but it does produce equivalent changes in the motor cortex.

The fields of neurology and neuroplasticity are growing everyday, so it would be impossible to give them a fair representation in one article. What is important to know is that our nervous system is dynamic and constantly adapting. It requires proper sensory input for optimal function, and as movement professionals we can use this to our advantage to get the performance results we want from ourselves or our clients.

If you have any questions, which I'm sure you do, be sure to post them below and I'll help you get situated with this concept.

about the author


Clay Sankey is a student at Logan University working toward his doctorate in Chiropractic and masters in Sport and Rehabilitation.  He is certified through the Titleist Performance Institute, Selective Functional Movement Assessment, RockTape’s Fascial Movement Taping and Active Release Techniques. Clay has received bachelors degrees in Life Science from Logan University and Exercise Science from Elon University.  While at Elon he competed in cross country and track.

Note from James: If you're interested in reading more on this topic, I'd highly recommend picking up a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. It's an excellent introductory book to the world of neuroplasticity, and is very user friendly. So be sure to add that to your book list.