Believe it or not your body is set up the way that it is for a reason; regardless of whether you are experiencing pain or not, it is doing its best to get you around in what it considers to be the most efficient manner.

However, just in the same way that computer programs become corrupted, so do our movement patterns, but instead of being corrupted by malicious software, your body is corrupted by previous traumas or stimuli from your external environment.

American Biomechanist Katy Bowman talks a lot about diseases of habit and how we become a product of our environments, adapting to that 8 hours a day sat in a chair at a desk or to the position that you’ve been learning to box in for years and so on. One of the starkest illustrations of this can be seen when looking at orcas in captivity. The integrity of the dorsal fin of the killer whale requires high hydrostatic pressure and variable stimuli to stay erect and function as it should (it is ligamentous in structure). Orcas in captivity get into the habit of only swimming in one direction around their pool and so the dorsal fin ends up folded due not only to a lack of pressure created by depth and but also from only swimming in one direction.

So, we are an accumulation of:

  1. Our environment
  2. Previous traumas that we have experienced (both mental and physical).

How your memories & brain influence the way you move

As we go through our lives we are unable to consciously recall a lot of events, as we either forget or bury them. Your subconscious brain however, remembers everything. It remembers the time that your mum or dad said no to you when you wanted sweets, it remembers the first time you tried to walk and it remembers the seemingly innocuous ankle sprain that you suffered when you were 11 years old.

As children we are sponges to the influences around us, taking particular cues from parental figures or more senior family members, siblings and so on. All of these influences or stresses – physical, mental and emotional – make us into the person that we become.

Movement habits may also be learned and I often work with people who comment that they believe that their back problem is genetic because one of their parents, and possibly their grandparents, suffered from a similar problem. Excluding exceptional circumstances, the link in familial traits is not really genetic but is better described as an inherited trait. It is common for children to mimic the way that a parent moves and so if that parent moves badly and their back problems are being caused by poor mechanics, then that child is possibly going to suffer the same problem years down the line, thereby ‘inheriting’ the problem.

When the body has problems or imbalances it creates a hierarchy which needs to be determined before someone can start helping to put the person right. The hierarchy goes something like:

  • emotional / psychological components (limbic).
  • structural problems ie broken bones, fractures etc; diseases that have an effect on the immune or neurological systems; also joint, ligament and tendon problems, TRUE leg length discrepancies and so on.
  • motor control problems – issues with the way you move and your muscular control / patterning

It is important to also note that you get hierarchies within hierarchies and the body often needs to be corrected in a particular individual order.

You may have personally experienced going somewhere for treatment and feeling great for a few days or a week only for the problem to come back.

That is typically because there is something more important in your system that is driving whatever you have been treated for and so the body puts itself back to how it was before.

Practical example

Now I imagine a lot of you are gym goers & have experienced days that are much harder work than they should be because you aren’t in a good frame of mind for whatever reason.

Grab a friend and get them to hold their arms out to their sides parallel to the floor, ask them to picture something that makes them happy and hold their arms up as you try to push them down from their elbows. What you will likely find is that the person is able to hold their arms up.

Now this next time ask them to picture or imagine something that makes them unhappy or stressed out and try to ask them to hold their arms up again and try to push down again. What happened this time?

Barring a few exceptions people usually go ‘weak’ when they have negative thoughts on their mind. Just to rule out fatigue ask them to picture something happy again and repeat the test. They should have just turned strong again. Pretty cool eh? And a great demonstration of how your psychology rules your physical output.

Is the brain’s perception of the injury the crucial factor?

It is easy to see with the above example of the power of the mind on your neurological and physical output but it is actually a more intimate link than that as it operates on a sub-conscious level.

The behavioural neuroscientist Edward Taub demonstrated that the brains perception and experience of an injury is a – if not the – determining factor in how you act afterwards.

He took a chimpanzee and severed the nerve to one of its arms rendering it useless. He then left that chimp for a month or so before re-connecting the nerve so that the chimpanzee had full use of its arm again. However, the chimp never used its arm again, a phenomenon called learned non-use. Taub then took a second chimp and performed the same procedure but this time put the arm in a sling, he left the chimp for the same length of time before reconnecting the nerve and removing the sling. Amazingly this chimp used its arm as though the injury had never happened. The explanation given for this is that the chimp had never experienced the injury as it had had its arm restrained whilst the nerve had been severed and so never learnt that it couldn’t use it. And of course the perception and experience of an injury is a completely psychological experience.


So it becomes pretty clear that there is a psychological component to every injury.

If for instance you badly sprain an ankle you modify the way that you move in the short term to avoid as much pain as possible, however do you then think that when that pain has gone that you go back to moving the way you did before?

Almost always the answer is no, especially if there is ligament damage (ligaments provide a huge amount of proprioceptive input). Having experienced the sprain the brain now associates that ankle with a trauma and so becomes reluctant to fully trust it and so modifies the way you move, and will continue to do so up until the point that you fully rehab that area. Now, imagine that you no longer equally distribute your bodyweight 50/50 and you now put 55% of your bodyweight on your ‘good’ leg. Hypothesise for a moment which hip will need replacing if you go on distributing your weight unevenly for the next 30 years – that’s right, your ‘good’ one.

Practical implications

If you have a problem with the way you move or a problem that won’t go away that no one has been able to help you with before then perhaps you should consider taking a more holistic approach to looking at it, or finding someone to do that for you. The body is one organism and you cannot and should not break it up into small parts; how one part of you moves has the potential to affect each and every other part of you. You may have heard weird stories of someone’s shoulder pain being caused by their opposite ankle and so on and it does happen. It is not uncommon to work with individuals and secondarily help with issues such as acid reflux, IBS, urinary problems and so on as you get their body working better – medical conditions notwithstanding. If you were an active child then no doubt you were climbing, and falling, out of trees, jumping off swings and so on, and old injuries still have the potential to be affecting you now.

Recently there has been a rise of primal movement courses and people moving back to crawling patterns and ‘flows’. These work great not only as a tool to promote better movement but also taps into the way that we learnt to move in the first place as infants.

They are also brilliant at highlighting weaknesses and restrictions on one side that can be worked on if you find that you have an asymmetry. There are endless varieties of crawling that you can play around with, simply search on YouTube, to provide you with stimuli that will provide your body with new stimuli that it has to adapt to and thereby become more resilient and efficient in the process. The three seen below are simple examples of 3 very different stimuli that can be created by such simple moves:

  1. The inchworm
  2. The frog jump
  3. The leopard
Images from Redefining Strength

About the Author

Steve Dobb is a Neurokinetic Therapy Practitioner and runs North East Body Mechanic. Steve has a BSc (Hons) in Applied Sport Science from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Strength & Conditioning from the University of East London as well as a Level 5 Advanced Diploma in Sports Therapy.

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