The Alexander Technique and Fitness
The Alexander Technique addresses habits that people carry around with them and engage chronically without knowing it. Humans are very adaptable, but unfortunately we easily adapt to harmful habits. Undue tension and strain become unconscious and ingrained in everything with do. For example, if a person habitually pulls themselves down, compressing into the spine, hips, knees and ankles (which is what most of us tend to do to varying degrees), they will take this habit of compressing into all of their activities. Not only will they be compressing themselves while sitting in front of a computer at work or doing the dishes at home, but they will also take that compressing, pulling down habit with them while lifting weights at the gym, running, walking, or playing sports. The greater the demand of the exercise, the more likely the person is to further exaggerate their unconscious harmful habits. A physical activity intended to promote health could end up leading to injury and in turn to a more sedentary life-style while they are waiting for the injury to heal. Furthermore, if the root cause of the injury (using the body in a way that results in strain) has not been addressed, a person is just as likely to incur injury again.
David’s story – The Shampoo Bottle that Injured the Man’s Back: David worked out regularly at the gym, appeared toned and fit, and at a glance didn’t seem to have particularly poor posture. One day David reached down in the shower to pick up a shampoo bottle and herniated a disk in his lower back. When subjected to chronic compression of the spine, the intervertebral discs (the squishy disks that provide the padding and shock absorption between the vertebrae) can bulge. Herniated disks can be quite painful.
If David appeared to be in such good shape, how did he injure his back? David habitually and unconsciously compressed and narrowed his lower back. As many people do, he overused the muscles in his upper back, neck and shoulders. Overuse in the neck/upper back/shoulder area usually results in downward compression into the lower back. Since the habits described were unconsciously being engaged all the time, they would become exaggerated even more when he would lift weights. To further the problem, he would build muscle in his upper body, but his lower back would remain compressed and unengaged in the activity of lifting, so instead of becoming more elastic and strong during his exercise routine, David’s back would become further compressed. Also, the muscle weight that he was building in his upper body would intensify the compression in his lower back and in turn intensify the problem in general, even when he wasn’t working out. Eventually the downward pressure became so strong that the simple action of lifting a shampoo bottle was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and David suffered injury. He began visiting an osteopath who suggested that he take Alexander Technique lessons. David has since learned how to undo and avoid compressing his upper back and shoulders back and down and has alleviated pressure on his lower back, which has allowed his lower back to become more elastic and strong. In turn, his lower back better supports his upper body. He takes what he has learned into his workout and is more aware of how his is using his whole body when working out, instead of concentrating only on a specific area in which he wants to build muscle.
The key to protecting the lower back when working out is not to try to engage the lower back muscles directly or do lower back exercises, but instead to release upper back, neck, and shoulder tension and compression, which is typically the source of a lower back problem. People tend to throw off their balance from the top down by creating excess tension and compression that essentially makes them top heavy. Addressing the lower back directly doesn’t solve the problem. I just shifts the tension around. Addressing the source (tension and pressure from above) resolves the problem. David’s pattern of how he habitually used his body is common and often unconscious. Whether you are a walker, runner, golfer, swimmer, or work out at the gym, you can benefit from learning to undo your potentially harmful habitual patterns. Not only will you avoid injury, but you’ll play/run/work out at your best!