All athletes and artists crave perfect posture. It makes them fast, it makes them strong, and as artists it makes them look beautiful. But what determines what is “perfect”? And even more importantly: how can it be achieved?
In my last article ‘Neuro Athletic goes Broadway’ I mentioned how we used visual and vestibular training to work on integrating perfect posture in Sofia’s dance routine, preparing for her Broadway premiere with FJK Dance Company. Today – as promised – I am going to talk a little bit more about the HOW and WHY. Which neural pathways connect visual and vestibular input with the resulting reflexive activation of the spinal musculature? And how does Neuro Athletic Training target them in order to improve the postural performance? But let’s start with the basics first: The brains main job is prediction. In the effort to ensure our survival, it constantly predicts the level of danger in a situation and prepares (the body) for upcoming challenges.
Posture is prediction
A dancer will need a different posture than a boxer or a tennis player. Different requirements of a situation will lead to a multitude of optimal body positions, where the limbs and torso are aligned in a way that allows the athlete or artist to react to the challenges or tasks at hand in the most efficient manner. This specific alignment is then called ‘good posture’; it always includes a long spine, adequate body positioning and an appropriate amount of tension.
There will be no good posture if there is a (real) threat, or anything that the brain perceives as a threat. The athlete or artist might then still “look” like having good posture. But this body positioning will be produced by compensation and thus not function as required. Good posture is always reflexive in nature! So, which skills does an athlete or artist need to own in order for the brain to feel safe and enable perfect posture? Three basic categories are of great importance:
- See well
- Balance well
- Move well
With Sofia, we introduced visual and vestibular drills in her Neuro Athletic Training to improve postural performance. As brain-based movement experts, NAT looks at all of these skills as well as the corresponding stimulus (input) and neural pathways to see HOW and WHY this kind of training contributes to good posture.
To see well means to predict upcoming challenges from the environment quickly and accurately!
Vision is the brain’s number one prediction tool about what’s happening in an athlete’s environment. In previous texts, we have already talked in depth about the basic visual skills. Here is a summary you might want to recapitulate: Gaze stabilization, smooth pursuit, saccades, near-far accommodation, visual acuity, peripheral awareness (for more, see here). By now, it should be clear to everyone that seeing well is essential in threat reduction and will always be approached as a necessary base to building an elite athlete or artist from a neuro-athletic perspective.
The neural wiring
What else happens during vision work? Many areas of the brain are involved in the process of “seeing” and they – in consequence – activate neural pathways to reflexively regulate muscle tone. One example is the deep neck musculature, which is activated via the tectospinal tract, which starts in the superior colliculus (responsible for visual mapping) and is located in the midbrain. As Neuro Athletic Trainers we are very interested in targeting and upregulating those crucial connections, which are designed to help the athlete gain perfect posture and retain it throughout all movement. We worked quite extensively with Sofia on gaze stabilization and visual mapping, creating amazing and long-lasting results.
Picture 3: Neuro athletic trainer Ulla Schmid-Fetzer with Sofia Bogdanova integrating visual drills to improve postural performance
If you would like to feel an example of this reflexive connection: put your fingers lightly in the hollows on both sides of the neck directly below the base of the skull, between the two vertical neck muscles. Now roll your eyes slowly (e.g. perform a big eye circle). Can you feel the activation of the neck musculature underneath your fingers? This is the reflexive reaction. Therefore, training and integrating the skill of “seeing well” into an athlete’s movement practice not only reduces any visual threat that might occur but also upregulates the neural wiring that reflexively guides good posture.
Balance is your body’s relationship with gravity
From a survival perspective, it is essential to keep the most valuable asset – the head and therefore the brain- from falling and hitting the floor. Therefore, “balance” is determined to a great extent by the vestibular system’s accuracy in measuring rotational and linear accelerations, which – in conjunction with visual and proprioceptive input – enables the brain to determine how the body is orientated in space. Vestibular input is received in the vestibular organs (semicircular canals for head rotations and otolith organs saccule and utricle for linear acceleration) and then interpreted by the vestibular nuclei in the brainstem in close commuication with the fastigial nucleus in the vestibulocerebellum, the origin of the vestibulospinal tract. This very important neural pathway carries efferent information unilateral to the transversus spinalis group. Activation of the right vestibular nuclei will therefore enhance muscular activity in the right spinal musculature. An underactive vestibular system will REDUCE the muscle tone in the extensors of that side.
Picture 4: Theda Delbrück clearing up some vestibular dysbalance with Neuro Athletic Trainer Ulla Schmid-Fetzer
Coming back to the vestibular work we used with Sofia: activating the saccule (by bouncing) and the left horizontal canal (via head turns to the left) helped her to achieve the optimal long spine position, and more importantly to KEEP it during rotations, thus providing more stability and therefore speeding up her turns tremendously. Posture is always supposed to support movement!
To move well means to own your options
An accurate mapping of all joints, in all speeds and all body positions, is a requirement for good and stable posture. As this article is meant to give an insight on why and how vision and vestibular work can be introduced into training in order to improve posture, this section will be kept very brief. Nevertheless, it is relevant from a neuro-athletic perspective to always look at all input systems and brain maps to ensure greatest success.
Here is a small sneak-peak into my work with Theda, a high-level ballroom dancer who has already worked on posture and poise for several years, but complained of stiffness and an unnecessary amount of tension in the back and neck:
Picture 5: Theda working on joint Re-Education with Neuro Athletic trainer Ulla Schmid-Fetzer
The first step was to clear up some deficits in her right vestibular system (a head tilt to the right made the target look blurry in the beginning) by activating the right saccule, as seen on the picture above. Due to this, much of the excessive tension was released as the reflexive stabilization of the spine could be activated. Except for the lumbar spine, which still showed an excessive amount of tension. A proprioceptive re-mapping of both hip-joints was necessary to clear up those movement plans and re-integrate the full range of hip extension into her backward steps. This allowed the lumbar spine to be stable but relaxed during big strides. As always in the neuro athletic approach it is crucial to apply an individually-tailored set of drills and stimuli matching the unique needs of the athlete’s nervous system.
Posture “work” in Neuro Athletic Training
As can be seen in this little summary, there are many aspects that contribute to the athlete’s ability in achieving and keeping a good posture throughout his or her movement. From a neuro-athletic perspective, it is important to understand how posture is designed brain-wise in order to address this topic in the most efficient and beneficial way.
- Posture is meant to support movement and ensure greatest movement quality and efficiency.
- For an optimal postural performance it is essential to reduce threat. It is indispensable that the athlete owns the basic skills-set of “see well, balance well, move well” in his sports-specific context throughout all positional and environmental requirements. Thus the brain will feel safe and move from “startle” to perfect posture.
- Posture is reflexive in nature. Therefore Neuro Athletic Training uses vision and vestibular drills to upregulate the reflexive pathways that are connected with the activation of axial musculature.
Applying those principles and the tools of Neuro Athletic to posture training will thus make the athlete naturally stronger, faster and safer – as could be seen in the work with Sofia and Theda – while the movement becomes beautifully effortless. Posture training is movement training!
Special thanks goes to: Sofia Bogdanova and Theda Delbrück.
Title Picture: courtesy of FJK Dance. Photographer: Jaqlin Medlock.