In recent months I’ve been devouring James Earls’ latest publication: ‘Born to Walk, Myofascial Efficiency and the Body in Movement.’ (Lotus publishing: 2014). His writing has had such a profound impact on my approach to movement that it seems right to share the underlying ideas behind his work. I’m paraphrasing here, because his book is hugely technical, and only aiming to give an idea rather than a thorough analysis. I hope you’ll find it useful.
Earls looks at bipedalism as an essential evolutionary step. It freed up our hands to do other things etc. Gaining greater efficiency in our movement allowed us to channel more energy up to the brain, a key factor in our survival. When we walk around in life we’re often unconscious of the co-ordination required to get around. Our brain can focus on the phone call we’re having, or that particularly tricky client we’re about to see without having to constantly check that the body knows what it’s doing. Contrary to what many people believe, repetitive movement (walking, running, cycling) is not about doing more, burning more calories etc. It’s about doing less…
This mechanical efficiency comes about as a result of:
a.) The inherent instability of bipedalism
b.) The use of this instability, together with the loading created by gravity, to draw energy back into the body through a mechanism of ‘Kinetic Recoil’.
The first of these is relatively simple to understand: standing on two feet is less stable than standing on four.
To unpick the second factor, let’s briefly describe myofascia. Broadly speaking, fascia is the connective tissue that wraps around every cell, every group of cells, every muscle fibre, every bundle of muscle fibres, every muscle, organ, tendon, ligament, bone in one seamless continuous web. It connects every part of the body from the micro to the macro level. Thomas Myers’ well known book: ‘Anatomy Trains’ is one of the first comprehensive descriptions of the functional role played by what he described as ‘myofascial meridians’: lines of pull within the myofascial webbing that, like train tracks, carry tension along the route from one end of the track to another. (Most of my clients and classes have experienced this with releasing the fascia in the sole of the foot, which releases the back of the body.)
Earls describes the movement of walking through these meridians. When we begin walking from a standing position we lengthen a leg out in front. We reach through the heel (heel strike) and once this hits the floor, we gradually transfer our weight onto the front foot. During heel strike, the flexing of the foot and lengthening of the leg forwards from the hip, places tension along the back fascial line (the superficial back line or SBL). This loading creates kinetic potential in the fascia of the SBL, like a spring being stretched. When that line of tension is released, by the knee bending, the tension created in the first instance releases energy back up the leg through what he calls ‘kinetic recoil’. This provides the energy for the next phase of movement and so on.
Several lines of fascia are involved in this constant interplay of loading and releasing simultaneously. For example, as you shift your weight onto your front leg, the fascia down the front of your back leg is placed under tension. This is released as your front foot takes your weight and provides the energy for the back leg to swing forwards, ready to begin the chain reaction again through the heel strike. Efficient movement, therefore, involves essentially moving through the fascial web, leveraging this ‘free’ energy achieved by the lengthening and releasing of myofascia around the boney structure.
I think that what’s most interesting is that this process requires very little muscular effort. Earls describes experiments that show that the muscles contribute very little to repetitive movement. During walking, or running, muscles are held in a continuous ‘isometric’ contraction, rather than constantly contracting and releasing. It’s the tendinous tissues (that form a part of the fascial web) that lengthen and shorten like springs, loading and then releasing energy back into the structure.
Once again we see the body’s drive for efficiency come into play. The active concentric and eccentric contraction of muscles is expensive, requiring the exchange of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and glucose. Much less fuel is required when muscle fibres are held in isometric contraction. One of the hallmarks of efficient walking is the absence of active muscular contraction, maximizing the recoil efficiency of the fascial tissues; an easy walking pattern should use only around 38 percent of the body’s maximal aerobic capacity. (James Earls, 2014).
Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at how this perspective relates to my work with Pilates; I’ll focus on this question of ‘efficiency’ and how it can be harnessed to make real changes to the body; and I’ll be going through some exercises that can help you to move with greater ease. As ever, I do not profess to be an expert. These articles are based on my interests and observations as a Pilates teacher. Please take responsibility for your own body and feel free to disagree with me too!