Body Maps

MOVEMENT NERD ALERT!  The following contains detailed information in which I geek out about movement, mobility, and how the body works.  Proceed at your own risk.

What is a body map, and what role does it play in how we move?

Body maps are an important but little known concept in understanding human movement.  Body maps can be thought of as the blueprints of our physical selves stored in our brain.  The brain accesses these “blueprints” in order to help us navigate through our environment – i.e. move.

The more precisely these maps have been drawn, the better we are at movement and adapting to different situations.  We won’t always have a barbell evenly weighted to pick up in a standard grip and stance – if we are more aware of our body position (i.e. have a detailed body map to work with), the better chance we have to lift the object safely and effectively.  On the other hand, the more out of focus our body maps, the greater potential for dysfunction and pain.

Imagine a person who is slowly losing their eyesight.  As things around them become fuzzier, the harder it is for them to perform precise movements, such as picking up a penny off the floor, until they can no longer perform the movement at all.  We can also imagine that this process would be quite frightening!

The brain works in much the same way.  If it can’t “see” the body part, it won’t use it well and might be a little scared of the idea, letting us know in the only way it knows how to get our attention – pain.

The Mind-Body Connection

Now that we understand the role of body maps in movement, how do we improve their functionality and activation?

First, we can activate different body maps through touch.  In my opinion, this is one reason why foam rolling has been so successful for movement preparation.  It gives us the opportunity to “wake up” our bodies, and also helps the brain collect information on areas of the body that are normally “blind spots” in our daily lives.

How often do you see or touch your back?  Do you have a clear image of what it looks like and how it moves?  Try rolling your T-spine and see how this affects your awareness of back position.

Second, we can work on improving mobility.  Mobility is directly tied to proprioception (our “sense” of where each body part is in relation to each other and how much effort we are putting into a movement) in the brain.

For example, if we have limited mobility in our ankles, we have reduced functionality.  That reduced functionality will affect mechanoreceptor (a sensor that responds to pressure in the joint) activity, which in turn will effect how detailed our body map of that area is.  So if we can improve mobility and restore function, we can improve body maps and help reduce pain!

Third, it has been shown that non-painful, novel, and exploratory movements are much more likely to cause permanent changes in our body maps.  Meaning when we go slow and learn new movements, things change!

One thing we know is that the brain avoids pain like the plague.  It will do anything it can to compensate for it.  That is why in the FMS, Functional Movement Screen, any pain results in a score of 0 – because even if the movement looked “normal”, there is no way to trust the “software” (movement pattern) that has developed over faulty hardware (our physical body).  Novel and exploratory movements are key because they allow us to not only activate different parts of the body, but we can form new neuromuscular pathways as we are, in essence, creating a new software program.

An example from my clientele is a hip rotation movement prep series I use with some of my client who struggle with squatting.  During the series, I encourage them to move slowly and to be aware of their center of gravity and body position.  By the end of the movement series, without any noticeable increase in passive mobility, they are now able to squat much more effectively!

By improving body maps, we can develop new motor pathways, learn more quickly, and navigate our environment more efficiently and gracefully.

Here are a couple of strategies to use:

1.  Foam Rolling – take this time to pay careful attention to how different parts of your body feel.  If your attention is elsewhere, chances are you’re not drawing very detailed “maps”.  Go slow.

2.  Move Naturally – MovNat’s focus on changing environments and skill progression will make sure you have plenty of opportunity to explore new positions and movements.  Embrace opportunities for new experiences!

3.  Functional Movement Screen – make sure to get screened by your coach and follow the correctives.  This will restore function and mobility to your weakest link, the quickest way to seeing improvement.

-Matt

If you are interested in learning more about body maps, I highly recommend Todd Hargrove‘s well-written blog, “bettermovement.org”.