Motor Learning Pitfalls and Autonomic Resilience
Sometimes, I’ve found that teaching a movement cue to a client can backfire.
Coaching a neutral pelvic position or a braced core to do exercise, for instance, are great techniques to perfect a squat and deadlift and train a person to lift a heavy load. However, if a client experiences pain or discomfort out of a regimented exercise setting, are these necessarily the best strategies to focus on?
Very often, I’ve seen individuals become extremely hyperaware of their body mechanics, whether it was due to cues from a clinician or because the assumption is that patterns from high-load fitness routines need to be maintained outside the gym.
My experience is that this can result in a couple of problems.
One is a concept that you’re likely familiar with by now; that being catastrophization. If we, as clinicians, don’t mind our language during our movement coaching, often enough, a person can develop a belief that anything outside of these trained movement cues will result in injury.
As you can guess, believing that “losing form” will equate to pain can lead to that belief becoming a reality. This is classic fear-avoidance coping and is why someone can perform a 300lb deadlift and then throw their back out when they finally bend their spine to tie their shoes.
For this reason, it’s important to educate clients about the resilience of the body to perform non-deliberate movement as well as to mix these types of movements into their exercise programming. While it’s important for me to teach many of my clients how to do a proper hip hinge, it’s equally important to recondition them on how to round their spines to pick up a sub max load.
At the same time, it’s also crucial to teach clients that these cues are not meant to be minded for every movement in day-to-day activity. Again, this would enforce these fear patterns and lead to what we discussed above. However, it also enforces a reliance on deliberate thought to perform these movements, which takes us to our second point.
Once we remember to add in these additional “natural movement” cues to accompany exercise instruction, there might still be a disconnect between the clinic and real-world conditioning.
What we need to consider is that the conscious focus on movement in the clinic or fitness setting (whether it be a traditional exercise or a natural back bend) doesn’t necessarily translate to the nervous system being able to replicate those cues in a safe manner, subconsciously.
This boils down to neuroplastic deficits within the central nervous system itself following an injury, with altered motor patterns becoming the new norm (Grooms, 2016). We can describe this by thinking about the thought processes that lead up to movement. In an “exercise” environment, the signals that precede movement are directly to do with that specific motor pattern; sending the signal to the muscle and joint on what to do and how strongly and fast to do it. Outside of this environment, these thought processes are much more complicated and the movement will need to follow more complicated reactionary signals. For instance, often we will need to simply extend our arm, reactionarily, in order to catch an object rather than having that moment of anticipation to ready the nervous system and compute the necessary speed and force that will be required beforehand.
What this implies is that being able to do a back bend in the clinic when all of your focus is on it only gets us part of the way toward being able to do the same thing at home when relying on autonomic function instead of deliberate action. This is why athletes who have undergone ACL reconstruction and rehab can be, clinically, cleared to return to play yet still be 40 times as likely to reinjure their knee compared to their peers (Wiggins et al., 2016).
Clinical settings commonly revolve around focusing on internal cues when learning movement patterns, such as relaxing one muscle, stiffening another, or bending deeper at this joint. However, external cues, such as “reach for the floor”, “aim for the target”, or “focus on the field” have been observed as being incredibly important in sports settings. These cues help to bring the attention away from the body and to the environment instead, creating a more practical situation by decreasing conscious body control.
With ACL reconstruction, again, being the studied example (Gokeler et al., 2019), it is found that relying solely on internal cues does not provide the best outcomes for when external factors are finally challenged again. Even when rehab conditioning is extremely sport or activity-specific, an ability to do a maximal sprint in a controlled environment might fail someone when they attempt to do the same thing with real-world distractions added. For this reason, a lot of rehabilitation research is actually starting to involve the use of virtual reality (Grooms, 2015) to retrain autonomic capabilities.
Obviously, we don’t expect every clinic to equip itself with a VR headset. So that brings us back to the importance of mixing in external cues with the internal ones as we educate our clients in new motor patterns. The clinical setting can take a lot of great lessons on how to do this from the performance world, with a mixture of the two types of cues, periodization of a program, and an understanding of individual variance being hugely important factors.
So from all of this, we can understand that mechanical cues and deliberate exercise patterns are still a step in the rehab process. Throughout, however, we need to reinforce that a client’s well-being is not dependent on these patterns being maintained around the clock or that conscious control does not need to be exerted over their maintenance.
Finally, we also need to remember that the quiet, clinical environment is usually not one that our clients spend the majority of their days in, so we also need to prepare them for the real-life hazards, distractions, and mental states that their normal workplace, sport, and home settings will challenge them with.
A client’s life is individual, and so is the preparation for it that we provide.
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