In 2012, social psychologist Amy Cuddy went on stage at TED. She delivered a powerful presentation on body language and its influence on the human body’s hormonal system. By the end of her talk the message was clear, how you stand or sit can influence how you feel about yourself.
She recalled an experiment in which subjects had to adopt what she referred to as either a “high-power” or “low-power” posture. The high power posture was defined as more upright and open, whereas the low power group more closed off and hidden. The experiment had the subjects sit through a mock interview, in which the person giving the interview had to chose a position for a job. Overwhelmingly the higher-power posture was chosen more often than not.
Now, that doesn’t seem to surprising. I think most people would have made that hypothesis from the beginning. What was interesting is what a hormonal test showed that was performed on those who adopted these positions. What was determined is that there is an association between how you hold yourself and your hormonal profile. More specifically, when you maintain a “power-posture” you will increase your testosterone levels. Whereas, the more you close yourself off in a “low-power” posture, the more you raise your cortisol levels. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for synthesizing and building things in your body, whereas cortisol is the hormone that is released in moments of stress. Although there are many functions of both and they are both very much needed, testosterone is viewed as the hormone that builds muscle and burns fat whereas cortisol is saves fat and slows our body down.
Go ahead and raise your eyebrows now. Yes, you can influence how much muscle you can build or how much fat you store, just by how you hold yourself. Dr. Cuddy’s message to her audience was to “fake until you make it!” She instructed her audience to spend two minutes before any stressful event and raise yourself up and be powerful. In doing so, you will become powerful.
I think it is awesome that posture can influence not only how we feel but how our hormonal system works. This is similar to saying that if you get a better paint job on your car it will drive faster. Our body is magnificent!
Whether Dr. Cuddy knows it or not, when she tells everyone to assume their power posture she is giving them a movement cue. Movement cue’s can be verbal or inverbal behavior reinforcements and are used in the world of athletics and by movement therapists to correct patterns of movement. Like when a dad teaches his child how to hold a baseball bat or my eighth grade chorus teacher slapping my ear to lift my head up. Those are examples of how the muscles and bones may really want to do one thing, but with a little bit of coaching we can get them to do another.
The idea that movement cue’s can control posture or motion is commanded by the idea that movement is pattern specific and can controlled. We call our brain’s connection to muscles our motor control system. With practice we can create new motor patterns and learn to be successful at new movements. Case in point, think about the first time you rode a bike. If you were like me, you jumped on and then you fell off! If you had a dad like mine, he got you back up and made you keep trying until one day you could do it. That’s one example, another is the act of walking.
The biggest difference with walking, is that on a bike you could use training wheels and you could get advice. You could be told how to position yourself on the bike and even how to fall! As an infant, learning to is all nonverbal. Your eyes watch how everyone else does it and your motivation as a curious toddler takes over. Really, no infant can really be taught who to walk, they just have observe the pattern.
Sure, it takes a little more than just watching. Walking takes timing, coordination, balance and strength. You cant just be born with that, that has to develop. Most of us who have been fortunate enough to watch their kids grow can appreciate the milestones of head lifting, rolling over and crawling, but in fact each stage bleeds into the learning of or better yet, the acquiring of the next milestone until we take.
As a thought provoking experiment, lets agree that to build muscle you need to lift weight. On a newborn, the head can weigh half of the baby’s weight at birth. The first movement milestone for an infant is to be able to lifts its own head. Do not only think of the strength that must take to do, but also understand just how important that is. If one isn’t able to control one’s head how would they be able to roll over, sit up or even crawl. Lifting the head, gives us the ability to align our vision with the horizon and develop our sensory organs that our needed for basic survival. Our head is attached to our spine, which connects to the rib cage and pelvis and is the gives us the foundation for our core muscles. Once we are able to get our head up, we can begin to challenge those core muscle to the acts of rolling and sitting. When we start rolling, sitting and crawling we are able to develop and sync our abdominal musculature with our upper and lower body. This opens the door to the strength needed for walking.
So what does this have to do with Dr. Cuddy? Cue’s are of big importance in the development of motor patterns and neuromuscular development but with an imbalanced muscular system, they are only temporary.
I agree whole-heartedly with being able to teach people how to move better. I do think that there are certainly requirements necessary for individuals to acquire new skills. Number one, is having a balanced muscular system. Muscle’s work never work in isolation. Successful movement requires patterns of muscles working together. Of these patterns or relationships, is principle that muscles maintain an agonist/antagonistic pairing. This basically means one muscle does one thing, while it’s antagonist does the other. For example, the bicep bends the arm, the tricep straightens it out.
If our muscles are imbalanced then our brain can’t send the appropriate signals to the parts of the that need to do their job. This is called reciprocal inhibition. For example, lets use the hip flexor/glute max relationship. What happens is that our brain will send a message to our glutes but if our hip flexors are too tight then they steal the signal and wont activate the glute as efficiently. This forces some of the smaller muscles in the hip to do the glutes job and that ultimately can lead to injury and impairment. In the end, we have muscles that aren’t the appropriate length, but somehow the body uses a backup plan.
If we think of it in terms of a factory full of workers, reciprocal inhibition is kind of like giving half the workers the day off and then doubling the work. There is only so long before, the remaining workers get too tired and problems occur.
So the take-home here, is that if muscles aren’t in their correct place and length, we can still find a way to get the job done but eventually there will be issue.
My number two point regarding motor control has a lot to do with the baby and its motor development. If a stage was missed for an infant then the cycle leading to successful walking could be led astray and progress could be impeded. For example, if the baby never rolls over, can it fully develop its spiral line to allow the left and right half of the body to communicate as to walk? Maybe not.
When teaching movement, individuals need an appropriate set of skills and musculature that is specific to he desired activity. An easy example is someone sits behind a desk all day who wants to play competitive basketball on the weekends. Posturally, we will need to be concerned with probable limitations in the shoulder amongst other places. Sure, this individual will likely be able to raise their arms over their head but are they using the correct series of muscles to do so? Has all the hours of being a “desk jockey” influenced the muscles of the pectorals to shorten up and restrict the glenohumeral joint from going through its full range of motion? And, if our client tries to force it by using other muscles, will that lead to injury?
Eventually it will.
So, sometimes there is a problem with successful motor learning. Sometimes we think what we see in the mirror is what we are doing but in reality we are just forging a movement by using parts we shouldn’t. Sometimes it takes a very skilled eye to see that what we think we are doing isn’t being accomplished correctly.
Sometimes, we don’t want to fake until we make it. Sometimes, we need to start from the beginning all over again.