Twisting in your Temple for Functionality

If we want to be fit, we must learn to twist.

In my practice as a coach and trainer, I borrow from various disciplines. Of course, I’m not the only one to do this; a growing number of fitness people, martial artists, ultimate fighting championship (UFC) contenders, dancers, runners, cross fitters, yoga practitioners and weightlifters are borrowing movements and exercises from one another. This is turning out to be surprisingly important, especially for people like my client Alex, who recently seemed to pinch a nerve in his lumbar and put himself out of commission for a week. With a judicious use of the practices I knew, I wondered if I could help him speed up his recovery.

Bear in mind: I’m not a physician or a physical therapist, so this doesn’t count as an article about healing. But the injury made me realize something about ordinary training: We must keep working not just with the parallel lines of the body when it faces forward. If we want to be fit, we must learn to twist.

It happened when Alex was unloading a heavy weight plate from a barbell just after three sets of deadlifts. He kneeled, grabbed the weights from the side, and then groaned. It even sounded painful. Watching him recalled my own days as a parent of young children: bending over, twisting and placing floppy babies and toddlers into car seats. I also remembered the strain my back felt during my construction worker days, when I would routinely carry 70 pound boards of sheetrock up narrow stairwells, forcing myself into strange twists with heavy objects. My back often felt sore then, and I herniated myself one time — which had led to a year of pain. And I’d been in my 30s back then. Alex was in his 60s.

Just as I’d needed reparations for my herniated disk back then, Alex needed reparations now. It might not be serious enough to go to a physician, especially with Covid-19 still active, but he needed to give the appropriate amount of time and attention to that part of his core — a part that he’d probably neglected for too long. Most of all, he needed to make careful twisting a priority.

So, he took a couple of days off, and nursed the pain in his seized-up back. Then he returned and we did a session of twists. It was like the hair of the dog that bit him, but carefully measured for success. We did three sets of weighted twists in a kneeling position (a woodchop movement holding a 10-pound flat weight plate, then a 10-pound medicine ball, and then a 15-pound kettlebell). I guided him through moves that mimicked the same motion that had caused the pain. I deliberately kept the weights light because we weren’t trying to strengthen his muscles so much as gently loosen them. It was as if the shock of the sudden pain had locked them up, and now we needed to return them to their previous neural-muscular pathways.

We followed this with the same three moves from a standing position. We used an even lighter weight so that it would feel safe and easy. The repetition was intended to reprogram the pattern, and to add some engagement of his core. In the future, I hoped, he would automatically protect his spine by turning on his transverse abdominal muscles more often. These are the deepest layer of abdominal muscles, located below the obliques, wrapping around the whole waist like a corset. If those are strong, so is your core.

During the weeks that followed, this painful episode turned out to be a breakthrough for Alex. It led him to treat his core, and his abdominal muscles, with more respect.

Alex is a sedentary guy; he works at a desk. He had lost any sense of what it’s like to twist as part of daily life. The same is true for most of us. In fact, one of the few times I can remember seeing people twisting at work was as a child living in rural north Florida. Near our house was a watermelon farm, and I would watch the farm workers with admiration. They’d form a line, pick up giant, heavy watermelons, turn their torsos, and toss them through the air to each other, until the last person in the line put them on the truck. They all had to twist to do this, and to do it at high speed, or they wouldn’t get paid.

I’d seen the same rhythm back when I was a carpenter. Some of the crew members were assigned to be “rockers.” They were giant, cheerful guys wearing crocheted multi-colored cotton hats tall enough to cover their long hair to keep it from getting dusty. Most of the rest of us couldn’t do what they did: lift 4x8-square foot sheetrock panels and twist them into place. When the foreman shouted, “Make it white!” (meaning don’t let the board catch on anything and crumble or get dirty and attach the boards to studs to create a wall), these amazing men would pivot on their heels with the giant, heavy boards, so fast, watching them was like watching a virtuoso dancer or athlete. I wanted some of that same graceful strength for my client — and for myself, for that matter. And you’d probably want it too.

So how would you develop that kind of graceful, flexible strength deliberately and consciously? How would you do it at Alex’s age?

The answer to that question is complicated, because it requires an understanding of the three basic ways in which people move during the course of an average day. The field of anatomy refers to them as the sagittal plane (forward and backward), coronal plane (sideways), and transverse plane (twisting and turning) planes. Once you understand that every movement happens in one of these directions, and that the ways to improve your fitness are different for each of the three, you will never look at exercise the same way again.

The sagittal plane (forward and backward) dominates our lives, and most of our motion is front-to-back. Sitting, for example, is usually in the sagittal plane. We mostly lean forward to type, or rock back and forth. Our eyes are in front, and when we look straight ahead, that’s sagittal. Most exercises in the gym, for instance, on a Nautilus machine, are sagittal: the leg press, leg extension, chest press, and even the bicep curl and tricep machine, all involve forward-to-back motion. Dumbbells are a little better, because you can move them in any plane.

The coronal plane (sideways motions) is involved for most people when they get into or out of a car, or when they step sideways to avoid someone on a crowded sidewalk. (That’s not why they’re called “sidewalks.”) Trainers will often include coronal exercises, such as the banded step-out or the side-lateral dumbbell raise. It’s also a common plane in yoga.

The transverse plane (twisting motions) is the plane that’s most ignored, except in yoga training and athletic conditioning programs which are deliberately designed to include it. That’s why most fitness programs need to devote some time to twisting. But there are very few day-to-day activities that require us to twist. Yet most of us can feel what it’s like when we don’t twist: It feels a bit stodgy and immobile and it almost hurts to move our shoulders and hips.

Alison West, a yoga teacher and expert in back care, speaks about the transverse plane as involving both turning and twisting, and the distinction is important. In turning- think of a pirouette and twisting involves turning the torso above the bellybutton in the opposite direction of the pelvis like in supine twist or only twisting above the torso above the bellybutton like in Russian twists or below the bellybutton like the hip shimmy middle eastern dancers do. There are many ways to twist- just remember Bruce Lee twisting his hips to ripple up his supple chain of his spine then snap his shoulder and arm and finally fist like the iron ball at the end of the chain releasing the power of the hip in his knockout one inch punch or Elvis the pelvis and his mesmerizing moves.

The upshot is that for Alex, or anyone overcoming the downside of a sedentary life, four types of movement are necessary in regular exercise. You already get plenty of forward, but you may need more backward; you certainly need more sideways; and you may not be doing any of the twisting and turning that you need to do. If you’re not moving enough in each of these ways, a wake-up call may come for you as it did for Alex, in the form of a lumbar lock-up.

Only some of our muscles are involved in sagittal motion, and if we neglect the muscles controlling the other directions they will be proportionately weaker. That’s why fitness experts often advise standing up and moving for three minutes every hour or so, to get the blood to flow. It’s also to give ourselves a chance to twist and move sideways.

Incidentally, getting out of our chairs (along with drinking enough water), also allows circulation to the intervertebral discs in our backs, which are made of collagen and are intended to cushion our bones. If we don’t move, they can stiffen, become compressed and lose their cushioning function, to the point where they can blow out, flatten out, wear out and cause bone to rest on bone with little to no cushion between them which will reduce spinal mobility. Remember the spine is made up of bony vertebrae alternating with intervertebral discs. The discs are like gaskets or gummy peach candies between hard bones. These discs have no blood in them, they are a little like sponges soaking up moisture from our bodies through moving the spine if we drink enough water to provide that moisture. Hydration and movement in all planes keeps the spine healthy.

Consciously moving in the transverse (twisting) plane and strengthening in that twisting move and getting stronger in sideways motions (lateral/coronal plane) is foundational for functional movement.

A habit we all need to trick ourselves into is moving more frequently throughout the day as more and more of us move less and less. Even squatting, deadlifts and chest press have symmetry and sagittal plane restrictions.

Trainers and physical therapists know this and love giving side lateral band walks as part of a session, woodchops, and Atlas kettlebell swings. Twisting and moving sideways are jumping off the railroad tracks we live most of our lives on. Most gym machines keep us on the railroad track and since we sit on comfortably padded seats to work on specific muscles, we break the body into parts instead of integrating the whole.

I have trained like that and my overall daily function deteriorated with an overemphasis on that. I wasn’t even a great trainer when I encouraged this for clients. Sure, they lost weight. They looked more toned — the boxes were checked but we hadn’t worked on fluidity, flexibility, range of motion, power, speed and agility, and quickness.

I failed to communicate this because I couldn’t articulate or embody it myself initially. I had it in my younger days but I had no idea what I had. I approached many things with a lack of consciousness and control. I would fling myself into dancing, carpentry, yoga, and running with a,” go hard or go home’’, attitude and after enough injuries and age, I slowed down and reverse engineered some moves and began to work more methodically to strengthen glitches with the aim of functional movement and injury prevention. That old aphorism- “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, probably should be tattooed on my arm. I want to embed it into my brain.

First Corinthians 6:19–20…Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…- the Bible

“You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft, that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.”-David Goggins

Below is a bit of a YouTube video of David Goggins speaking, his story is beyond inspiring, read, “Can’t Hurt Me”, by David Goggins if you get a chance.

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Wallace Mohlenbrok

Wallace Mohlenbrok

Yoga Teacher 500 hour yoga alliance certified, an admirer of flowers and trees, peripatetic autodidact.