Anybody and everybody with a history of academic exercise science (or a related field) has probably seen a picture like the one below…
And while there is no debating the fact that the muscular system (shown above) plays a crucial role in movement and athletic performance, a distinction needs to be made between the anatomy textbook and athletic performance.
Athletes are more than a collection of muscles.
We can’t simply train the pieces, hoping they fit together like a puzzle. We are a connected, holistic unit. Without that functioning connection, an athlete’s athletic success will suffer.
The muscle-bone concept presented in standard anatomical description gives a purely mechanical model of movement. It separates movement into discrete functions, failing to give a picture of the seamless integration seen in a living body. When one part moves, the body as a whole responds (1).
Before diving into the physical connections found within us all, we need to understand the athlete-human connection.
Athlete’s aren’t just athletes.
Athlete’s are human beings first. When we look at building holism, we need to first take into consideration the athlete as a whole. How’s there sleep quality? How’s their nutrition? Hydration? Attitude?
Later in this article we are going to dive into building a physically holistic unit, but first, it would be ridiculous to not discuss the holism of life. Before we can even consider building an athlete, we need to build a human - a healthy human. An athlete can’t reach their peak athleticism without a solid foundation of humanism first.
Let’s talk about sleep.
No amount of physical training can overcome sleeping for 5 hours a night. In fact, research shows us that anabolic hormones such as Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) and testosterone increase when our sleep quality and quantity is improved (2,3). This means that in order for our body’s to recover appropriately, good sleep is needed. Muscle growth and recovery rely on these anabolic hormones to fuel the repair process.
If you want to maximize your next bicep pump, instead of doing an extra set of hammer curls, go get an extra hour of sleep - or both.
Let’s talk about stress
You may have heard of the dreaded ‘stress hormone’ called cortisol. But let’s dive into it a little and answer the questions of what actually is it and how does it affect our body?
Cortisol is a natural bodily hormone synced to your circadian rhythm, meaning it maintains an increased presence in the morning and decreases throughout the day. It has many benefits including regulating blood pressure, forming memories, converting fat to glucose to use as energy, and it plays an important role in digestion. Further, it works with the immune system to limit inflammation. When we perceive stress, our adrenal glands kick in and produce heightened levels of cortisol. Following the stressful event, the levels should decrease back to normal, but for some, they don't.
If we are constantly in a state of stress, cortisol levels remain chronically high causing increased allostatic load on the body. This means digestive, immune, cardiovascular, and nervous system issues (5). Your body is smart, and if you give it consistently high levels of stress, it thinks, ‘we’re in a life threatening situation, I need to move all energy to the important organs - brain, muscles, heart.’ By doing so, our digestion, sleep, immunity, and metabolic rate all decrease.
A 2017 study found that when placed under stressful situations, an improper level of cortisol (too high or too low) has negative effects on hippocampus grey matter, which is linked to our ability to form memories. They concluded that improper cortisol levels will decrease memory, and more than likely other central nervous system functions (4).
Taken altogether, we can conclude that if we have an athlete who struggles with maintaining adequate stress levels, they will be at an increased risk of injury, their recovery will suffer, and many other bodily processes won’t be able to reach their full potential.
Now, there are many ways to decrease stress. A 2020 meta-analysis concluded that meditation techniques have a significant medium-effect on reducing cortisol levels, and a larger effect in at-risk populations. Further, it appears meditation has a lasting effect on cortisol levels and shows long-term benefits (6).
Let’s talk about nutrition.
I won’t go super in depth with this one because Austin Harrington is the nutrition guy (go read his articles within the Jochum Strength blog), but understanding that food is our fuel source is essential. If your training is intense, your eating needs to be too. If you are burning 3500 calories a day, you better be replacing those calories via nutrition. It is just too easy to use a car example here, so I am going to rip off that low hanging fruit.
If I drive my silverado for 5.5 hours, the gas tank will be pushing empty. If I don't fill it up, it will have nothing to run on and performance will suffer (in this case, come to a halt). The human body is no different. However, it not only needs proper fueling for energy, it needs it to maximize the repair process. That bicep pump I noted earlier isn’t getting maximized without proper nutrition to repair and build the muscle.
Athletes need to consume energy that is adequate in amount and timing of intake during periods of high-intensity and/or long duration training to maintain health and maximize training outcomes. Low energy availability can result in unwanted loss of muscle mass; menstrual dysfunction and hormonal disturbances; sub-optimal bone density; an increased risk of fatigue, injury, and illness; impaired adaptation and a prolonged recovery process (6).
And for hydration...
Dehydration/hypohydration can increase the perception of effort and impair exercise performance; thus, appropriate fluid intake before, during, and after exercise is important for health and optimal performance (6).
This is the tip of the iceberg when we are attempting to construct a holistic human (and athlete). Sleep, stress, and nutrition are some of the big ones I wanted to highlight, but we also need to look at the athlete’s social life, their spiritual health, their psychological well-being, and so much more.
Let’s get physical
In his book Anatomy Trains, Thomas Myers discusses the concept of myofascial meridians which run throughout our body, connecting muscles via trains of connective tissue. The idea is that it is via these connections and ‘trains’ that our body moves as an interconnected unit. Isolating muscles and viewing the body in an ‘anatomical textbook’ manner is like looking through a pirate scope - you miss the big picture.
We can’t have stretched fascia in the upper back without shortening it in the anterior torso.
We can’t tight hammies via an anterior pelvic tilt without also pulling on the anterior core.
When we flex our neck, other pieces of the train stretch with it (ie. posterior chain).
Injuring our ankle may be due to lacking hip mobility - or even shoulder mobility.
Our bodies are connected, holistic units.
When we load our spine, this load gets displaced over the entirety of the fascial system.
Anatomic structures normally described as hip, pelvic, and leg muscles interact with so-called arm and spinal muscles via the thoracolumbar fascia. This allows for effective load transfer between spine, pelvis, legs, and arms--an integrated system (7).
If we look at specific sport movement, we find that kinetic chains are present. These chains build velocity and force by transmitting movement from one bodily segment to the next, compounding with each step. The best way to understand this is through an example, and by far my favorite is the golf swing.
When we watch the golf swing, we will notice that the downswing is initiated by the hips. The rotation of the hips creates angular velocity which is compounded by the torso (next in line in the kinetic chain). Studies have shown that the angular velocity created by the torso is larger than the angular velocity created by the hips in elite golfers. The arms, which are next in line, have an angular velocity greater than the torsos’. The hands’ is then greater than the arms’. And so on...
The kinetic chain would appear as follows:
Lower Body (feet, legs, hips) > Anterior/Posterior core > Torso > Shoulders/Upper Back > Arms > Hands > Club Shaft > Clubhead
At each level, the bodily segment creates its own degree of force, and adds this to the angular velocity already established at the previous bodily segment, eliciting a greater angular velocity. Check out the image below.
You’ll notice that the professionals angular velocities build simultaneously, until eventually the hips break off to decelerate, then the torso breaks off the decelerate (but at a higher velocity than the hips), then the lead arm breaks off to decelerate, and eventually velocity is maximized at the club. The sequencing by the professional is gorgeous. It is in order and timed to perfection. Once a proximal body segment decelerates, the next distal segment takes that, adds a little, and then proceeds to also decelerate, passing it along the kinetic chain. Then the next segment does the same. Then the next. Then the next. Until it is maximized at the clubhead.
The amateur's sequencing is all out of whack, which is why the angular velocity of the club does not compound as much as the professionals does. You’ll notice angular velocities don’t build correctly. In both amateur charts, the lead arm reaches maximal angular velocity prior to the hips and shoulders. This means that deceleration was not properly achieved by the core and hips, sequencing was off, and force was dissipated in the movement prior to reaching the club.
I’ll leave it at that - the big takeaway here is that in order to maximize athletic performance, and skill execution, we need to train our body in a manner that will allow it to work interdependently. We cannot separate the torso from the hips, or the hands from the core because it all works together. We saw in the picture, if the hips, thorax and lead arm don’t maximize each other's potential (amateur's graph), our clubhead speed is going to suffer. Other sports are no different.
A volleyball player going for a spike needs to appropriately sequence her segmental movements in order to maximize her swing velocity.
A football kicker attempting a long field goal needs to properly sequence from his plant leg, up to his core, back down and around to his kicking foot in order to maximize his swing velocity at impact.
A baseball pitcher has to do the same to maximize his pitching velocity.
Same goes for a long jumper looking to maximize her takeoff force and subsequent jump distance.
The list goes on and on.
Now, let’s bring the nervous system into the picture
The director of all muscular activity in the body is the nervous system. Therefore, if we wish to build a resilient and adaptable movement system, not only do we need a healthy human, a functioning and efficient muscular system, but we need an effective nervous system directing all the action, perceiving the environment, and responding to external stimuli.
For a more in depth look at the beauty that is the nervous system, check out this article by fellow Jochumstrength.com blogger, Mark Amick.
Time to play devils advocate… Can we be too holistic?
Too often, I have seen it the other way (too much isolation, not enough holism) and believe that we need to obtain more holistic connections in our training. That being said, it is more than likely possible to jump too far on the holistic side of this spectrum.
I enjoy thinking about holism like a bridge connecting two cities. The bridge represents holism, and the links between different bodily segments. The city’s represent isolation, and the segments that are being connected by the bridge.
City A <-> Bridge <-> City B.
If City A is poorly kept with few attractions, nobody will want to visit, and the bridge is pointless. In which case, let’s improve City A to improve the system as a whole. Same could apply to City B. The connection isn’t the issue. The isolated city is.
If City A and City B are both awesome, bustling areas, but the bridge only allows one lane of traffic at a time, the system is inefficient, so let’s improve the bridge to improve the system.
There needs to be a balance in which we have effective holism (build the bridge) but also thriving cities on both sides of that bridge (isolation).
Let’s look at a bodily example: the biceps play a crucial role in stopping the throwing motion of an MLB pitcher. Therefore, they need to be strong in order to thrive at their job (isolated bicep strength). However, if the shoulder (bridge between the biceps and ribs/scapula complex) isn’t properly functioning (unstable), no amount of bicep strength will allow for successful (and healthy) athletic movement. In this case, the shoulder (the bridge) needs to be made more effective in order to improve the system as a whole.
Looking at athletes through the lens of muscles, while it is not entirely incorrect, misses the bigger picture. Strength coaches need to step back and see that athletes are holistic beings. The layers of an athlete run deeper than what is seen externally, and it's the strength coaches job to peel back these layers in order to build trusting and lasting relationships with our athletes. Further, by understanding these layers, we will be better equipped to tap into our athletes maximum performance potential.
From a purely physical viewpoint, we need to understand that there is no movement we can create that doesn’t require interdependencies throughout the body. Athletic success requires an efficient connection between bodily segments and bodily systems (nervous + muscular + endocrine + etc. etc. etc.)
Build the cities, but never forget that the bridges connecting them are equally as important.
Not until we create a bodily system founded on interdependence and connection can we reach our peak athleticism.
About the Author:
I graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2019 with a business degree and a minor in exercise science. While there, I played football (as long as we consider being a kicker, playing football) and found two of the deepest passions in life - learning and human performance. Since then, I have become a certified strength coach and have had the opportunity to train hundreds of athletes ranging from the middle school to the professional level.
I believe in building humans first, athletes second.
I believe that everybody has extraordinarily high amounts of value to offer.
I believe that the pursuit of improvement will lead to growth, no matter the outcomes.
Within my writing, I strive to breakdown and apply complex ideas in order to boost understanding, draw comparisons from seemingly separated and opposing topics, and empower growth in my readers. Knowledge and understanding are power, and they create the foundation of improvement. Moving forward, I plan on continuing to seek the betterment of my athletes, myself and my community, empowering growth along the way.
Be sure to head over and check out my Instagram and other blog posts at the links below:
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/coach_carter_schmitz/
Anatomy Trains, Thomas Myers
Rusch HL, Guardado P, Baxter T, Mysliwiec V, Gill JM. Improved sleep quality is associated with reductions in depression and PTSD arousal symptoms and increases in IGF-1 concentrations. J Clin Sleep Med 2015;11(6):615–623.
Leproult, Rachel, and Eve Van Cauter. “Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men.” JAMA vol. 305,21 (2011): 2173-4. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.710