Chapter 14: Rehabilitate Your Muscles Using Antifrailty
You Must Use Dormant Muscle to Rescue it From Dormancy
The lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors featured endless variation in movement. They spent their time foraging, hunting, scouting, ranging, and setting up and breaking down camps. They dug for vegetables, picked fruit, made weapons, cleaned animal hides, prepared food, and carried wood, water, and children. The modern human habitat, on the other hand, is one of urban dwelling, sedentary technology use, and culture of convenience. Most people go for months not extending their muscles beyond the requirements for mere walking. Compared to our ancestors, the geometric diversity of our daily motions is impoverished. We are animals in captivity, imprisoned by the incredibly low variation in our movement patterns. By only moving in the same limited ways, we deny our bodies the nutritious movement they are starving for.
We self-limit our ranges of motion because of bracing, chronic poor posture, sitting, suboptimal working positions, laziness, surgery, injury, and load bearing (including things like pregnancy, heavy backpacks, breast augmentation, and obesity). These sources of tension result in shortened, hypertonic, dormant muscle. Medical experts have documented that segments of the spine that are dormant have many of the same physiological properties as cadaver spine. They get so little blood that they might as well be zombie flesh. Because their nutrient supply has been strangled off, these beef jerky-like muscles in your back hurt. Pushing them into contraction outside of their customarily restricted range causes pain. Accidentally forcing them into full contraction can be excruciating. This pain, and fear of it, can influence us to avoid using dormant muscle entirely.
We compensate for dormant muscle by using other muscles that are biomechanically less efficient at completing the task. We engineer the use of dormant muscles out of our lives and find ways to get around having to use them, which leads to a poorly balanced and ungainly physique. To heal this problem, we must reteach ourselves to use the dormant, partially contracted muscle. This chapter will describe a technique to reinstate motion diversity, by learning to contract inactive muscle all the way through the untapped sections of its range of motion.
Antifrailty Training: The “Aching/Cracking Method” of Stretching and Contracting
The antifrailty technique that I developed involves finding the most dormant parts of the body and subjecting them to a both a full-range stretch and full-range contraction. What you are searching for is two sensations that are found together: 1) cracking or popping of the joint, and 2) sore, achy muscle. You should notice that as you bring a joint into the range where it cracks, it will feel sore if held in that position. These areas feel brittle because they are frail from disuse. Once you have found a position like this, you want to gently contract the muscles involved while breathing diaphragmatically.
At first, it will feel unnatural to hold a posture that cracks for a prolonged period. Your impulse will be to achieve the crack and then allow the muscles to relax immediately. Avoid this inclination. You may choose to crack the joint – this is fine. Whether the joint actually cracks is not important. What is important is that you stretch and flex into the joint configurations that are susceptible to cracking. Cracking provides temporary relief from joint pain through the release of endorphins but does not heal tension. You want permanent relief that is provided only by strengthening the joint and the muscles surrounding it. Antifrailty can be done with concentric contractions (where the muscle shortens), eccentric contractions (the muscle lengthens), or isometric contractions (where the muscle does not change length). You will find many muscles that have not had their length disturbed in a long time.
- Locate an area of the body that is stiff and achy when held in an active stretch or contraction. The point where this configuration cracks is likely the most in need of rehab. Hold that postural configuration for five to thirty seconds.
- Hold the general parameters of the posture while varying others. Move the joint dynamically utilizing its range of motion in every possible vector flexing into the ones that seem the stiffest or sorest.
- Stretch into it right up until it cracks. If it does crack then freeze, and hold that posture, for an additional five to fifteen seconds.
- Allow the area at least fifteen seconds of complete rest before you try again.
- Stimulate dormant muscles throughout the body in this way while performing paced, diaphragmatic breathing. If you are breathing diaphragmatically you will feel the ache diminish in a matter of seconds.
- After your antifrailty training session, it is essential to allow these muscles to relax completely, so lie down (employing corpse pose, body scan, or progressive muscle relaxation from Chapter 5) and let the contractions subside. Use this rest period to learn to recognize what a muscle feels like when it is turned “on” and when it is turned “off.”
Start by targeting raw and achy areas in your shoulders, neck, back, and hips. You are looking for unfamiliar end ranges of motion. It helps to position yourself in ways that are out of the ordinary. Find the end range of the muscle, apply a contraction and vary the movement. Wiggle and writhe in these positions as you hunt for tissue to restore. Start with what you can find, and spend the most time in the configurations that you would like to heal. You are searching for that crick in the neck, tweak in the shoulder, and twinge in the lower back.
Below are illustrations of some of the best antifrailty poses that will help you to expose and recondition frailty. As you practice these you will inevitably come up with poses of your own that are better suited for your particular strain pattern.
After antifrailty the muscle you treated will have increased blood flow for several hours. This means that any other activity or exercise you perform during this time will recruit that muscle and condition it to being more easily recruited in the future. Within just a few hours of disuse the muscles will start to stagnate again. The more frequently you refresh dormant muscles with antifrailty, the faster they come out of dormancy. It is imperative to do this before and after long periods of sitting, before bed, upon waking, and after exercise.
Through antifrailty you are teaching your brain to control muscle that it has come to ignore through learned disuse (sensory motor amnesia). You are actively relearning how to incorporate these neglected muscles into your daily routines and overall posture. This will develop your proprioceptive awareness (knowledge about where your muscles are in space), kinesthetic awareness (ability to coordinate muscles cohesively), and will enhance neuromuscular coordination and agility. Antifrailty will also reduce the fidgeting and restlessness that painful dormant muscle causes. You will become more comfortable in your body, and move with ease.
Relish the alleviation of the ache. Bask and revel in the sensation of sending fresh blood through dormant tissue. Memorize the sensorial signature of frailty. It feels a little like the gnawing burn that accompanies muscle fatigue, or lactic acid buildup. It should be very similar to the soreness you feel when massaged. In fact, antifrailty will help you locate the best candidates for compression and percussion. If for example, you identified tightness to the right of your lower cervical spine, you should try to compress it. Using massage to release muscles after antifrailty training will allow them to relax fully so that they can better heal.
Feel totally comfortable performing antifrailty training wherever you go, whether in front of friends or in public. I believe that antifrailty therapy is one of the most beneficial “somatic self-healing” strategies available.
Using Antifrailty with Distressed Breathing is Counterproductive
Performing antifrailty will make you want to breathe shallowly. One of the main reasons that dormant muscle stays dormant is because every time you try to use it, it takes your breath away. Pairing distressed breathing with antifraility defeats the purpose. In fact, shallow breathing is enough to turn antifrailty work into injurious tension building. When I first started developing the antifrailty technique, many friends saw me stretching restlessly and told me: “you know you look to me like you are just making the tension worse.” They felt this way because they knew that the same exercises would make them feel worse. Contracting dormant muscle is something that our bodies naturally tend to avoid because, under distressed breathing the muscle will only become further agitated. Diaphragmatic breathing makes all the difference.
Be mindful that you are breathing diaphragmatically, at no more than 6 breaths per minute, or else antifrailty will lead to neurotic bracing. It is imperative that you breathe long, full, smooth breaths through the nose. Employ a breath metronome when possible. Furthermore, after a diaphragmatic breathing session antifrailty is much more accessible. You will find that 5 minutes of breathing to a breath metronome will make you more limber and make it easier to identify frailty. After 30 minutes of breathing to a metronome, antifrailty is like picking low hanging fruit.
Antifrailty is also accentuated after exercise, massage, or the application of heat. It is far easier to sense dormant muscle after a warm up workout. Dormant muscles are also much more apparent and easy to contract after massage. The same goes for a hot shower or bath, or when practicing “hot” yoga. To experience this, take a shower that is as hot as possible without being uncomfortable. You might want to rub moistened Epsom salt into your neck and shoulders beforehand. Let the water hit the back of your neck and stream down your spine. You will notice that your neck cracks more easily, is more flexible, and you can fully contract muscles in your back for upwards of ten minutes after the shower.
How Antifrailty Works
Antifrailty causes mechanical deformations in muscle that result in cascades of beneficial biochemical processes. Contracting dormant muscle compresses embedded arterioles and other blood vessels causing their walls to relax and spread open (vasodilation). The walls open wide, drawing blood into the surrounding capillaries. This pulls oxygen into the area and allows the clearance of waste products built up from sustained contraction. This enhances the resiliency and pliability of, not just muscles, but tendons, ligaments and fascia as well.
Some of your muscles get this perfusion and clearance every day, but the dormant ones are deprived of it. In fact, even during a full body workout, dormant muscles often receive only minimal contraction. Exercise only improves the distribution of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles used for that exercise. In other words, the benefits of exercise are not systemic. This is why pursuing varied movement is so important. Missing out on essential loads is like missing out on essential vitamins.
Forcing trigger points to contract gently causes them to unravel and burn out. It also permits the muscle to lengthen, quells muscle spasms, extinguishes ongoing inflammation, and unfurls myofascial restrictions. Contraction provides a rush of blood, much-needed exercise, and the ability to finally rest and heal afterward. Sustained, daily contraction over weeks will decrease the unnecessary stresses imposed on the tissues by faulty muscle recruitment patterns. Antifrailty builds the endurance of dormant muscles that have very little endurance. Because much of this dormant muscle is postural, converting it into muscle that is capable of enduring body weight will resurrect your body’s foundation.
Antifrailty Removes Missing Corners
Dormant muscles are responsible for the “missing corners” in your range of motion. Because the muscle is stuck in partial contraction, it is incapable of moving pliantly. People of the Eastern philosophy persuasion call these “energy blocks,” and point out that they derive from movement compensations, apprehensions, and pain avoidance. So far we have seen missing corners in the diaphragm, eyes, face, vocal apparatus, and postural muscles. Now we focus on the spine. There are numerous muscles throughout the spine that are only contracted within 25 percent of their full range of motion. Find them and rescue them.
As you rehab missing corners, you will find other missing corners beneath them. There are hierarchies of missing corners to reestablish. Using the antifrailty method regularly, you will continue to discover repositories of strength that you never knew you had. You may come to recognize many of your most dormant muscles as previous injuries. Using antifrailty I encountered many previous strains and sprains from adolescence and young adulthood that I had forgotten about. The process is like unearthing fossils.
Do you ever bend over and reach a point where you know that if you continue, you will hurt yourself? This is a corner that is completely missing. Most people have countless postural configurations like this that cannot be loaded at all. Many muscles in the hips and lower back cannot even withstand body weight. You want to load these frail muscles very lightly at first, increasing the load over time. To load these muscles with less than your body weight, you must lessen the effects of gravity. To do this, you must place your body into unfamiliar positions like those illustrated above. This will permit you to leverage your way into dormant muscle that is usually unavailable. The machines used in Pilates and the body positions used in yoga are used to this end.
Rushing Antifrailty is Counterproductive
As you get better at performing antifrailty, you will become more ambitious and attempt to rejuvenate the stiffest areas in your neck and lower back. By moving slowly and carefully, you can work through these boundaries. However, if you try to force through them, the tissues will become more defensive rather than less. Dormant tissues require a gentle approach. Pretend that you are trying to slowly lengthen a piece of a plastic bag without tearing it. You should feel a slight resistance to your movement. This is referred to by some physical therapists as a “stretch point.” As you hold the position wait patiently as you feel the aching sensation fade and the stretch point release.
Bouncing through a stretch can be counterproductive unless it is a very subtle bounce. This is because hard bounces pull quickly on the muscle fibers alerting specialized sensors within the muscle that it has been suddenly overstretched. Nerve signals from these receptors will cause the muscle to shorten, which is exactly what you don’t want. Make your contractions gradual and slow and use only 10- 40 percent of your maximum effort. Think of melting into each stretch. If you contract too rapidly or forcefully, you will engage fast twitch muscle fibers. Contracting slowly will enlist the slow twitch endurance fibers that will establish enduring postural tone in the long-term.
I sought out the most painful and weak cruxes in my body and totally reclaimed them. I knew that there was a chance that I could herniate a disc or sprain a vital ligament. This is why you must perform antifrailty very carefully, especially when you start out. Working through your most frail areas can lead to injury, but once restored they will be resistant to injury from accidents or old age. Choose consistency over intensity. Avoid movements that prove to aggravate and pursue those that heal. Chip away at your frailty a little each day to make every bit of muscle accessible.
You should never hurt, or even be sore, the next day after using antifrailty. If you are, you either went too hard or have a serious underlying injury. If you experience a tight pinching or burning sensation, there could be nerve damage. In that case, discontinue immediately. If you have a muscular disease, or disorder discuss antifrailty with a physician before using it. Carefully monitor your pain pattern, if existing pain becomes worse from these activities, discontinue immediately and seek advice from a qualified physician. Normal cracking is fine, but grating, popping, and crackling sounds are indicative of a musculoskeletal injury. Do not attempt antifrailty if you experience sensations of pins and needles or numbness. Do not attempt if you have been in a recent, severe accident or experience severe headaches. If the pain spreads or radiates to places farther from the spine, stop the exercises immediately and consult a physician. Know your limits and do not overdo it.
Antifrailty’s Relation to Chiropractic
I have visited five chiropractors in my life for a total of around ten appointments. These visits in my late twenties inspired me to develop the antifrailty method. I recommend visiting a chiropractor yourself so that you can become acquainted with what it feels like to have the body in a configuration where highly dormant muscle is directly engaged and released.
The first time I went to a chiropractor, he commented on how tight my neck was. He was able to crack my spine in several locations. This influenced me to go home and flex into the same spinal configurations that he created when performing the adjustments. For instance, I would try to fully extend my neck, looking toward the ceiling, while rotating my head from left to right. It ached deeply, and I vowed to work through the aching. Only two years later, the same chiropractor told me that he was unable to adjust my spine at all. When he tried to perform spinal manipulations, my joints moved with the manipulation smoothly without cracking. In fact, I can no longer find a chiropractor who can successfully crack my neck or lower back. Some have told me after feeling the muscles on the back of my neck with their fingers that it is healthy and does not need to be adjusted. This is entirely due to the antifrailty method.
Joint cracking is a sign of degenerative activity stemming from passive tension. Tense and shortened spinal segments are responsible for dislocation (subluxation) of vertebrae. These segments are incapable of keeping the vertebrae in ideal alignment relative to the force of gravity. The advantage of the chiropractic adjustment is that it gets straight to the core of dormant muscle, stretching it rapidly, and delivering blood. The cracking also produces endogenous morphine, temporarily relieving pain and bringing patients back for future adjustments. However, chiropractic treatment is only a temporary solution. When a chiropractor performs an alignment, the spine briefly becomes neutral, but because this does not strengthen the muscles, the vertebrae fall quickly back out of alignment, sometimes within hours.
Most chiropractors do not insist that their patients exercise the “opened” areas after adjustments, and this is why there is limited evidence for the clinical efficacy of chiropractic, and why it has not been shown to be better than physical therapy. But both are highly complimented by antifrailty. It may take months or years of antifrailty training to be able to contract a previously dormant muscle fully, but once you can, it will be fully reintegrated and will not need chiropractic or rehabilitative work.
After six months of using antifrailty, I could crack dozens of joints throughout my body at will. Because I knew that my posture and physique had improved tremendously, I began to tentatively conclude that increasing the ability to crack joints might be the overall goal. However, after another year of this routine, I found that much of the cracking subsided. As my joints became healthier, they cracked less and more quietly. This made me realize that cracking is a means to an end. In other words, as you employ this technique, you can expect to go through three phases, an inability to crack, excessive cracking, and then an abatement of cracking.
I was not able to crack my joints at first because I did not have the strength in the surrounding muscles to leverage my way into the unhealthy muscle. The joints didn’t crack because I had no ability to contract the muscles near them. After six months, my joints were cracking profusely because I finally had some strength in the muscles that would support my efforts to flex into the weakest areas. After another year of employing this method, the cracking subsided because even my weakest muscles and joints were no longer degenerative. The point is that you want to stretch and flex into sore joints all over your body, using the cracking and aching sensations as diagnostic tools.
Antifrailty is not the Same as Stretching
Stretching has gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent decades because static stretching has been shown to be less effective for athletes than once thought. Static stretching does not involve muscular contraction. It involves immobilizing a joint and stretching muscles and connective tissues at their greatest possible length. This increases the length of muscles by lessening the sensitivity of tension receptors in the muscle, allowing it to relax. Studies have shown that excessive static stretching leads to joint laxity and hypermobility. This reduces explosive force and promotes joint instability by stretching muscles too far. Many stretching programs encourage hyper-flexibility of muscles, which can result in premature arthritis due to mechanical instability of the joints.
Static stretching increases “passive range of motion.” But we are interested in increasing “active range of motion.” Unlike passive, static stretching you want to perform stretches that accept load throughout the entire range of motion. The stretching aspect will increase the mobility of the joint and restore proper length of the muscles invovled. The contraction aspect will increase the stability of the joint and increase the strength of the muscles. Overall, antifrailty should be thought of as a type of active stretching where you explore the boundaries of tension while applying low-grade but continuous tensile loads. Yoga, done properly, can involve high levels of active loading as well.
Employing Antifrailty During Yoga
Antifrailty methods are implicit in yoga, but I think that they should be made explicit. When I take a yoga class (in a studio, or at home on the internet), I assume the poses as directed and then perform antifrailty while inside the pose. For instance, most yoga instructors tell you to keep your neck straight and still while in downward dog. They do this because they don’t want distressed breathers to hurt their necks. But you and I can assume downward dog and use the unique loading properties of the pose to find and work through frailty. Yoga teachers refer to achy dormant muscle as “sticky.” And practitioners often describe stretches that reach into dormant muscle as “delicious” or “yummy.” Use yoga to help you search for and discover delectable contractions. Don’t have time for yoga? Then have a free yoga class video stream to your phone while you watch TV on another monitor.
In many types of hatha yoga there is a risk of overstraining certain muscle groups during a pose. Many yoga instructors and practitioners have abused their bodies from pushing too hard in an attempt to perfect their form. The best way to improve form is not to force the body into the pose, but rather to use the pose to gradually rehab the dormant muscle that is keeping you from executing the pose ideally. With time you will learn to recognize the difference between engaging frailty, and intruding into the body’s natural joint barriers. Ease yourself into the postures. Alter and vary them so that they are not static and isolated. To do this, you want to lean in different directions, play with the articulations, shift your weight, and alter the geometry of the pose to get a well-rounded contraction.
I recommend that anyone interested in yoga start with either basic, Iyengar, or restorative yoga to develop proper form and an appropriate emotional relationship with their body first. After a few of these lessons, I recommend that you try other types. I believe that every person should perform yoga with antifrailty on a weekly basis. Remembering to use the four tenets of posture from the last chapter during yoga will build postural strength. Keep your neck retracted, your shoulders back and down, your abs engaged, and your gluteus flexed as often as possible.
Also use these poses as counter poses. Counter poses are used in yoga to activate complementary and antagonistic muscles after a pose. For instance, a twist to the left will be followed by a twist to the right, and forward bends usually follow backbends. According to yoga practitioners this is done to “neutralize” the spine, lengthen it, and “calm the nervous system.” Counter poses can be used to neutralize repetitive strain (sitting at a desk), but also used to neutralize strain from exercise. The next chapter will encourage you to use antifrailty counter poses to counter the tension created by weight lifting and cardio.
The Elements of the Antifrailty Method
- Contracting into and exploring achiness
- Searching for areas that crack and bringing them to a gentle fatigue
- Resting limply once fatigue is reached
- Awareness of bracing
- Refreshing stagnant muscle
- Repositioning regularly to avoid staleness
- Regular compression and massage
- Proper breathing all the while
Yawning is a mammalian reflex consisting of inhalation of air and the stretching of the eardrums, followed by exhalation. Yawns are largely diaphragmatic and are the longest, smoothest breaths that many mammals take all day. Dozens of explanations for yawning have been proposed by scholars, but there is little agreement about its purpose or function (Anderson & Meno, 2003). When mammals yawn they often stretch in some way, and the pairing of these two actions is called pandiculation (Gupta & Mittal, 2013). When your cat or dog yawns when standing, they usually assume deep back bend or some other stretch. I think that pandiculation is clearly nature’s way of pairing a diaphragmatic breath with stretching and isometric contraction. If this is the case, it provides another reason why this pairing is something that we should use regularly and systematically.
When I was 25, I went to play basketball with a friend. The moves and skills that I developed in my late teens had disintegrated. I felt incredibly clumsy and feeble on the court. I wanted to know why. I assumed that because a few years had passed without playing basketball, I had lost the memories and neural connections responsible for my skills. I was afraid that because I hadn’t used those brain pathways that I had lost them.
At age 35 I went out to play basketball again, and all of the skills, and coordination came back. My poor performance at 25 had nothing to do with losing brain circuits and everything to do with frailty. Instead of feeling like a dry twig running down the court, I felt like a freight train. My body supported me fully in any position I put it in. It is the same with dancing. People don’t stop dancing in old age because they forget how, they stop because their unnecessarily frail body hurts. And antifrailty is an analgesic, but a permanent one. As many yogis insist: “you are only as old as your spine.” Another way to put this is, “you are only as old as your spine is frail and painful.”
Combining antifrailty rehabilitation with yoga made it so that when I get sleepy and tired, I no longer feel weak because my spine still supports me. Previously if I got less than 4 hours of sleep my back would hurt all day. Now, even if I miss an entire night of sleep, I feel no discomfort. I can sit up straight for long periods while everyone else succumbs to slouching. The postural reinforcement that antifrailty created sometimes makes me feel like I am in some kind of supportive harness, or mechanical exosuit. Antifrailty makes it effortless to hold your body in a way that makes you feel proud and energized.
The strength gains from antifrailty come with muscle mass gains. They don’t make you look like a weightlifter, but because they involve postural musculature, they help you look more like an athlete. As the next chapter will detail, antifrailty works complementarily with weight training.
Chapter 14: Bullet Points
- The antifrailty technique is performed by searching out dormant muscles that crack or ache, and then rehabbing them. Often the body must be placed into unfamiliar positions to reach the dormant muscle.
- Rehab is achieved by holding a postural configuration that cracks and stretching and contracting into it. The motive is to pair stiff, sore contractions with deep diaphragmatic breathing.
- Antifrailty releases foundational postural muscles from strain. This results in the reintegration of dormant muscle with active muscle restoring strength, endurance, flexibility, stability, and ideal posture.
- Antifrailty will get your muscles firing again, tone and balance your body, reduce fatigue, and counteract the poor loading profiles of the modern lifestyle.