Michol Dalcourt: What Training the Whole Body Really Means (LBP 027)

Michol Dalcourt is the director of the Institute of Motion, the inventor of the fitness tool the Vipr, and the co-founder of PTA Global. He and I talk about the insightful work they are doing at IoM including how fascia moves the body, our body as a fluid organism and why we need to pay attention to its fluid dynamics, tensegrity! (one of my favorite subjects...), what he means when he says the body is a lever-less system and other concepts in the “new” biomechanics, why we need to zoom out and not just focus on the nervous system’s effect on muscles, and how the fitness industry’s go to approach of training for speed via more strength is actually slowing people down.




Show notes

Brooke: Can you describe what you do at the Institute of Motion.

Michol : IOM really is a collection of thought individuals that take a look at movement strategies, coaching, and content for not only the health professional but ultimately the end consumer as well.

Brooke: One of the phrases that I came across as I was reading your materials is the phrase "farm kid fit". Can you describe what that means to you and how you realized that was an important thing?

Michol:  I'm Canadian, so most of us are observed with the game of hockey. When I finished my university in Alberta, I was working with hockey players, rather. What we saw was that generally the strongest of those hockey players came from rural communities and we spent all our time with city kids in our sport performance training center and we would follow a periodization model of training stress but it wouldn't really match what these people who never really stepped foot in a gym were doing.

By investigating this anecdotal evidence of why farm kids are so strong, we uncovered a lot of interesting things and many of them pointed to the body as an aggregate and actually led us to develop a fitness tool that's on the market right now called Vipr.

Brooke: You have several nice short lectures, videos on your site and one of them is about how bones do not touch and what that means when we think about a body. Can you talk a bit about the concepts in that?

Michol: When we look at the idea of bony structures coming together, it really is an opportunity to describe the ability of the body to create space internally. If bones were actually touching, we would wear out far too quickly. We would probably last about a week and then the bones would be rubbing down the hyaline cartilage would be rubbing down to a point where the surface of the joint articular surfaces would just decay. The body sets itself up differently to maintain space so that we can have efficient movement.

Brooke: We think so much about ourselves I think it's like stacking up bricks and it's hard to conceive of that internal space.

Michol: If we use that analogy, it wouldn't make much sense. If we were to build a building, it wouldn't make much sense for us to have most of the bricks and moving bricks on the basement or on the ground level floor and adding all these things stacked up. We have a third of the bones of our body from the ankle done. That would be analogous to having a building that is 10 stories high having most of the movable bricks on the ground level.

Brooke:  Tensegrity is a big part of what you do at IoM and I'm a big tensegrity nerd'

Michol: When I went to school we learned about the analogy of levered systems, right? We really looked at the body with that lens as we associated our body with the same set of laws as what we build bridges and what we build buildings with, which is Newton's three laws, which are physical laws.

But the structure lacks the critical aspect that we need, which is movement. We wouldn't build a building or a bridge that can move. We would build it so that it can move just enough to mitigate stress but not so much that it's going to be onerous to its construction.

When we look at the idea of tensegrity, the way I think about it is those are biological laws and they operate differently than physical laws, i.e. Newton's three laws. When we look at differentiation of how biology self assembles, it's going to be without the constraints of stability first and mobility only as a subset, as a function of that stability. In other words, you build a bridge than can perhaps move just slightly to mitigate some stress but not that much or building to do the same thing.

Whereas biology, the critical aspect of biology is movement. Cellular movement, system movement, and then organism movement. If we don't have those most fundamental things, then the organism won't survive. This idea of push forces and pull forces for mutual benefit, and that's really the underpinning of tensegrity.

Brooke:You used this great phrase: self-assembly. We're not putting ourselves together on a factory line.

Michol: We went through the Industrial Revolution. We mechanized everything and so we treated our body the same way. We had fulcrums, we had pivot points, we had joints that were operating in one plane of motion, and we even dissected the muscles to reflect primarily the sagittal plane and primarily this idea of what we call link action, which is you've got one bone that's still and you've got the adjacent bone that's moving against the still bone, and that's brought to us by muscle that shortens under concentric force, and voila, we have movement.

Although that may be true, it's only true in a limited capacity and I would argue that it's true only when we put ourselves in a very restricted position. The flip side is that the body can do more than just that one thing and most of the time you'll have one bone that's moving and the adjacent bone is moving as well. It will be moving in all three planes of motion.

Biology is predicated upon the idea of adaptability and resiliency, and like I said before, mobility and movement.

Brooke: You described the body as a leverless system. Is that some of what you're talking about here?

Michol: Yes. This idea of push and pull forces. We've got bony structures that are resistant to compression and then we've got tensile elements like skin, collagen fibers, connective tissue and muscle that operate as a center-seeking pulling force.

Between the two you've got these bones that essentially create space by pushing things away and then you have all this viscoelastic material, which is also water, by the way, and pressure of water, that is regulating the tension of a body and they all operate for mutual benefit. The more balanced that they are, the more viable that the organism is.

We look at health of skin, we look at health of fibrous connective tissue. We look at health of bone. We look at health of the aqueousness or the hydration of the body and if they are in balance, then the individual can achieve or has the potential to achieve more.

Michol:  With fascia more particularly we're looking at how collagen itself self assembles. If we think about Tom Myers always used a great analogy that muscles will create force but the fascia organizes it. A subset of that fascia is really the collagen and the health of the collagen is predicated on diet strategies, hydration strategies, and movement strategies.

Brooke:  I love talking about the fact that we're a fluid system, again, we're not a product.

Michol: We are mostly water. H2O molecules  occupy a lot of space cellularly. They keep things not only hydrated but they keep things in a viscoelastic way so they help the other structures, the bones, they help the skin, they help the fascia, they help the muscles create a mitigation system for stress. If we hit the ground, part of that ground reaction force is going to the muscles part, it's going to the bones, part if it's going in the skin, part of it is going to the fibrous connective tissue, which is our fascia, and part of it's mitigated by this gelatin that we have for lack of a better description that will buffer kinetic impulse into the ground.

If all of those things are not working well, then injury may plague the system or we just increase the risk of injury, and we see this a lot with runners. Then they ponder was I designed to run?  In my mind, I would first look at, all right, if you've got the metabolic engine, do you have the hardware, the structural hardware to mitigate stress if you come colliding into the ground?

Brooke: If I'm, say, a personal trainer, what are some ways that you evaluate this?

Michol: What we're doing at the Institute right now is we're actually putting together what we call an onboarding process and what it is, is it is a way to create a battery of different assessments that look at different elements that make up the whole. With those metrics, we can then create a view of is the person prepared and how are they prepared for what they want to do ultimately.

Our feeling is that there are a lot of good tests out there but they operate on an island. You take one test for this particular result and then that's it. What we would rather do this is aggregate this into a whole picture and then create what we call a dashboard.

Brooke: The spine is not a column.

Michol: The spine is really fascinating in terms of its development and its morphology. If we look at it in its development when we were in the womb, what we would look at is a C-shaped spine that could accommodate restricted space. Without crowding and becoming a taller structure, we need to accommodate a very much a compact structure while we're in the womb.

With intrinsic muscle action on the body and the spine as we wiggle around in there, we start to create intrinsic pressures that begin the process of changing the C shape of the spine to what would we know now as the S shape curve. We've got 33 mobile segments in the spine.

That really accommodates this idea of axial loading, which is this top-down force that we apply when we stand up. If we were a column, that would be egregious load to the discs of the spine, so to mitigate this, what we have is very much this wave scenario in the spine where it's a shock absorption system. We never really want one vertebrae to be crushing down on another because what's stuck in the middle is a disc, which is mostly water, and if one impacts the other too much, be it a sudden trauma or be it just repetitive positional stress.

The longitudinal ligaments go on into a slack position and then what happens is you've got the structural abnormalities. Now we're calling upon one system to do too much so now muscles are on and they're on more or they're upregulated more past the resting tone to stabilize the spine, and once we have that, then the system is on too much.

There's a lot of research that indicates that muscles if they are doing their job, the neuromuscular system should turn on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off. Muscles that stay on chronically generally lead to problems.

Brooke: One of the other pieces of the whole that you're looking at a little bit differently is the nervous system and you talk about how our traditional model of movement is really just looking at the nervous system's relationship with muscle.

Michol: We learn about this idea of an action potential being propagated along the nerve to the motor units. Then they pull on a bone and then that's what creates human movement. Although that is extremely true, it's not the only thing that physically creates movement. One of the easiest ways to create movement is to interact with gravity and ground because gravity will always torque the body and always move the body.

If I was standing and I lean forward, that would initiate the gait cycle. If I can continue to do that, it would continue to initiate the gait cycle. As we lean in a field of gravity, it creates a very efficient model for movement because we're grabbing from these environmental influences, which is gravity and ground.

If I swing my arms and legs, that creates potential kinetic energy for movement as well. What we say at the Institute is what the body first seeks to do is to capture energy. Whether it's from the ground from reaction force, whether it's from tissue lengthening to create potential kinetic energy as I stretch an elastic band, same thing, viscoelastic material skin, fascia, muscle, they all have the qualities of an elastic band in that if you stretch them, they create potential kinetic energy.

All those things are in flux as it relates to creating movement, and pressure in tubes as well also creates movement and mechanical lift through the hydraulic amplification of shoving a bunch of pressure in a tube. Pressure inside tubes creates mechanical lift as well.

If we use too much of one system, then we start to wear out too quickly.

Brooke: You say that the fitness industry is typically training for speed via more strength but that this actually slows the athlete down.

Michol: It only requires that we think about times in our lives where we have high anxiety, we're more tense. With more tension, with more of this engagement in the neuromuscular system, we generally slow down because the action of speed is predicated upon both a high level of engagement of the muscular system and then a quick disengagement of the muscular system to allow the segments of the body to move quicker.

It may be just as important to view the muscular system as acutely turning on and acutely turning off quickly to achieve higher levers of speed. If you're training athletes for speed, do they have a quick ability to turn a muscle off? In our industry, generally we have cues that engage the muscles too long. Right? It could be keeping things tight, keep the core tight and then move. That may be something that you would give to a specific individual if they have a certain, let's say, condition or instability but in terms of achieving high levels of speed, we want the system to relax.Which is very antithetical to how we're thinking about things right now in my estimation.

Michol: I think part of that is the fear of we need to stabilize the system but it really is about the individual. If the individual has good balance or is achieving good balance between the idea of skin health and fascial health and bone health and muscular health and nervous system timing, and then, again, all the other things that make up the system, i.e. good hydration and everything else. What we have is  shape stability based on the principles that you describe before on tensegrity. If we're creating that resiliency within the tissues, then we don't have to achieve high levels of stability in the body because a lot of that stability is given to us in the aggregate with skin health and with fascial health. They all contribute to body-wide stability.

Brooke:  We've touched in on a bunch of these concepts but what are some of the other ways that you're seeing the more traditional views of biomechanics changing and getting challenged these days if there are any others that we haven't touched on?

Michol: I think it's just this thing that we have tend to think about biology in the terms of Newton's three laws as a class of levers and we talked about this before. Biological laws set themselves up differently. Right? It's all about mitigation of stress into the whole. That's how the body can capture energy.

Let's say you are in the track and field discipline. There's a lot of biomechanic textbooks that really amplify the value of taking a look at how we would achieve greater impact in, I don't know, a high jumper or a throw of some sort. There's merit to that and I think if we blend this idea of the math and the forces that we apply to the body and to an implement if we're engaging in let's say a track and field activity, and we look at it in the lens of biology is all about self-assembling things in aggregate and we take a look at the health of the whole system, then we might find a sweet spot for us to be able to look at both sides of that or both aspects of that to put the sentence together, so to speak.

We're putting all aspects of the conversation together to make a complete sentence as opposed to taking a look at just part of the sentence, because in a lot of cases what we end up doing is we take a look at a certain aspect of the body and we look at it in a very mechanistic way. If we can realize that every tissue is important to the outcome of movement strategies, then we would take a look at skin health, we would take a look at fascial health, we would take a look at bone health, we would take a look at hydration health.

In the health field, especially in the fitness field, we don't have a tendency to do that. Monday is never skin day in the gym, it's always a muscle day in the gym. That narrative is changing, but if we can expand our lens a little bit further, then I think that we would achieve a body that has a constitution that allows it to move and then to achieve its goals.

Michol: I live in California, there are people who have spent thousands of dollars spreading creams on their skin to fortify collagen in there, and I'm not going to debate whether that has merit or not, what I would say is that we can achieve a similar thing by training it in a certain way, and that refortifies collagen. It's by no accident that people who exercise tend to look better in their skin for longer.

Michol: We are looking at anti-aging strategies because when I was in my 20s, my goals for health and well-being are different than now that I'm in my 40s, and I'm looking at taking what I have and trying to extend that as far as I can. From an endocrine response, from a tissue response, from the metabolic response.

Brooke: I've been in the fascial fields professionally for so long, I've said this before but people are always looking way younger than they actually are in those fields. I go to a conference of my peers who are also fascial therapists or movement therapists of some variety, and I don't know how old they are because they're probably 10 to 15 years older than they look, which is great.

Michol: They're doing something right.

Brooke:  Is there anything that you are currently playing with in your own practice these days or something that you're fascinated by mentally even?

Michol: We're doing, like I said before, the onboarding, which is really exciting to us because we're taking a look at how we can create a profile for an individual that creates some metrics, some things that individuals can look at, some numbers, some schemes that they can look at, that tell them or give them a glimpse into how they are doing.

The other thing that we're quite excited about is from a programming perspective- Whether you're going to load your soft up with external resistance or whether you're going to use your body as a mechanism for movement, we've structurally put this down in a very simplistic way to allow a person a very much inclusive approach to training so that they're not stuck in one aspect. Let's use the bodybuilder as an example.

Let's say a bodybuilder engages in bodybuilding activities, typically what they do is they introduce load to the body via weights and they have a very linear response. Research shows that that is a great way to put muscle on the body, but if that's all I do, I lack mobility in time and then the body breaks down. There are many bodybuilders that don't age without injury.

Even for that bodybuilder, it would behoove that person to spend some time working on other strategies, unloaded, recovery-based, and everything else. We've mapped this very simple programming model out that reflects the nature of yes, your goal may put you in this area for a while but you still need these other areas, at least a little bit at a time to balance out the training scenario.

The same thing is true with runners. Right? If I'm a runner and all I do is run, then chances are my body's going to break down, but I can do these other prophylactic exercises or strategies that allow my running to be enhanced but I'm not necessarily running while I'm doing it, I'm looking at tissue quality, resiliency, all these things that allow me to be, let's say, a more efficient runner if that's what I was doing.

It's very simple but it's very scalable in terms of people utilizing this system, so we're very excited about that as well.

Home play!

Let's make it "skin day" in our training! Obviously you can do this in a number of ways- so if you want to get a session of bodywork, roll around on Yoga Tune Up therapy balls, or MELT yourself with the MELT Method go for it! But if you are looking for a simple, at home, tool-free technique, there is always skin-rolling. Here is another old school video of me demonstrating it: