The Harmonious Body: The Three Pillars of Physical Balance

Balance in physical training. It might just be the best thing that we can do for the enhancement of life as it is lived.

Most of us aren’t training with a specific competitive goal in mind (though if you are you might still want to read on). There are many reasons to train: it gives a sense of strength, vitality, purpose, aesthetics, well being, improves the mood or gives capacity to play with the grandchildren. All valid reasons. The benefits to the lived human experience will be greatly enhanced if we balance three essential qualities against each other.

Strength

A key element of a sane physical practice is the progressive overloading of fundamental human movements. This is strength training 101. Lift something heavy, rest and recover; lift something slightly heavier etc. Doing full body workouts with compound movements is usually the best way to go in terms of time-energy efficiency. If you are something other than a teenager with endless time on your hands efficiency becomes a critical issue. The most straightforward approach to build strength is ‘basic powerlifting’ with the the holy trifecta: squat, bench and deadlift.  In some instances using bodyweight training is useful too.

This approach to training if done over enough time will change the physical structure: More muscle mass, the bones and connective tissues becomes stronger. The good stuff.  Without this the base of our physical pyramid will never become very wide. No strength, no structure is built on and no balance.

Balance in strength

Within strength training itself the concept of balance is of great import. The best physiques will have an inherent balance to them. In bodybuilding this is “the golden ratio” describes how the neck, arms and lower legs must be developed to be of roughly equal circumference. For Baal’s sake don’t skip “leg day”.

The major tendency within the muscle groups of the upper body is to overdevelop the front (chest, abs and arms) while relatively neglecting the back. A smarter approach is to have a 1:1 if not a 1:2 ratio favouring the back. Of course, this is still within a frame work of primarily doing whole body compound movements. In this way gross overdevelopment of any one area is difficult. If ever in doubt go have a look at a classic greek statue, no overdeveloped pecs to be found. In many ways we are simply reclaiming what the ancients likely knew.

Flexibility

It is all well and good to have a strong and well developed physique. But not so great if unable to touch the floor, squat or get the arms overhead (or struggle to put on your leather jacket or wipe properly). In this sense flexibility determines what we can do with the strength that we have. If we cannot get in to a position then there is no possibility to apply our strength.

Flexibility describes our relative ability to move the body into the plethora of positions of which it holds the potential for. This can be either passive when gravity is helping – or active, when we access the range of motion while overcoming gravity using muscular effort. This is often times described as mobility. Looking at it this way, strength is an essential aspect of flexibility. Further, having strength through the full range of motion is a great way to prevent injury. Having great amounts of flexibility without strength is an efficient way to get injured. Yogis be warned.

There is certainly more than one way to develop flexibility. Yoga develops flexibility in some people, but not in others. Gymnastics, handbalancing, pole, martial arts and certain forms of dance demand high levels of flexibility and have their own methodology for acquiring it. By the sheer virtue of attempting to move into the position that are necessary for the activity some flexibility will be developed.  Though one will inevitably run into the physical correlations of inhibition to motion. There is however specific ways to develop flexibility that also tend to be much more efficient. Some of these methods have benefits that extend beyond flexibility … more on that later.

Balance in Flexibility

Certain positions or postures are essential to everyday function if you are incarnate in human form. Modernity and sedentary living is doing its level best to remove this type of functional flexibility from our life. Why sit on the floor when there are chairs?  Our ‘set point’ of flexibility is worsening rapidly. It is now common place to see six year olds that cannot squat[!!] Regaining this level of function should be the first port of call when working on flexibility. Later on more advanced goals can be achieved, but thinking of getting the splits or do full lotus while not being able to sit in a squat is not a balanced approach. For most people the higher goals are simply not necessary for their lives and health.

Chronic Tension Patterns

There are more than two qualities to consider in the development of physical balance. The stress of life does accumulate in the body and neither strength or flexibility tells the full story.  Everyone experiences chronic tension daily yet it is often not being given any attention.

One of the first places we find tension is in the neck. It will show up as stiffness, tenderness to touch, wretched tissue quality and if excessive can manifest headaches. ·Trigger points are a manifestation of this tension. This is why having a neck massage or long warm bath feels so damn good. This is not exactly a new idea and it is at the root of many bodywork modalities.

Feldenkreis described how stress will show up in the body as a somewhat predictable habituation of tension in the flexion response*. Janda brought similar ideas into the mainstream of physical therapy: as the upper and lower cross syndromes. There is certainly a predictability to these manifestations. Related is  the work of Ida Rolf and later Tom Myers, which show  how the body can be to be understood as a fascial web with strain (force) being distributed in a tensegrity fashion**. All of these models have practical merit. Our 16th century anatomy model needs a bit of an update.

Working with chronic tension is to work with patterns. It also moves our understanding of the human body forward: seeing it more as a collection of subsystems working together to create a whole, rather than discrete muscles working independently of each other.

Not exactly what the human body was created for.

There is a connection between our posture, or carriage, and chronic tension patterns. Yet, if that was all these tension patterns did then it would not be all that important – but it does a whole lot more.

Chronic Tension is leeching precious energy that should be used for more useful work. On a muscular/physiological level it costs ATP (cellular energy) to supply muscles with the energy required to maintain chronic muscle contractions. On a more behavioural level it is plain to anyone who has had a tension headache that it is impossible to get the same amount of work done: tension takes its toll. Tension headaches is merely  an extreme example – more so it is somewhat subterranean … but you do not have to dig very deep to unearth it. Ask any overworked office worker to relax and the response will most often be ”Relax?! I AM COMPLETELY RELAXED!”

Our mental and emotional states are inherently linked to our bodily state. The whole mind-body split is a nonsensical concept. To be a fully functional human the trinity of mind, emotions and body has to work together. And the most accessible way to work on the whole human being is to focus on the body. It is the only vehicle for change we have.

What is the cause of our tension? For one our sedentary lifestyles with an excess of desk work, where stress has been uncoupled from physical movement, is certainly moving us away from a state of relaxation.  This is a profound mismatch with what the human body was made for.

So how to change our predicament? First you have to recognise that there is a problem. Yet, seeing tension patterns themselves is not all that easy. And as previously mentioned it is somewhat subterranean.  It is perfectly possible to be fully flexible and not have removed or worked upon the chronic tension patterns in the body to any significant degree. Simply put, flexibility is not the same as suppleness. Suppleness can be felt as muscle and other soft tissues that are soft to the touch. Not carrying an excessive amount of trigger points. Muscle tonus is enough to keep the body aligned but not more than this. This tension is best shown by its absence: remove it and you feel the difference.  

Stretching with a specific intention can work upon tension patterns. Stretching with non specific intention will give non specific results. As already mentioned good bodywork works upon the tension patterns. But to really tackle this we need to dig a bit deeper. Not only to remove it, but to keep the tension from creeping back in.

Deeper Work

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the work with tension patterns and beyond reaches well beyond the usual factors of  physical training: Our personalities, our upbringing, education, what we do for a living, our relationships and even the way we breathe plays a significant role. And of course  how we respond to the challenges in life. While it goes beyond the subject of this post to discuss in depth how to work with each of these factors, it should be clear that effecting change here is a higher order skill.

The idea of there being a physical component to psychological insults was the work of Wilhelm Reich. He called it character armour: the old psycho- emotional injuries stuck in the body as physical armouring. By removing the physical armouring we  should, theoretically at least, release the psycho-emotional scars too. In practice it isn’t quite that reliable. But these releases do happen, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. It is well known in bodywork circles. Once again, the body and mind should not be considered as isolated entities.  

Similarly, physical work can be a help with the work on awareness. That does not mean that being  highly physically developed, even having a complete absence of chronic tension, that awareness will be equally developed. Without proper attention and intention it will not develop reliably. But the energy available for this type  work will be much higher if we are healthy and well trained.

A stumbling block

If we go about seeking balance within the same framework that got us out of balance we won’t get there. There is almost always more than one way to do something, but that does not mean that all eclectic approaches are balanced or appropriate. It is all about doing what is needed, and not what we want or think we need.  

There no is amount of ‘programming’ or understanding  human physiology that will correct for patterns of behavior. If we run ourselves into the ground in your daily life, then this needs to be addressed before physical training will be of benefit.  Only by working with humans as humans in their totality can we do training at a level where change happens. Buffering weakness will allow us to go further and not be stuck in the same place. In this instance  a guide, who can correct for our personal patterns of behavior and blind spots, is very valuable. If we happen to take the advice.

The archetypes.

Coming back to the three pillars. Lets now have a look at how they are developed through common physical practices. Bear in mind that this isn’t “real people” but a description of certain tendencies in terms of patterns of physical development. They are stereotypical for a reason.

The Tight Powerlifter

Powerlifting is a strength sport consisting of three lifts: bench press, squat and deadlift. At the elite level flexibility is rarely developed to a greater extent than just about hitting parallel in the squat. Thereby getting a bit of tissue bounce to get the (monstrous) weight moving back up. As a strategy for lifting the largest possible weight it is grand. There is some exceptions; lifters who spend much time doing deadlifts in a sumo fashion often display very good legs apart flexibility. The trade off for a big bench is often that touching your own back is a big ordeal. Chronic Tension Patterns is not part of the conversation.

The Not so Supple Gymnast

Gymnasts seemingly do better in terms of having the whole package. High levels of whole body levels of strength and flexibility are developed concurrently. It is a necessity for the sport. The trouble is that having great levels of flexibility does not mean that tissue quality is great. To put it another way: being flexible does not necessarily make you supple. A similar argument can be made for olympic weightlifting.

The Weak Yogi

Then there is the Yogi. There is many different strands of yoga, but on the whole the type of body that is developed from yoga is one somewhat lacking in its structure and its ability to do physical work. Many develop very good levels of flexibility from yoga. Some even take care of their chronic tension patterns. It results in a body that is somewhat nicer to be live in. The downside is that strength development is sorely lacking: there is an ability squat to rock bottom but add any kind of load to it and everything becomes unhinged quickly.  They also lack spring, agility and explosiveness.

No deadlifts were performed that day.

A brief historical perspective

In structural bodywork it has been argued that the Hercules statues from the classical period Greece shows a deficiency in terms of structural integrity.***  As a casual observer we may view the statues as being beautiful, alluring, tells of powerful bodies.  To the trained eye the fascial lines tells tales of unbalance. From this it could be argued that the physical culture that created this type of physique was somewhat one-sided, favouring  aesthetics and power over grace and ease while compromising structure.

Structural bodywork has done much to bring the understanding of the human body, structure and movement forward. It is certainly interesting that what bodyworkers see as a distorted figure is something the physical culturalists view as a body of great virtue. So who is right?

This guy did not spend too much time benching and curling.

It is worth considering that critiques of strength work often time comes from sources that frown upon muscular development entirely. Physical culturalists on the other hand have long argued that strength work is an essential and indispensable part of physical training (while paying little to no attention to soft tissue work). Anyone who has committed to a sane physical regimen will have experienced these benefits. As many problems as there is with unadulterated fitness training it does raise the octave of the body over the untrained state. It is important to realise that we don’t have to buy into this dichotomy, the two views can coexist.  

No dichotomies

The idea of balance has always been a theme in physical training. We started by seeking structural balance across the body: if one area gets developed disproportionately it looks ‘off’ and creates problems in function. Increasingly we recognise that being strong and having a proportionally well developed physique isn’t enough. Much better to be able to move through the full range of motion as well. If this is coupled with relaxation and release of tension we have a truly virtuous arrangement.

Now you may be thinking: This is all well and good, but how do you train all three at the same time? Quite simply, you don’t.

This is a pitfall. Do not try to interiorize strength training – definitely use the appropriate cues and excellent form –but do not treat it in the same way as you would go about stretching or releasing tension. At best you will get lacklustre results, or worse get hurt.

There are excellent tools available to work on each of the three pillars. Many of them are well known. Trying to use a strength tool to release tension will not yield very good results, in the long run, in terms of cultivating a harmonious body. Use the appropriate tool for the job. In this sense you have to have different ‘hats’ and know when to switch them: Physical Culturalist – (ripped) Yogi – Body worker.  All have to be embodied simultaneously but not trained simultaneously. The weak points and omissions from one area are buffered by another. An auspicious triangulation can occur.  Specialisation in any one field is not balanced.

““A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein.

By seeking balance you are by definition choosing to be a generalist. The training discussed here is ‘basic training’. Balanced training is all about increasing optionality. The training that enhances life.  If you are a layman with an interest in improving the experience of being incarnate, this is about all the physical training you need. Further physical qualities and skills can easily be put on top, should we wish to.

You can ‘specialize’ by exploring higher games such as dance and martial arts. The basic training will help to acquire new skill sets more easily with less expenditure of time-energy.   Less tension means less energy lost overcoming ourselves in movement. Bodily intelligence will have developed nicely and from this there will already be an improved ability to work with the body. Of course we will already have higher levels of flexibility and strength to work with too.  

If you are a ‘weekend warrior’ and have extensive commitments outside of training then basic training is essential for injury prevention, resilience and staying healthy. By taking care of the three pillars first will you be able to play the higher games for longer.

Japanese sword fencing practice. Excellent example of a higher game.

Elite athletics is a different animal entirely. The triad still applies, and should be a integral part of training, but with chasing performance there is often a  price to pay.

Simplicity

As we move forward let us be clear about the context. This is not an argument to fix ourselves with binaural beats, blue light blocking glasses, obscure supplements or other forms of ‘biohacking’ that are being heralded as the next thing. We do not need more techno-fixes.

 The best trainers will always get excellent results with the simplest equipment. It does however involve  experience and appropriate tinkering with diet and training. Neurotransmitters and hormones have been inherently changeable for as long as man has walked. Change the functioning of the body and you will change the physiological state. Form and function goes hand in hand.  Better hormonal profile comes free of charge completely au naturelle.

In a way our solution is quite simple. We develop three qualities in harmony and synchrony. So that they can act in a synergistic fashion. Yielding a body with a great ability to do work yet simultaneously balanced and relaxed. The best possibly physical vessel to experience and live from.

Towards Balance.

*) Of course the joints on the opposite side of the flexion will have to extend.

**) For more on this concept look into the work of Buckminster Fuller

*** )  Myers, T. – Anatomy Trains p. 203-206

2 thoughts on “The Harmonious Body: The Three Pillars of Physical Balance

  1. Hi Frederick. Great article. Could you elaborate on what you mean by the 3 qualities not being trainable simultaneously? Do you simply mean literally not in the same moment (e.g. trying to release chronic tension while deadlifting) or do you mean these qualities should have different training phases: focusing on just one quality for a period of days or weeks (e.g. only T’ai Chi for a training block, then only gymnastics the next etc.) ?
    Also, Do you have any good resources for learning more about the release of chronic tension?

    1. Hi Chris.

      Glad you liked it.

      Quite simply not to attempt to train them in the same moment, using your example not trying to make tai chi into a strength/flexibility/tension-release. The qualities can and should be present in the same phase days and weeks. Basically using the appropriate tool for the task. I do not suggest blocking it out as in only one thing for weeks then another. Though there probably will be some waving of things as we focus on something in particular for a period.

      Resources for release of chronic tension, well a lot has been written about it and I hinted at some good resources in the article. More important than reading about it is to engage in a practice. I am hesitant to give any recommendations for this without knowing more about you (feel free to send me an email.)

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