Sunday, November 29, 2009

Z health - it is starting to make sense (thanks to mc)

A few weeks ago I posted an interview with mc, talking about the seminar that she was to do here in Edinburgh today.

Today's seminar was fascinating and I am really grateful to mc and to Rannoch for promoting it. What I found really interesting was the way in which the teaching pulled together a range of different threads of topics which I have been thinking about for years. I'll post some of these ideas in some additional posts.

I think I've been a bit dismissive of mobility work and z health in the past - I have done it and enjoyed the feeling, but was somewhat bemused by the way in which it was often presented as the solution....

This seminar did what the books and articles I've read previously have failed to do - it put the exercises into context, it explained the reasoning and the theory that justify the moves. It makes more sense now - it is about threat modulation...reassuring your nervous system that things are OK.

We went through a lot of theory and then applied it to some kettlebell moves.

I'll try to present the arguments here and develop some of the ideas in future posts:

  • The body is oriented on survival not performance (this links to some paleo/evolutionary fitness ideas. What are we designed for? survive, to escape danger, be it a predator or any other threat).
  • Take a neurological perspective - look at the nervous system as central - it is always "on", it is fast and it is plastic (malleable - you can learn things that stick). It is always active, always adapting to the demands that it is facing. Back to the old SAID principle - your body will adapt to what you do with it
  • Your neurology is binary - it recognises only 2 states - THREAT or NO THREAT
  • A THREAT state limits efficient movement in some way or other - there could be pain or tightness or weakness for example, or a limited range of motion.
  • A variety of things can induce a THREAT state - lack of movement, fear of falling, being unbalanced, stress.....even poor body position - the arthrokinetic reflex for example.
  • The challenge then is to reduce threat signals to improve movement and performance
So how do you do this?

  • Focus on Proprioception - this is more than balance, it is about you brain knowing where you are in space....but more it is about your state.
  • Mechanoreceptors - these are within muscles focussed around joints. They map movement. It is an active map of where we are and where we are moving....They send signals to the brain, the nervous system
  • Movement will send signals through the nervous system, activating these mechanoreceptors.
  • Lots of movement can "drown out" the pain signals
  • Movement will encourage the nervous system to see you as in a NO THREAT state
  • It is all about trying to maximise the stimulation of mechanoreceptors, to keep movement signals going through your neurology, keeping your proprioceptive system active and so to modulate your state.
  • Z Health is built around specific mobility drills to promote movement around each joint to promote a NO THREAT state.
In the interview mc explained this: (but it is only after the seminar today that things are making sense):

it turns out that there are some great ways to talk with the nervous system via movement. We’re designed to move. We have joints in our bodies for a reason. So by moving the joints actively we are sending loads of all clear/no threat signals to the nervous system. As we move joints, we are also sending a very rich map of where we are in space to give the body increased options about how it can respond to a threat: the more joints perceived as richly mobile, the more responses to avoid an incident.

There are other things you can do too to promote that state - careful breathing, go for a walk etc.

Anyway some interesting ideas that tie in to things like the ideas of Sarno and Monte, and also the idea of posture - like Esther Gokhale talks about.

In his Restoring Lost Physical Function DVD Rif draws on a related idea from Paul Chek. He says that we are basically always working into extension, against flexion. Flexion pulls you together, the flexors pull you into a foetal postions. Think about it - your abs, biceps etc, you curl up into a ball. This is how you start and also how you finish - old people gradually curl up again - there flexors get stiff and they are pulled over, stooped. As we are fit and healthy, we are extended - your back, triceps, glutes, and quads fire and you stand straight. Rif says:

It’s easy to forget that our bodies are under a constant source of pressure from gravity at all times. Gravity is always trying to bend us over, push us down and return us to the fetal position we started from. Many of the muscles in our body are all to happen to ‘go with the flow’ and bend us over into a ball. Our modern seated lives do not help this at all.It’s easy to go from bed, to chair, to car seat, to office seat, back to car seat to couch to bed every day. And then we wonder why our backs or necks hurt or why the exercise routine is not working as well as it should.

Posture is the beginning and end of movement and if our starting postures are not square, plumb and neutral at the start; especially movements that are weighted or done many thousands of times, chances are they will not be at the end.

Gravity, weighted exercises and the daily, repetitive movements we do all day long have very specific effects on our muscles .Certain muscles, referred to as ‘tonic’ ,respond to too much loading or too much inactivity by getting, and staying shorter. Examples of tonic muscles are the hamstrings, calves, the deep muscles in the glutes and the flexors of the upper arm. Tonic muscles are mostly postural ,slow twitch fibers that can get and stay tight very easily.

One the other side of the coin( and the joint) are ‘phasic’ muscles such as quadriceps, triceps, the muscles between the shoulder blades( rhomboids) that are prone to getting weak and stretched out with too much or too little use. The balance of tensions between these two types of muscles is known as a Length Tension relationship.

Where this fits in that the foetal position is the threat response. All the flexors fire and you curl up. When threatened, your posture collapses.

Anyways....more to come....including - interestingly - some support for the Moment Arm approach


Clamence said...

Chris I am warming up to the ideas of z-health as well.

I watched the neural warm up and both r-phase discs and was unimpressed, had I paid for them I would have been very upset.

Seems as if you have to spend a ton of money to learn any of the "secrets" of z-health.

I really wish the z-health kids would stop all the hand waving with "threat state" and enumerating all the types of sensory receptors.

There's a huge dearth of scientific literature and terminology used in the "micro-mobility" world.

BCR said...

Ignoring my pet peeve about anthropomorphism, "reassuring your nervous system that things are OK" sounds good.

Calling this threat/no threat is a sticking point for me though. Why not stress/no stress? Blocked/Clear? Or does that make z-health sound less special, and more like common sense or even alternative medicine?

What i'm really wondering is why I would shell out for dvd's with no ideas what i'm getting, instead of joining the old guys in the park for a bit of tai chi.

Mike T Nelson said...

Great work Chris on taking the time to learn even more---awesome job!

I am open to answering any questions on Z Health Secrets, so fire away.

I have a 9 part Z Health Secrets series on my blog at

Screts of Z Health for Extreme Performance

You can use the terms "eustress" and "distress" for threat modulation if that helps. Most do too much distress work in the gym.

Rock on
Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

Matt Metzgar said...


Lots of good info in this post. Glad you enjoyed the seminar.

Chris said...


one of the other things that was discussed at one point was nasal breathing - she recommends, as you do, experimenting with nasal only breathing when running. Again to do with threat modulation

dangoldberg33 said...

Hi Chris,

I was on vacation and tried to post to the other topic on power training but was unable to so I'll post it here.

If you have increased your 1 rep max power clean while not improving your power clean form, then you have, in addition to other things, increased your ability to powerfully extend your hips.

That means you're hips are more powerful and believe me, your ability to powerfully extend your hips is very very important for playing sports.

Dead lifts might be better than power cleans at developing the hip extension power, however, doing power cleans will make you better at doing power cleans and that improvement is not 100% due to improved form. Therefore, doing power cleans will improve your hip extension strength and power.

To think that doing power cleans and improving your 1 rep max by 20% is actually not making me more powerful is very hard to believe.

Power cleans will increase your strength to weight ratio as well.

Hip extension strength and power as well as increased strength to weight ratio might not directly make you a better athlete, HOWEVER, these three things will 100% increased your athletic potential.

mc said...

Hi Chris - what a lovely post and thanks for posting your reflections.

It's great to hear how/what things connect with folks and how. And thank you for not using the term "secrets" - there are no secrets. - and when Cobb runs a cert you'll find the same thing. It's why as i've said before i dig z-health: it's not mysterious; it's science (have cobb explain a knife strike (i think) sometime using the "how do you do up your seat belt" analogy). can't stand "secrets" blick.

And yup we do tend to go increasingly into protection-from-threat mode or fetal - and i love that about our design: fatigue induces a posture that pulls us into a more protective state, when we're too pooped to take care of ourself. Reflexive. v. cool.

One of your posters asks "What i'm really wondering is why I would shell out for dvd's with no ideas what i'm getting, instead of joining the old guys in the park for a bit of tai chi."

we talked about this at the seminar: by all means go do tai chi. move as much as you wish in any form you wish. z-health is one way to ensure that you are moving EACH joint through its range of motion, and checking that you can in a variety of positions (i-phase in particular for position templates) and speeds. This joint by joint range of motion check is a powerful tool in it's own right. The precision of the movements for joint ROM optimization has a lot of knock on effects.

In this respect, z-health offers a diagnostic and for those of us who do not have an other movement practice - of course a movement practice as well. It is not meant to replace any athletic activity but to provide tools to enhance performance.

So that's a few reasons.

Whether writing a whole ton about z-health mayn't help. Both another poster here - mike t nelson - and i have written rather a lot about the ideas behind z. there's lots in the DVD's manuals.

As Chris notes, however, even though he's read the articles, and interviewed me talking about these concepts, it seems it's the in person discussion/application that helps put things together better.

If however anyone would like to give some reading a go, there's a bunch of posts at in the z-health section.

checking on
"move or die"
"whay not train through pain"
"why i" are kinda my faves.
there's also a vid of that arthrokinetic reflex to which chris refers.

Hope to see ya all at the next z/kb workshop :)

(chris you do not have to print this comment if it's just too long and rangy. no worries. thanks again for coming by sunday)


There's a lot more in the manuals that come with the manuals than in the dvd's alone.

olddude said...

We are the manual.Unfortunately the language it is written in is challenging in that we are not used to communicating that way. Zhealth, tichi, yoga, etc, etc, teach us the language.

Chris said...

Thanks mc

BCR said...

I've spent all day reading the z-health content from mc's site and others. I've yet to see anything that convinces me. I want to be convinced. I want to read all the materials, watch all the dvds. But i'm not.

The promises are the same as other "systems". The testimonials are the same. It has more than a whiff of snake oil.

The way it's marketed, the cost... Just does nothing for it. If the system is that amazing, then have some non-anecdotal evidence readily available. Have demo videos or texts available for free.

I'd love to be "converted" but so far.. no sale.

Chris said...


if you read my interview with mc you will pick up that I was a bit sceptical too. As you say it is often presented as something of a panacea, a miracle cure.

I was disappointed in the zhealth DVD I bought a while ago because it was just a set of mobility moves - what it missed was the context - the threat modulation stuff - that mc gave.

Just to try things out you could always look at Scott Sonnon's material - he is offering his basic mobility book for free at the moment and it is a good little programme. Also apparently the founder of zhealth - Eric Cobb - studied with Sonnon originally.

i think there is something to all this stuff but it is the threat / emotion side that interests me.