This insight aims to combine two pervious articles aimed at developing our understanding of Asymmetry in the Human Body and the impact of Neurology, Stress and Movement Variability on health, fitness and performance. Providing some practical context to the work we do with clients at IFT.
To emphasise a fundamental consideration of what we do at IFT, each system within the human body, visual, auditory, respiratory, neurological, lymphatic, musculoskeletal all have an asymmetrical arrangement. We need this underlying asymmetry to function as we do.
Asymmetry therefore is NOT bad, it’s there by design.
However, as with all things within life, we fall on a spectrum in terms of our ability to manage this asymmetry.
This matters intrinsically within the context of how we train our clients.
To understand how we select exercise, programme sessions or put together blocks of training, we must consider the three domains of performance. Fitness, Athletic and the often neglected, Biological.
The Fitness domain in this context, is that purposeful drive to develop our general physical capacity. This can include aspects such as our overall strength, work capacity, aerobic output and the like.
Our Athletic domain can be considered more skill/sport-specific, more task-orientated and outcome driven. With the aim being to develop performance and enable greater transfer into the realm in which we compete. We want exercises here to closely mirror the movement patterns and loading types of the sport or activity we compete in.
The Biological therefore, is the arena in which things become a more specific to us as functioning individuals. Within this domain, we consider the support and health of everyday health. How we adapt and survive within the environment we’ve live.
This can include our respiratory health, our sleep and rest habits, mental, emotional and physiological well-being, as well as our neuro-musculoskeletal health to name a few.
If we consider how we approach exercise and training typically, it’s easy to recognise how we impact the fitness domain of our performance. In a very general sense, if we want to get ‘fit’ the vast majority of us will attend classes, possibly go for a run outdoors, or visit a gym with the purpose being to develop our general physical capacity.
Equally, many of us performing within a sport or recreational activity, may also undertake a portion of our training within the athletic domain. The use of Plyometrics, Olympic Lifting, Sprinting and technical skill training, can all be considered to lay this category of performance.
But how often do we consider, or even understand, the biological domain of performance.
Traditional approaches to fitness and performance can often mean we spend the majority of our time shifted primarily into only one or two of the recognised domains. We lack consideration for this need for interplay and intersection between all three.
Those that have taken part in a session at IFT, or visited the Insights area of the website, may be familiar with this concept.
Take a look at the image below. Note the static internal asymmetry of our organs. Heart on one side, liver on the other. Only two lobes of lung one side, three lobes the other. Note the differing resting position of the diaphragm between left and right to name a few, a crucial component. (Discussed further here).
Though on the surface we appear to look the same, left to right, when we look inside, things take on a very different appearance…
Now consider the parafunctional habits we all tend to have as 21st century humans.
At a basic level, we’ll stand predominately on the one leg and reach for objects with the same hand, sit in one position for the vast majority of the day without shifting position between sides for hours on end… just for ease of use.
Yet this creates widespread consequences on the pelvis, thorax and cranium and musculoskeletal system as a whole, due this continuous one-sided preference and loading.
Going slightly deeper, we can add into the mix the inherent lateralisation of hemispheric brain function, meaning we favour the right arm in social interaction and communication, and we begin to appreciate that asymmetry is a fluid process, existing both statically within us, and dynamically in our behaviours, forming a fundamental part of our day-to-day lives.
Performance and Athletic Domains
Try to now imagine a training session or gym workout in which we perform traditional, bilateral, symmetrical exercises (Bench, Squat, Deadlift, Pull Up) for whatever purpose.
Can we expect our bodies to perform these exercises truly symmetrically, as we believe we are, with such widespread asymmetry at play?
Of course not.
We may be stood on two legs, or picking up a weight with two arms, however that in no way means the exercise is being completed symmetrically as we often imagine it is…
A few simple pre-and-post assessments are usually enough to demonstrate the impact that symmetrical training choices have on a asymmetrical system.
We should however remember that often our outcome in this context is primarily developing fitness.
We want to lift heavy and get stronger through these chosen movement patterns. In this domain, we are targeting specific outcomes with regards to your physical fitness, in this example, strength.
These exercises could therefore still be very appropriate for improving performance in this domain ,despite what we know lurks beneath, of then goal is simply force development.
However, as trainers or coaches, how many of us have an awareness or appreciation for this asymmetrical framework underneath in each and every one of our clients, when working in the fitness domain?
Is our quest therefore for fitness improvement using traditional approaches, exercise selection and modalities, undermining our clients need for biological health?
If we change context and apply the same exercises and modalities to the athletic domain, and again within the context of the sport or activity, the exercises may be appropriate. We are after all, aiming for very task specific and purposeful practice, of which we may need these movement patterns and training load within the sport or activity we perform.
A Powerlifter for example, needs to Bench, Squat and Deadlift in competition. It makes complete sense therefore, that they must form a part of this individuals training for Athletic performance, regardless of whether they are inherrently asymmetrical or not.
How about a Golfer or Tennis player however who’s sport-specific actions are inherently asymmetrical?
The Biological Domain
If we now apply these same concepts to the Biological domain in which we need to appreciate neurology, respiration, the musculoskeletal system, and so much more, and we may be severely compromising the integrity of the human system through these choices.
To impact the biological aspect of performance we must consider not only the musculoskeletal system, but ALL systems. We need variability and flexibility throughout. An underpinning appreciation that things are not always the same on the right as they are on the left when it comes to human movement.
With this underpinning knowledge of human asymmetry, we have the capacity to select exercises that support our biological function regardless of domain.
Exercises that will contribute in limiting systemwide extension and rigidity, with the aim to increase system flexibility and variability. We can then create training sessions that underpin the targeted energy system or outcome for fitness or athletic performance, and programme appropriately for the individual and their biological function.
The use of a simple Goblet Squat can be the perfect example to begin in understanding this concept.
We add to this a cue for consistent airflow during, and ask the client to feel weight into their heels throughout (possibly the left more than the right…), keeping them grounded by adding a sensory neurological component to the exercise.
We’ve then created an environment and intersection between domains that considers biological function and system integration, whilst still training in the fitness/athletic domains of performance depending on load, volume, intensity and intended outcome of the exercise.
Exercises and modalities that predominately emphasise the use of barbells or straight-bar work, often tie us into attempting symmetrical movements on an asymmetrical frame. In the right context they have their place within the domains of performance.
Dumbbells, medicine balls, bands and the like, allow for greater degrees of freedom within movement, enabling a more asymmetrical axis from which to move from, and again have their own costs/benefits when used in sessions.
However, what we believe is far more important as coaches and trainers, is that we must understand the relevant context and appropriate domain for their use.
Is this specific exercise, session, block, or phase of training, for fitness, athletic or biological purposes?
Each comes with their own methods and modalities, and we need interplay between the three.
The aim should be to move away as an industry and profession from living and training in just one or two domains.
The greater our appreciation for all three domains of performance, and how we create an effective intersection between, the greater impact we can make not only on a individuals fitness, or athletic prowess, but their ability to sustain normal everyday function as an asymmetrical human being.