Workout with the Magic School Bus

Years ago, Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus gang explored a world without friction. What ensued was a colorful depiction of chaos, and a valuable lesson on how our bodies are affected by the world around us. These days, I often ask clients that struggle with a movement a simple question Miss Frizzle style: how would you perform the movement if you were in a world without gravity?

Before I answer the question directly, a quick lesson on how our muscles work in conjunction with the nervous system. The brain is the central hub of our nervous system, and the controls every function of our body. An electrical signal starts in the brain, and then travels through a series of nerves that connect the brain to the specific muscles we want to use. This electrical signal is so awesome, because it not only tells the muscle to work, but also how much to work; we wouldn’t pick up an egg with the same pressure as a heavy weight, and the brain knows just how much pressure to use.

Think of it like the engine in a car: you can have the greatest ties, strongest frame and most amazing stereo, but without the engine you’re not going anywhere (or rocking any tunes). But, if you have an amazing engine in that car, and all the proper wires and tubes in place, that car will get you from point A to point B with relative ease while bumping those sick beats.  

Likewise, if the brain doesn’t generate the signal to move, or the nervous system is not functioning properly, muscle and bone doesn’t do us any good, or at the very least will be difficult to control. This is why people with an auto immune disease like Multiple Sclerosis have such difficulty in life: their brain is generating the signal, but the electric signal won’t reach the muscles.

Continuing the car analogy, how fast does the car go? If you answered ‘as much as I put the pedal down,’ you’re correct. This is where the analogy gets difficult. You see, we don’t have only one brain. The engine is only one part of our brain. But we also have a conscious part of our brain – the part that makes decisions and where our will power resides. Just like a car is useless without the driver (or soon software), our muscles are useless without our decisions to go and move weights around.

Ok, last piece of this anatomy lesson, and where the car analogy no longer serves us. Your brain also makes unconscious decisions about how it wants to build your body and nervous system. The brain LOVES efficiency. To keep it short: if you don’t move around a lot, or maintain one position for long amounts of time (cough, sitting, cough), the brain goes to work and reshapes the body and re-wires the nervous system to make sitting easier to do. The brain ‘thinks’ it is helping, but the obvious problem is we still need to move from our desk to our car to our couch. The car will always have relatively the same structure, but your body is capable of growing and deteriorating by itself depending on what you tell it to do.

While I’d love to jump on the ‘never sit again’ bandwagon that is all the rage these days, I’d be a hypocrite, as I’m writing this post sitting down. Furthermore, sitting isn’t the only problem. Even standing all day, we rarely reach overhead, twist, or pull as often as we push. And when we don’t use these movements, the brain is constantly busy pruning away the nerves and muscles that help our body not only perform them, but also stabilize them. Jumping ahead, if you’ve got pain, chances are your brain hurt you.

For example, let’s just use a body weight squat. In the real world, we rarely perform a squat well, simply because gravity is always helping us out to reach the chair or toilet. In fact, most people usually rely on gravity for these movements, and without much range. So what does the brain do? It sees all the stabilizers and flexors of the hips as inefficiency and shuts off a lot of signal to them; after all, that’s resources that can better be used to stress about our job or our hair.

Now, let’s get on the Magic School Bus, and visit that zero gravity world with the same squat. If you’re standing, how do you squat down without gravity pulling you down? Really think about it. Put yourself there. Without me telling you, your brain figures out that you have to pull yourself down to the floor, and likewise push against the floor to get back up. I didn’t have to tell you what muscles to use, or how to use them. The driver is learning how to drive again and manipulate the wheel and pedals again. Better still, the brain, having this practice learns that it needs to rewire the body to perform these movements without relying on gravity to do the movement for us. Over time, those stabilizers and pulling muscles get stronger and easier to control. Well done, Kids!

Here’s the take away: re train the brain and body to use the muscles, and stop relying on gravity for half the movement. Some examples for you:

  • Use the back muscles to help pull you down in a push up, and you’ll get better faster at the push up
  • Use the hips to pull yourself down to the floor in a squat or lunge, and you’ll get stronger faster with less knee and back pain
  • In a row, you’re not pulling against gravity, but more the active tension in the chest (pulling the collar bones apart)

Pretending that gravity does not exist for a minute is a great warm up in preparation for a workout. It sets up the brain and nervous system to fully control the movement and activate as much muscle as it can, which results in more muscle working in strength and stability. Get the most out of your workouts with this simple and easy brain trick, and have fun while doing it. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the Magic School bus, don’t worry. I’m sure you still have an imagination and can pretend there is no gravity. Can’t you?

Have fun with this, and let me know how it helps or doesn’t. And as always, thanks for reading, and have an awesome day!