Recently I had a chance to talk with a friend of IronRx and incredibly forward thinker, Ethan Plante from P-Knot Industries. After talking with him my mind was opened to a new thought process surrounding cardiac issues and aerobic performance. After speaking with him, I took the time to read this quick article that he wrote a little while back that will help to provide deeper information behind the thoughts below.
So what is that article about? Well quickly, it is about how myofascial release can decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and improve quality of life even for individuals who do not train to keep their heart healthy. The other side of this article is how posture can affect heart function and performance in athletes and nonathletes alike.
Ethan was able to reference multiple studies that found that even just a quick 20 minute Self Myofascial Release (SMR) session can decrease arterial stiffness and, as a result, decrease blood pressure. This is likely due to multiple things: activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation/recovery system), increased pliability of the fascial structures throughout the body (also including veins and arteries), and the improved length-tension relationship of the muscles following SMR. All of these things aid in improving (short term at first, but long term results come with chronic practice) the health of the individual from a cardiac perspective.
This finding is incredible and may change how you or your loved ones go through cardiac rehab over the course of the next few years. This has the potential to completely eliminate some individuals' cardiac episodes. Now that the information is surfacing from legitimate scientific research and is no longer mystical homeopathic medicine, it is proven to be effective and doctors will need to provide their patients with the info needed to perform beneficial movements.
So that's great that old people can avoid heart disease just by rolling out, cool. But how does that help me as an athlete? Well first it shows you that you can improve your recovery and tax your body less just by rolling out properly. But how does that affect posture? And how does posture affect my heart's function.
This is where we have to avoid things getting too convoluted. So let's start with the basics. If your heart beats by expanding and contracting in your chest it requires space to do so. Normally the heart rests between the lungs in a sack called the pericardium. But don't forget that the lungs and diaphragm also have to expand and contract for us to breath. This setup works wonderfully when the walls of our thorax (chest) are wide enough for the organs to not interfere with one another. If you have chronic poor posture which can come from desk jobs, lack of awareness, habit, or hyper tense muscles you will shrink the volume of your thorax as shown below.
The chest and torso as a whole should expand 360 degrees. This allows all of those vital organs to expand and contract in 360 dress as well. Now what comes with poor posture is a loss of expansion of the chest cavity from ¼ to ¾ of the size it normally should be. With the chest volume limited we see compensation happening to move and breathe. This compensation typically comes in the way of ‘neck breathing.' Neck breathing will lead to compression on the cervical spine and loss of rotation of the head and potential nerve impingement or entrapment. Had enough? Sorry but we're not done yet.
Poor function in the neck and ‘neck breathing' will lead to hypermobile shoulders. Hypermobile joints allow us to make it through brutal workouts and movements we shouldn't otherwise be able to, and because we do that we will develop even more compensatory patterns. In this case we will become hypertonic (overly stiff) in the torso. Great, there goes your expansion of the chest and torso in 360 degrees. So now to walk around, run, or even sleep your heart has less room to beat. This is a big problem.
Imagine standing in between two mattresses that are just outside of shoulder width, and you have to reach your arms out completely. You may be able to push with some of your strength into them to eventually reach that, but it will be tiresome and taxing on your muscles. Well, in a very simple way, that's what your heart does as it has to push against the lungs to reach it’s full expansion to allow for filling of the atria and ventricles. So now your heart is working harder and expending more energy while being less efficient. Don't underestimate what this means to you. Your WOD times won't just decrease, your quality of life will decrease.
What happens after years or decades of poor posture and limited room to expand is called ventricular hypertrophy (shown below), aka growth of the walls of the heart. While it may sound good to have a thicker heart it is actually very dangerous. What happens is when the walls of the heart grow they grow inward, shrinking the amount of blood that can come into the heart with each beat. So now to pump the same volume of blood as a normal heart, this heart needs to beat 2-3x (or more) for every 1 beat of the normal heart. So your heart is even less efficient now.
Shit, does this sound like you? Don't panic too hard, if you exercise you’re still better off than those who don't. But what can you do to improve your posture? Well SMR is a great place to start for the reasons listed in paragraph 3. The next big step would be to perfect your breathing patterns. After that it would be to include breathing patterns in movements that purposefully improve thoracic cage and spinal alignment. The final step for athletes and non-athletes alike would be to make sure that you can control your spine and rib cage when moving in all of the planes you move through each day.
The reason we developed the Iron Spine was to improve athletes' function, and ability to perform work safely. However as we do more research into the matter, we can see that there are potentially far greater applications for this than just improved athletic performance. Do yourself a favor and think on your own about this issue. If you feel you can improve, then we want to help. If you think I'm pulling this out of thin air to sell you snake oil feel free to let me know. I would love to discuss with you the benefits and theories behind this article.
Okamoto T, Masuhara M, Ikuta K. Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function. (2014, January). Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
Plante E. Heart Disease Prevention using Self Myofascial Release. (December 2015). P-Knot Industries.