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A Delving into Pull/Push Dynamics –  By John Loupos, H.S.E, M.S.

During the AHSE’s 2021 annual convention I had the privilege of presenting to attendees on the nuances of axial rotation during the Vertical Explorations session. Toward the tail end of my presentation I made some assertions about the dynamics of pulling versus pushing that inspired a spirited discussion. Counterpoints to my assertions about the body’s ability to push aspects of itself in a given manner noted that muscles can only contract, thereby calling into question its ability to push. 

That muscles can only contract is an important point with which am wholly in accord. In fact, I was very careful in my comments to assert that the shoulder could push (or move as if it were being pushed), but not that the muscles of the shoulder were doing the pushing, making for an important but curious distinction that I feel begs closer scrutiny. It is a widely accepted truth that muscles do one thing only - they contract. Yet it is significant that not all effects stemming from muscular contraction are the same. Common sense tells us the body is capable of both pulling and pushing. As such, we must take care to not conflate the contractile (pulling) action of the muscles with the variable effects of those contractions which may occur as either pulling or pushing forces expressed elsewhere in the body. These are distinctions that can be fruitfully applied to our understanding, experience, and practice of Hanna Somatics overall. 

It seems a straightforward line between the dynamics of muscular contraction and both the act of pulling and the effects of the act of pulling. Simply put, muscular contraction is an act of pulling. The most immediate effect of this act is to shorten the distance between two or more points as that muscle’s endpoints are drawn or pulled closer together. How much closer depends on the number of motor units recruited into action. It is worth noting also that there can be some voluntary aspect as to not only how many, but also which motor units may be called into action. Body builders who do curls with weights to develop big biceps can adjust the range and manner of their curls to emphasize which motor units are recruited for a desired sculpting effect. Or, recalling Ryan Moschell’s String Theory pattern (presented on Friday of the same convention), an imaginary string attached at the shoulder and at the hip can be reeled in from either end. If you imagine a miniature you at your shoulder pulling the string hand over fist the hip will be reeled toward the shoulder. Conversely, if you were to imagine pulling your string from the hip the shoulder will be drawn toward the hip. Or, both ends could be drawn simultaneously toward each other. In each case the same diagonal line of muscle is being targeted for contraction, but to an electively different effect. Regardless of how a contraction occurs, and regardless of how you might undertake to organize a contraction in a voluntary manner, muscular contractions are intrinsically pulling events and clearly serve as a basis for the effect, which may occur locally or elsewhere in the body, that we recognize as pulling. 

>>>  Pushing is another story, kind of. If muscles only contract, and all contractions have the effect of pulling something – even if just pulling themselves shorter – how is it that we are able to generate pushing forces?

The answer is that not all contractions result in the effect of a pulling action only. When a muscular contraction has the effect of causing a part or parts of the body to move something that is outside the body away from the body we call that action a push. Our bodies have evolved fundamentally to push our feet against the earth as the means by which we propel ourselves in walking. Pushing thus makes for an economic means of locomotion. Somas move, and pushing is how human somas go somewhere. There are many circumstances under which pushing is more efficient than pulling. If your car ran out of gas fifty feet short of the filling station would you rather pull your car to the pump or push it to the pump? If it were me I’d rather push, and I’m guessing you would push as well. In truth, pushing and pulling are intricately interwoven dynamics that must be carefully synchronized for best effect.

The extra-somatic outside (non-you) world aside, an internally focused push can also be utilized to move one part of your body away from or toward another part of your body. Of course, somewhere within your body a muscle must contract to make that happen, but you can use your mind – your intention and imagination – to create the feeling of a pushing versus a pulling force that actually feels quite different from pulling. How much mental effort is required to actualize such an event can vary depending the scenario you create.

Here’s a simple contrivance that will require your intention, but very little of your imagination. Place your palms together and press them against each other as if each palm were trying to overpower the other. Though muscles somewhere in your body must contract to cause this action happen, the subjective effect is not one of pulling (unless you deliberately attune your attention for that), but of pushing, and in this case not just one push but several. You are, in effect, pushing the scapulae away from each other so that you can simultaneously push the palms toward and against each other, creating a multidirectional push. There is some irony here as the more effort you exert for each palm to push the other away the more firmly they press against each other. 

Rather counterintuitively, a single vector pushing force actually makes for a more complex maneuver as compared to the multi-directional force described above. Pushing each palm against the other was easy, notwithstanding the muscular effort involved. It certainly didn’t require much thought, concentration, or imagination. But how can you push a part of your body against another part of your body without having another part of your body to push against? This is where things got interesting during my presentation and this is where intent and imagination take on a greater role.

Earlier I alluded to the string-pulling aspects of Ryan Moschell’s presentation. Ryan also included a (less heralded, but equally enthralling) carpet visualization, whereby he asked participants to imagine they were lying on a carpet that was being lifted at its respective corners. If we apply this visualization to our right shoulder quadrant the overall effect of shortening the distance between the right shoulder and the left hip is very similar to the earlier component of using an imagined string to reel, or pull, the shoulder toward the hip. However, while the basic end result of the hip and shoulder ending up closer to each other is similar, the interoceptive experience of the shoulder being pushed by the carpet versus pulled by the string is quite different. There’s no argument from me that both actions stem at a muscular level from something contracting somewhere. But the perceived (interoceptive) experience, as separate from the underlying muscular action, is one of the shoulder being pushed, not pulled. Just as importantly, there’s no reason to assume there is any reduced benefit from pushing as compared to a focus on the pulling aspect. It’s very possible that a subjectively adjusted focus on a same underlying causal mechanism can yield comparably (same or different) beneficial results. Exactly how this might work is beyond my purview here.

Before I conclude you may be wondering how I arrived at this line of thinking. One of my favorite Hanna Somatics movement patterns has always been the hip and shoulder rolls performed while lying on one’s side. When guiding others in this pattern early on I observed that I naturally tended to rely on certain predictable language cues, i.e. “push the shoulder forward, then push the shoulder down, then pull the shoulder back, and pull the shoulder up…” Any same language overused loses its novelty factor, lulling instead of exciting cortical arousal. In an effort to keep my students cortically engaged I thought to alternate my use of “push” and “pull” as well as vary other directional cues. When practicing in like manner on my own I noticed that I had a different interoceptive experience of same movements depending on whether I elected to push or pull. Given this previous experience, Ryan’s “string vs carpet” guidance struck me as having a familiar ring.

While cautions that we not over emphasize visualizations, etc., should not fall on deaf ears, I also think we as providers would be wise to not underestimate the importance of intention and imagination as well as other mental resources in fashioning an approach that best serves our clients’ needs. I’ll close here with a brief recounting of a client’s experience in this regard. My client, who traced his complaints to a near crash landing in a helicopter while in the military service, was struggling after several attempts to manage a controlled release of his internal rotators as I guided his leg over and down to the side. I then thought to suggest that he try lowering his leg in the manner that he wished he’d been able to land in the helicopter. With this visualization his external rotation immediately became smoother and fuller and better controlled. Muscles do their thing - they contract, they pull. But if we can help a client achieve a desired effect through some imagined scenario that enhances his or her Somatics experience, that seems to me to serve the greater good.

This is an original article by John Loupos.