Using Reflexes for More Mobile Shoulders
Today, we’re going to talk about using reflexes to improve shoulder movement. Now, most of you will have seen a baby at some point laying on its back and it turns its head and often it will do something like this. When the head turns one arm will go out in the direction of the head and the other arm will flex. In the developmental world, this is called an asymmetric tonic neck reflex. It’s part of helping us learn to roll over as infants and there’s a huge population of professionals out there that look at what are called retained reflexes and their involvement in things like learning disorders and developmental coordination issues. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. All right? That’s about a hundred-hour lecture.
What I want to discuss today is, number one, research has begun to demonstrate that these reflexes that should be basically integrated into us as adults, we still retain some level of them, even when we are normal and healthy. There have been several studies now that have shown that in healthy adults, we still have an asymmetric tonic neck reflex. Now why that is helpful for us in the movement professions is that we can use this reflex to help facilitate improvements in range of motion that we can then back up with strength.
Ready to give this a try?
So let me show you what we’re going to do today. We’re going to check your shoulder ranges of motion. So we’re going to go into basically a one-armed scarecrow position, right? Or bank robber position, “hands up!”
So what I want you to do is I want you to be in this position and I want you to get nice and tall and test your internal shoulder rotation and your external shoulder rotation. And I would like for you to do that five or ten times. And I would like for you to actually push the range of motion. All right, so once you’re in this position, you feel like you’ve gone as far as you can. Actually try to go a little bit further, because I want to make sure that you get an awareness or create an awareness of what happens when we generate this reflex.
So we’re checking external rotation and internal rotation. If you want to be really, really strict about this, do it against the wall so that your arm is straight out, level with the ground. You put the tip of your elbow against the wall so that you’re measuring exactly the same way every single time.
Now, here’s how this reflex works. If I’m standing here and I turn my head to the left, that facilitates extensor musculature on the left side of my body. It also facilitates flexor musculature on the opposite side. So if I turn to the left, I should see an improvement in my flexor tone, so my biceps should get stronger, my grip should get stronger on my right turning to the left. I should have greater extensor capability on this left side, so maybe my lat or my glute. So the way that I like to show people this, is what I want you to do is get in this position. You’re going to test your internal rotation, internal rotation is another form of flexion. So, in order to use this reflex to improve internal rotation, we simply want to practice or test looking away.
We’re going to do this in two steps. We’re first going to use our eyes only, and then we’re going to use our eyes and head. So you test your right arm. You warmed it up, go into your internal rotation position and freeze there for a second. Now, in that frozen position, head still, I want you to quickly snap your eyes to the left, like you’re looking over your shoulder without turning your head and see what happens to your internal rotation. For many people, just moving their eyes in the opposite direction will give them an improvement. Next, we’ll go back to that same position, we’ll go into internal rotation. Now, we will move our eyes and follow it quickly with our head and retest and see what happens with our internal rotation. Now, if I wanted to improve my external rotation, I would obviously need to do the opposite.
So once again, I would be in this position, externally rotate as far as I can, snap my eyes to the right, I get a good change. Turn my eyes and head to the right, I get even more change. Now why this is useful is now I have a reflexive tool that I can use to improve my end ranges of motion, but that does not mean that your brain will let you maintain that range of motion unless you do some strengthening and coordination work in that new position.
So we use this all the time with clients to improve the range of motion and once they’re in that newfound range, now, we’ll do some isometric work or we’ll do some small band work, some stability work in this position so that their brain says, “alright, this is a range of motion that I can control so I will now grant it to you on a more regular basis.” So this is a brief look into the ATNR.
I hope you enjoyed this. This is just one example of why knowing bain science can play such an important and critical role in making very fast improvements in you and your clients.