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How the GYROTONIC® Method Can Improve Training For Athletes

In an interview with GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® Master Trainer, Angela Crowley, Sarah Simpson, GYROTONIC® Communications Director and Educational Assistant to Juliu Horvath, talks about working with elite athletes and using Gyrotonic methods to help them enhance training and performance.


Angela’s mother had a dance and gymnastics school, so she grew up around movement. She became a competitive, elite gymnast and later transitioned to a professional career in dance. Then a car accident changed Angela’s life. Traditional medical approaches such as traction in the hospital and intensive physical therapy only helped a little. Angela was told to learn to write with her other hand and if she sat for an hour her right leg would fall asleep. She refused to accept this outcome and so started searching for other treatment options.

A naturopathic doctor directed her onto a holistic path consisting of Pilates, deep neuromuscular therapy, osteopathy, acupuncture and anti-inflammatory dietary changes. She also began studying Feldenkrais, a somatic approach addressing the organization of movement through the whole body via the nervous system. Based on normal developmental movement, these patterns readily translate to sports. With that understanding, she found herself frustrated in the Pilates system, in terms of accessing normal, full body flowing movement patterns.


As a former gymnast and dancer who had been injured, Angela naturally attract people from similar walks of life in her teaching. She’s had the pleasure of working with a wide variety of athletes from recreational to world-class and Olympic athletes. These have included race car drivers, runners, divers, triathletes, and an Olympic pole vaulter.


Sarah: What was different about the Gyrotonic Method and made it different for you?

Angela: Ah, the golden moment. I saw a picture of someone on a Gyrotonic machine with her hands on the handles. I could see that the movement of the handles gave access to, and facilitated, the movement of the spine. My search was answered. Many people including myself have neck and low-back problems. In order to solve those issues, you have to deal with the movement between the two – the mid-back and ribcage. Using the Gyrotonic Method was the first place where I felt I could successfully do that. I went to New York and studied with Juliu Horvath, who was still making each of the Gyrotonic machines by hand, at that time. I’ve now been teaching the Gyrotonic Method for more than 20 years.


Sarah: One of the things I’ve heard you talk about before is the “wave of motion.” Tell us about that?

Angela: That’s the magic. If you imagine any sport, let’s use running, for example, there is a wave of motion that happens from the foot, through the leg, through the pelvis, through the spine, into the air and then, it reverses down into the landing. If you think about basketball, there is a wave of movement that goes from the floor, through the body, out through the fingertips.

One of the most fundamental, quintessential movements of the Gyrotonic Method is called the “wave,” which is a flowing movement of the spine. It is the single most unique and valuable theme in this method that separates it from every other exercise system, not only in terms of sports performance, but also because of the extensive health benefits. The fluidity is similar to tai chi or swimming.


In the wave motion, the amount of articulation of the spine is highly unusual. If you think about how many people have back pain, it’s illogical that most exercise systems focus mostly on the arms and the legs. It’s equally ridiculous, in terms of sports, because spinal movements are part of not only every motion in daily life, but also in terms of every sport. Again, if you think about the way a basketball player is going down and then coming up, or the way a diver is folding and unfolding the body, it’s the center of the body that is leading that motion to make it happen. Or, think about the sideways motion of the spine in a skater, or the spiraling movement of the spine in a golfer, even in walking there is a counter spiraling action that happens in our spine, which is even greater when we’re running. Yet, most training systems don’t give us access to train in ways that include those spinal dynamics.


Many workout systems work one muscle group and then another in parts. However, sports movements don’t occur in parts. Thinking only in terms of training strength and flexibility is a gross oversimplification of the requirements of an athlete. Performance is based on an artful orchestration of strength and flexibility that wave through the body. There are pathways of movement that are dependent on rhythm, timing, and coordination in their execution to get to the end result. So why not train that way ?


For that wave of motion to be fluid, it needs to be distributed throughout the whole body. The more joints that help in any movement, the less stress there is. If you think about all of the joints, starting with the foot, the foot should have a buoyancy to be a springboard and a shock absorber. It shouldn’t be rigid, at all. Then, you’ve got the ankle, the knee, the hip, and then the spine with five levels in the low back, twelve in the mid-back, and seven in the neck. Then, you’ve got the shoulder girdle, the elbow to the hand, etc…


So, if you’re throwing, every single one of those, from the foot to the hand, should be involved. However, people habitually move from only a few joints. Therefore, those few joints are under incredible stress, and wear and tear. By distributing forces equally through each of the joints, each one has less stress and each one has greater finesse. The overall organism has more power. Whether you are pushing off to jump, or landing from something like a ski jump where the impact is substantial, you have more buoyancy. The body becomes more like a spring and is supple. Efficiency and energy expenditure are also improved while proactively reducing injuries.


Sarah: So, what comes to mind in hearing you talk about this is tensegrity and fascia. Are you looking from those perspectives?

Angela: I’m looking from a number of perspectives, including principles of physics such as load and distribution of forces as we were just discussing. Here is an analogy for you: If one person picks up a big piece of equipment, it’s really heavy. If two people pick it up, it’s a little lighter, if 5 people help, it’s a lot lighter, etc… That’s how the forces need to be distributed throughout your body if you are trying to throw a ball, or trying to propel your own body into the air. The more parts that are helping, the easier it is.


Tensegrity is based on a balance of tensions that create space, and tensile strength that is extraordinarily resilient, like suspension bridges. A balance of tensile forces in the body ideally translates to equal strength, and equal flexibility, on all sides of all joints, and in every different plane of motion and relationship with gravity. This balance of tensile strength protects our joints. What I mean by that is, if you are looking at the knee joint, for example, people tend to be overdeveloped in their quads, really tight in the IT band and TFL on the outside of the knee, and much weaker on the inner thigh and hamstrings, comparatively. That puts the knee joint in a very vulnerable position in terms of the space in the joint, power of the joint, and the stress in the joint absorbing shock.


By moving in a vast variety of planes, relationships with gravity and assistive or resistive forces, Gyrotonic exercises help create tensegrity in the body. This is one of the things that makes this system so unique. We’re not going back and forth in the same plane of motion. This diversity in training then prepares the body to be ready to move in any different plane. Sports don’t happen on a straight, perfect track. Movement happens all over the place. We want to train the body to be prepared to deal with movement from anywhere. When you’re running, if there’s a hole in the road, or someone comes at you from an unexpected angle, we want to educate the body to be prepared for that..


The fascia, the networking web of all of are tissues, is reflective of how we use our bodies. Going back to the person sitting in the chair most of the time and then running, some of the fascia has become short and some has become slack making an activity like running difficult. Gyrotonic movements help rebalance the tensile forces and freedom of our fascial webbing, thus supporting space in our bodies and creating ease in our movements.


Sarah: What about rhythm in movement. How does that play a role?

Angela: Rhythm makes or breaks the success of a movement.. Without rhythm the wave of motion is broken, which then breaks down efficiency. Without rhythm, strength and flexibility are meaningless. It’s the rhythm that ultimately creates the outcome and allows finesse in movement.


Sarah: Why does that matter for an athlete?

Angela: Well, no sport is broken down into pieces. It happens in a sequence of events from the floor and through to the hand when throwing the ball, or using the tennis racket. Rhythm, strength, and flexibility are not separate things, they are inter-dependent.

The ability of an athlete to move rhythmically is extremely vulnerable to stress of any sort, and performance anxiety. In the Gyrotonic Method, we also work with the inner athlete, the nervous system, the conductor behind the scenes. Gyrotonic exercises effectively tune the inner athlete to be calm, sharp, focused, and adaptable.


This becomes really important, for example, with an injured athlete who is accustomed to training five hours a day in their sport, but has to take a break due to a surgery. There is all of this bound up energy inside, and you have to do something with that to be effective.

The Gyrotonic approach challenges the nervous systems through variations in tempos, resistances and sequences. When an athlete trains the same way, over and over again, the nervous system is less adaptable. So, we change the dynamics of training to wake up the nervous system, so it is constantly recalibrating and learning to actively do that. Training someone to stress their body physically, while keeping their breath and mind clam, is essential to sports.


Sarah: Talk more about strength and flexibility.

Angela: They are really two sides of the same coin. For example, when we first came to Miami, we did some work with the University Of Miami baseball team. We were brought in to help reduce shoulder injuries. When you think of the range from which they have to throw, you’d think those guys would be extremely flexible, but they could not put their arms over their heads and lace their hands together because they were so tight. When throwing a ball, the greater the flexibility to reach backwards, the greater the power to throw forwards.


In the approach to strengthening, the Gyrotonic equipment is also quite unique. For example, the Gyrotonic Leg Extension Unit, which is patented and completely different than any leg extension units in a gym, allows the power to initiate through the center of the body and then out through the leg. The equipment is designed so that as the leg extends, the space increases, and the knee joint is decompressed. Regular gym leg units are contraindicated for many knee problems because they put too much stress back into the joint.


Many strengthening systems load weight at the extremities of the body at the expense of the spine. Gyrotonic does the reverse, creating power from the body’s center out through the leg or arm. As martial artists have always known, power is centered in the pelvis.


Sarah: What would you say to an elite athlete who asked you what this system is?

Angela: I would tell them that this is the only system I’ve ever seen that can work sports specifically, while improving performance, reducing injury and accelerate training all at the same time.


This interview and content for this blog has been taken from www.gyrotonic.com

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