Neurohacking for Greater Flexibility

Call upon the complexities of your brain to improve your range of motion.


By Heike Fallon


Have you been trying to get more hamstring flexibility for years? Stretching and stretching over and over again?

Traditionally we have been taught that stretching will increase range of motion in our joints. Over decades various methods such as holding a stretch for 30 seconds, active stretching, and ballistic stretching have been highlighted to be the most effective stretching methods to “make the muscles longer” (which, by the way, is not possible).

The truth is that the brain calls the shots and decides how tight your muscles need to be to ensure that you are safe. Stretching may temporarily give you a few more degrees of freedom due to the sensory input that the brain gets from the activity. The stretch input may or may not be creating a relaxing and calming effect for you.

At the end of the day, the brain—more specifically, the brainstem—is in charge of controlling extensor muscle tone such as that of the hamstring or triceps muscles. There are many ways to stimulate the brainstem via the cranial nerves. The lower part of the brainstem is a big part of our parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system, which, when activated, will have an inhibitory effect on the extensor muscles.⁺ In addition, activation of the brainstem will have a longer lasting effect due to the changes it creates in the brain. These types of changes are known as neuroplasticity.

One way to stimulate the brainstem is to move your eyes. Eye movement inward at eye level stimulates cranial nerve III. Eye movement down and in towards the tip of your nose stimulates cranial nerve IV.

Ready to give it a try? (Please check with your doctor before trying any new exercises.) Follow these steps to move your eyes in a way that stimulates the relevant cranial nerves.


1. Perform a toe-touch assessment. (See “Before” photo.) Stand hip-width apart, keep your knees locked, and slowly reach down toward the floor.

2. Note how far your fingertips can reach.


Eye movement at eye level (See photos.)

1. Hold a pen in front of you with the tip at your eye level.

2. Slowly move the pen to a count of 6 towards your face.

3. Keep your eyes on the tip of the pen during this movement. (Yes, your eyes will briefly cross.)

4. Only move the pen as far as you can see it clearly. Stop if the image splits or becomes too blurry.


Eye movement at nose level (See photos.)

1. Hold a pen in front of you with the tip at the level of your nose.

2. Slowly move the pen to a count of 6 towards the tip of your nose.

3. Keep your eyes on the tip of the pen during this movement. (Again, your eyes will briefly cross.)

4. Only move the pen as far as you can see it clearly. Stop if the image splits or becomes too blurry.



Reassess:

Perform a toe touch-assessment again. (See “After” photo.) Stand hip-width apart, keep your knees locked, and slowly reach down toward the floor and note how far your fingertips can reach. Did you reach farther down? Add humming or holding your breath, and see if you can reach even farther.


Note: Depending on your personal history, you may need additional stimulus to activate your brainstem.


I hope this offers you a different perspective on how to increase mobility and how much we can improve our health by utilizing the latest science and research.





⁺Takakusaki K et al. “Brainstem control of locomotion and muscle tone with special reference to the role of the mesopontine tegmentum and medullary reticulospinal systems.” J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2016. 123(7):695-729.

Heike Fallon is Certified High Performance Coach living in El Segundo. Visit her online and on Facebook/Instagram at @xpandhealth.


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