Ground your heels?
“Ground your heels” is a directive you’d never hear if you were being taught Tai-Chi, skiing, tennis, running, or, indeed, any active sport. Yet we hear this often in Alexander Technique lessons and training. Why?
When the arms are lifted forwards, there is a muscular action to counter their weight, which effectively increases as they move further from the body – the shoulder blades anchor downwards so that the deltoids and other muscles that lift the arms do not curl the body forwards. When use is good, spinal extensors will counter the downward pull on the shoulder blades. When it is not so good, one will tend to arch the back and tighten posterior lumbar muscles, lifting the chest and pushing the lower back forwards. When teachers see this action in Tai-Chi, they often direct students to sink the chest or to tuck the pelvis. Such muscular actions to correct misuse don’t work – tightening muscles to counter over-tightened muscles is not an effective solution to the problem.
In Alexander teacher training we encounter the same problems with lifting the arms to put hands on a student. One fault is to arch the back and lift the chest, as in the example given in Tai-Chi. In Alexander teaching, this fault is seen as pushing the lower back forwards and losing the opposition we seek between the hands and the back, which is simply not contracting bones together in a compressive and stabilizing manner. So, we are told to ground our heels, which has the effect of opening the lower back and reducing the arching. However, the reasons for this “improvement” must be considered.
In Tai-Chi the weight is never on the heels. Weight is centered over the “bubbling well”, or the #1 kidney point in acupuncture, which is located in the hollow just behind the metatarsals. When weight is centered on this point, the toes spread out and interosseus muscles between the metatarsals are stretched, stimulating the interosseus reflex of the positive supportive response – yes, we’ve all heard about this Sherrington described reflex in our training. When the body weight is over this point, the whole body goes into easy extension – the body senses it is on solid ground, and it responds most effectively to the force of gravity by countering it, rather than protectively retracting, as one does when the weight is on the heels. One has the further disadvantage, when the heels are grounded, of having little control over lateral balance, and the primary muscles that work to maintain lateral balance are toe flexors, which are not engaged when weight is shifted readwards.
Put your weight back on your heels, as I stated, and you will stimulate a retractive, protective response, and disturb that sought-after extensor reflex. In grounding the heels, we retract in response to ineffective weight disposition, and we will curl up, reversing any arching of the lower back and lifting of the chest, so we will have the illusion of having a longer and more released lower back. Don’t be fooled by this. You can be nicely lengthened and widened with a nice arch in the lower back – indeed, since the sacrum is in fact suspended by the ilio-sacral ligaments forward of the ilia of the pelvis, some arch is desirable.
If the spine is in lively extension, it should increase the work of extension when the arms are lifted, instead of shortening and arching to counter the displacement of the weight of the arms. This happens effectively only when weight is forwards on the feet, and the heels are un-grounded. Then the weight of the arms moving forward is countered by a rearward movement of the hips without shifting weight back towards the heels. The gluteus muscles then become the primary support for the arms and whatever they are holding. The glutes do the lion’s share of the work in a dead lift, after all…
You don’t want to be back on your heels while boxing, skiing or waiting for the bus, and certainly not when doing hands-on work on your Alexander Technique students.