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Competition & Cooperation: The Lower Leg

We live in a competitive world. There is just no getting around it. The push to be prettier, fitter, better dressed, driving the coolest car, using the latest gadgets - it’s all a bit much. And even when we try to escape it, the commercials and billboards and social media posts seem to find a way of sucking us back in. It can drive a person mad, actually. Keeping up with the Jones’s is exhausting. And, at its worst, it can pull the rug out from under us and turn us into a tired, cranky slugs.

The truth is, through, that being competitive comes with the territory of being human. It is, and has been throughout time, a necessity of survival. If there is a scarce amount of food and you get to it first, you survive. It is that simple. The need for us to be the first, and then as it would follow, to reflect our win in our appearance (healthy skin, strong muscles, etc), is built in to our DNA. You can see how this has gotten out of control.

Exhibiting signs of financial stability - eating well, dressing well, educating well - are indeed indicators that we are surviving. But the mansion in the Hollywood Hills and the multiple Rolls Royces are a tad over the top. We get it. You’re winning.

But competition, as I just noted, is built into our DNA - the very makeup of our physiology. And we can see this play out not just extrinsically, but intrinsically as well. The muscles that lie under our skin often find themselves in competition with each other. Sure humans can want huge pecs and focus on too many bench presses at the gym. But I am talking about a more deep seated root than that.

There are, without question, muscles that will want to take over and steal the show. These muscles tend to fire way more than we are actually asking them too. And getting those spotlight hogs to step aside is a good chunk of what we do as bodyworkers.

Let’s dissect calf and explore how this can play out. Some of the first muscles we learn in anatomy are the Gastrocs and Soleus. They do most of the work when it comes to the lower leg. And in a well trained cyclist, they pop out like a Katy Perry song. But, as you can probably guess, when it comes to the more nuanced movements of the ankles and the feet, they can take over. This equals muscle firing dysfunction. In other words - there are a lot of other muscles in the posterior lower leg who deserve a little attention.

Looking at the posterior lower leg anatomy from superficial to deep, we have the Gastrocs, then the Soleus, and then a noble group of muscles that lurk in the shadows: The Popliteus, the Tibialis Posterior, The Plantaris, The Fibularis Longus, The Flexor Digitorum Longus, and the Flexor Hallicus muscles. That’s a lot of muscles that a lot of clients have no idea even exist. Just because they’re not associated with the Achille’s tendon does not mean they don’t play a role in Plantar Fasciitis. They say knowledge is power. It’s time to give your clients some of that power.

With your client prone on the table, place a bolster under their ankles to lift their feet up enough so that there is room for movement. Place one hand, using a broad palm, on the belly of the calf. Use your other hand, again using a broad palm, on arch and ball of the foot. Have the client push into plantar flexion against your resistance, using your hand that is on their calf to get a sense of what is firing with the most exuberance. Have them repeat this action a couple times adding the variation of asking them to flex their toes. Directing them to point their toes while they push into your hand is a good verbal cue to help them understand what to d

This simple technique can offer you a whole lot of information. Maybe they point their toes without being asked. Maybe they have a limited ability to point their toes. Maybe they have no control over their toes whatsoever. They key here is the knowledge that the Flexor Digitorum and the Flexor Hallicus muscles are in charge of the toes. And getting those toes to behave is now a matter of dragging those Flexor muscles out of the shadow and into to spotlight. Spend some time shifting your resistance away from the foot and onto to the toes specifically. Have them focus on firing those deep flexor muscles without the help of the Gastrocs or the Soleus. It may feel weird at first. But change is always awkward. Even when it’s good change.

Reinvigorating that nervous system integration with these seemingly shy muscles is a good start to creating balance. Offer suggestions of homework exercises that activate the flexors. Some of my favorites are asking them to pick up tissues, towels or pencils with their toes. Advising them to practice a little toe yoga, creating space between their toes, is also popular. Get creative with your approach. The more fun they have, the more homework they will do, and the more those calf muscles will begin to understand how to share the notoriety.

It is said that the redeemer of competition is cooperation. And as a practitioner of wholistic therapies, I could not agree more. Teaching muscles the benefits of cooperation might be a slow process, but it is well worth it. Humans may have survived using competition, but cooperation is what lifts us beyond just surviving into actually flourishing.

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

  • Bertrand Russell

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