It has been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to dive into a course and again fully adopt the mindset of a student. A couple weeks ago, I was finally able to tap into the genius of Movement Mantra’s Joseph Schwartz. The first module of his course, DNA - Dynamic Neuromuscular Assessment, was a thorough introduction on how to suss out dysfunctions of the intrinsic core.

I’ve written about the core before, touching on the intrinsic core and the basics of how it works [here], where we brushed the surface of the anatomy of the intrinsic core. In this article today, I’d like to share some insights in regards to the limbic system and how safety plays a major role, some additional concepts regarding the intrinsic core, as well as some of the incredibly important foundational guidelines for understanding breathing within the context of overall health, movement, and performance.

In our DNA course, a significant amount of time was spent discussing the limbic system, keeping the container safe, and establishing a good line of communication between the nervous system of the practitioner and the nervous system of the client. Perhaps more important than anything else when it comes to pain and performance, is the ability to keep these in check. Our ability to accurately assess movement is greatly dependent on this. No matter what therapeutic techniques you utilize, trust and safety are paramount to having good outcomes. In the context of performance, our sense (or lack thereof) of safety will largely determine our ability to get into a flow state and perform at a high level.

The Limbic System & Safety

As you might be well aware by now, my perspective when it comes to improving health and performance is characterized by the appreciation of the integrated nature of the human body. Our ability to move and perform are directly connected to not only our muscles and joints, but more importantly are tied to our thoughts, beliefs, experiences, and emotions. Evolutionarily speaking, survival is the utmost priority of our nervous system. Our past experiences and emotional memories largely dictate how we unconsciously process and carry out movement. The limbic system is largely responsible for the processing and regulation of autonomic and endocrine functions, and is heavily involved in motivation and behavior reinforcement. The limbic system is sometimes described as the “feeling and reacting brain”, having an interconnected role with the “thinking brain.” Most of the time the limbic brain and the systems it is involved with operate at a subconscious level.

Consequently, how well we are able to move, how much strength we can display in any given exercise, and how well our body is able to withstand constant challenging stimulus (like heavy loads or grueling endurance) is ultimately dependent on whether or not our nervous system feels safe and how well it can then adapt to that stimulus. Strength, mobility, power, endurance, and other indicators of athletic performance as well as pain and susceptibility to injury are all dependent on our body’s ability to optimally process input and adapt accordingly. When our nervous system does not feel safe, movement is not processed well, and we compensate. With poor compensation strategies comes maladaptation to environmental stimuli. If you are strength training and you try to lift more weight than you can handle or more reps than you can perform, you will compensate and will not elicit optimal adaptations. If you are running a long distance, and after 1 mile your left leg loses the ability to dissipate ground reaction forces, your body will compensate. Joints might compress. Muscles might tighten up. Your brain might produce a pain signal to tell you to stop. Maladaptation happens in many forms.

The short way of putting this all together is this: Health and performance are largely dictated by the deeper, evolutionarily-hardwired, protective mechanisms of the limbic system. If your nervous system does not feel safe, it will limit your ability to perform.

Safety & Breathing

The primary purpose of the intrinsic core is breathing. Whether or not we feel safe will often dictate how we breath. Getting triggered into an overly-sympathetic “fight or flight” mode tends to make us hold our breath, shallow our breathing, and/or often times recoil into a protective posture or position. In order to understand the importance of breath from a safety perspective, think about it this way: we can go weeks without food and survive, days without water, but merely minutes without oxygen before we die. Physiologically, there is literally nothing more important for our survival than our ability to breath.

What our nervous system perceives as unsafe is unique to each individual. Based on our past experiences and associations, we form thoughts and beliefs that our nervous system may deem helpful in providing safety and protection for ourselves. These thoughts and beliefs largely dictate, mostly outside of our conscious awareness, how we respond to our environment.

Our sense of safety can be compromised by almost anything: people, places, exercises, body positions, verbal cues, etc. The list is endless. In order to learn and adapt as optimally as possible, whether it be from training or anything else, we need to be operating in what we perceive as a safe environment. The easiest way to do this from a movement perspective is to constantly be mindful of breathing. If our ability to breath becomes compromised in any way, that is your nervous system letting you know it does not feel safe, regardless of what your conscious brain is telling you. Back off, take a break, re-establish your breath. Sometimes regressing the exercise will help. Sometimes taking a 10-second break, and then continuing will help to res-establish breath. There are many options. Just make sure to always, ALWAYS be mindful of your breathing.

Breathing, Core Function, & Performance

If we’re not safe, we can’t breath. If we can’t breath, our core can not function optimally. If our core is not functioning optimally, health and performance will be compromised. I contend that there are two primary ways in which a lack of optimal function of the intrinsic core and consequently suboptimal breathing will manifest as decreased performance.

Firstly, within the realm of endurance athletics, efficiency of oxygen uptake and utilization is perhaps the most important element for performing at a high level. All movement depends on the coordinated contraction of muscles. Muscular contractions require oxygen to facilitate metabolic processes that provide muscles with the requisite fuel to continue contracting. As well, the intrinsic core also provides foundational stability. If your intrinsic core is not functioning well, not only are you robbing yourself of oxygen, but the functional output of the muscles providing the majority of your strength, power, and endurance will be compromised. Without a stable foundation, the hips, shoulders, and limbs cannot function at their best. “You can’t shoot a cannon out of a rowboat.”

By that same token, athletic endeavors requiring more strength and power rather than endurance also require a functional intrinsic core. Less important than our ability to utilize oxygen efficiently is our ability to stabilize the spine, support and protect vital organs, and create varying levels of intra-abdominal pressure in order to safely move heavy weight. If you’re intrinsic core does not function optimally, when you go to attempt a PR on your deadlift or squat, your nervous system will likely sense a lack of stability, and will limit your power output in order to keep you safe. In the world of lifting, lack of intrinsic core strength makes you far more susceptible to disc spinal injuries, hernias, and strained muscles. It also just makes you not as strong. Intrinsic core function and strength are imperative for both optimal performance and for reducing the likelihood of injury.

Wrapping Up

Our ability to perform at the highest level requires proper core function. Proper overall core function requires proper intrinsic core function and breathing capacity. Proper core function and optimal breathing is fundamentally tied to our limbic system and our feeling of safety. Our feeling of safety can be affected, positively or negatively, by every aspect of our experience, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. The importance of these connections is the real key to neuromuscular function and optimized performance. Not many therapeutic techniques or training modalities take into account this larger overall context in the pursuit of health and/or performance.

If you are experiencing pain or a roadblock in your ability to perform at your best, chances are your intrinsic core needs some work. The best way to monitor your core function and to know whether or not you are adapting as well as you could to your training or just life in general, is to constantly be mindful of your breath. If you find that you are indeed having trouble with your ability to breath, or that perhaps you are experiencing certain triggers that compromise your feeling of safety, try to figure out the source. There is a specific reason behind your nervous system’s inability to respond optimally. Sometimes it can be hard to do on our own, and that is where seeking an integrated manual therapist can make all the difference at breaking through your plateau.