It’s the Great Load Lesson, Charlie Brown

For years I’ve been writing about alignment matters. There are now hundreds of articles on why alignment matters. But really, alignment matters because load matters. The loads your body experiences are the precursors to adaptation. The shape of your body is a reflection of the loads you have endured. Loads are extremely nuanced because every tissue type has a different threshold for deformation in the body and every joint configuration and external load applied to a joint configuration creates a unique load profile.

Here is your first lesson on loads.

This is a 13-pound pumpkin.

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These are two pumpkins that, together, weigh 13 pounds.

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This is a group of pumpkins that, together, weigh 13 pounds.

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On a scale, each of these pictured pumpkin groups create a 13-pound weight. But that all being said, these “equal” weights do not place the same load on the body. Or said another way, the way your body adapts to the loads placed upon it has less to do with the “weight” and more to do with “how you carry it”.

Here is an example of five different ways I can carry the 13 pound pumpkin:

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In each of these pictures I am carrying a 13 pound weight, but my tissues are deformed uniquely in each case. Each scenario uses different joint positions, different muscles, and creates different cellular deformations.

Again, I will stand and hold 13 pounds of weight in different ways (sorry about the creepy faces).

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And finally, me holding 13 (inconvenient) pumpkin pounds.

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These pictures are an example of load variance (the many different ways “carrying 13 pounds of weight” can go down). In each of these cases, the unique loads creates a stress profile to the body. In each of these cases my “result” body differs.

Not long ago I received an email from a woman confused that the low amounts of early pregnancy weight would be making her ache. She had been heavier before (I can’t remember but I think she said 30 pounds more than she was right now) so shouldn’t she be used to the weight on her body? Shouldn’t she be strong enough to handle the small amount of weight the fetus places on the uterus? To which I reply, here, it’s not about the weight — it’s about the load.

The load is not the weight. The load is tissue deformation created by (in this case) the force of weight. If a non-pregnant person had 30 extra pounds on their frame, not one of those pounds deforms the tissues that bear the weight of the uterus, for example. Your body can be used to carrying an extra ten pounds on each leg and a dime around the midsection and be totally unadapted to a single pound now suspending from your uterine ligaments or creating tension on your pelvic floor.

Where do you carry your weight? I can carry my entire pumpkin load in a backpack (hey, that’s so much easier!)

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but by doing so I create one repetitive load to my trunk and deny my other joints (fingers, wrists, elbows, glenohumeral) and muscles (hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, back) the chance to adapt. I’ve made it easier in one way — Hey! I can walk and play Angry Birds at the same time! — but harder in another. The tissues in my upper body are now atrophied relative to necessary (carrying the stuff life requires) weights. And now I have to set aside time outside of my “regular life” to work my body. What? This is not great time management.

Backpacks are not better. They are just easier. And that goes for your purse, your shopping cart, and your baby carrier.

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These technologies are not improvements in every sense of the word. Every technology comes with a cost.

How do these two experiences differ to a developing body?

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My point isn’t to say that one scenario is better than the other, but that these scenarios are different. The resulting body is different in these scenarios. If you understand the physiological need for cross-training, then think bigger than your exercise program. You are adapting to the littlest, more frequent loads way more than you’re adapting to what goes down during your exercise hour.

Loads not only vary terms of which tissues are strained. Some loads create a greater demand for energy (calories) because they require more work. The more balanced the load (like a backpack), the less energy it takes to carry.

It should come as no surprise that carrying 10 pounds in each hand is less work than carrying 20 pounds in one hand. Why? Because evenly distributed loads distort the body less. If you have 20 pounds in one hand your body not only has to deal with the compressive load, it also has to deal with the torque. The muscular work you have to do to balance the torque is not there when the weight balances your body passively for you.

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In the picture above, the person on the left is working more (utilizing more muscle, more calories) than the person on the right, despite the weight-in-hand being the same.

Let’s say that carrying stuff in our arms on one side is uncomfortable (my hands and shoulders are killing me!) but we still want our obliques get some work. We might think — okay. How can I recreate this work for my obliques? I know! I’ll lie on the floor and do this:

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And yes, you’ve scored work in your obliques. Great. But are these two loads the same? No. The body is undergoing an entirely different load profile. The tissue adaptation to these motions is entirely different. Which isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but that they are different. You can do a billion trunk lifts in class but it won’t make it easier to carry stuff. You’re won’t become more functional. A better way to train your trunk functionally is this: Start carrying small, light stuff. Take your walk with a melon. Or a few apples. Have your kids do the same.

As many of you know, I walk to the post office at least once a day, sometimes twice. And I’m usually shipping something. This last week I swapped my laden backpack for laden arms. I carry my 25 and 35 pound kids all the live-long day (it feels like), but the way-lighter, segmented load of seven 1.5 pound packages got me some different muscle use. If you don’t go to the post office, how about walking your books (in arms) back to the library. Have your kids only check out what they can carry. Go shopping without the cart. Bring the family along and let. them. participate. If they don’t get a chance to carry some of the physical burden of necessary lifestuffs how can they possibly grow strong enough for life?

Exercise is movement, but movement is not exercise. Think outside the “exercise” box.

//end lesson

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28 thoughts on “It’s the Great Load Lesson, Charlie Brown

  1. Katy!! You blow me away with your teaching ability and communication skills!! Love, love, love, this! And dang you look good in all those pics!!
    So I bought a hand grinder for my wheat for making sourdough. My husband, after doing it once, wants to buy a motor for it. I like how my arms and shoulders feel after grinding a few cups. Especially because so much of my work is on the computer, I’m excited about a new, purposeful, movement that is different then everything else I do. I will make him read this.

  2. My massage therapist scolded me recently for carrying a heavy bag around instead of a small purse. What I wanted to tell her was that a few years ago, I COULDN’T have carried anything that heavy with one hand. I started carrying my purse and ringbinder to a university class, in a large reusable grocery bag, so I could carry everything with one hand. Now I can carry a couple of grocery bags in each hand, from my driveway and up my front steps. I can get away without using the railing (despite a knee replacement). I glad to hear that carrying things in my hand is good for all of me, and that I get stronger for my daily activities by doing them!

  3. You certainly do have a gift for explaining concepts and explaining with pumpkins makes it all the more fun! I mean, what ISN’T better with pumpkins? And you are looking mighty fine (not in a creepy way)! Definitely want to know what’s different in your life to warrant such amazing changes and don’t say it’s running after 2 kids. Say something else. 🙂

  4. I have been reading your new book and I’ve been so curious about the biomechanics of carrying things on your head. The pumpkin on your head reminded me of this. I spent some time in East Africa and got to be decent at carrying easy-to-manage loads on my head. I noticed that it absolutely changed the way that I walked– much smoother gait required! I’d love to hear the Katy Bowman take on it. If you’ve covered this already, I’ve missed it.

  5. I just requested my local library purchase both of your books and I think they will!

    I find it interesting humans are programmed to preserve energy and to look for ways to rest and retain energy while modern life provides an excess of opportunities to rest – modern life is TOO comfortable and it takes so many conscious decisions to go against it.

  6. Your whole program is constantly helping to think out of the box as a trainer. I walk up to 8 sometime times 10 miles a day and I like to carry 5-6 pound hand weights. I will experiment with carrying one but I would it would be important to switch to load from side to side evenly or risk creating an imbalance. Eg. Always carrying the child or shopping on one side while using keys etc with the other.

  7. I wish I knew then what I know now from reading your books and blog. I am happy to say that chin tucking all the time, not just as a remex, has brought relief to my neck and shoulders. No one ever said to me to do it all the time even at night. Only you. Also, since beginning my alignment journey I can swing across monkey bars, carry my toddler without back pain and even run without as much PF issues. Thanks! If you are ever in Toronto you get a free massage.:-). I am a registered massage therapist.

  8. Lightbulb moment after reading this as to why I became such a monkey bar weakling when the circumference of the bar was larger – my body had totally adapted to the load of the more narrow monkey bar I use regularly. Head smack 🙂 Amazing how such a little thing makes such a huge difference in strength.

  9. Alignment matters because if not aligned, the load that is placed on the body will not be supported by the muscles- stressing the joints and ligaments. Is this accurate Katy??

  10. I’ve been reading your blog for over two years now but this post was a revelation to me. Despite re-reading the ‘carrying your baby’ posts many times I never got before that shifting her about is the whole point – right? I was giving up because I couldn’t hold her in one position for more than a minute or so, but I now realise that varying the load is what it’s all about. Have just carried her in arms to the library and back, probably a mile in all, shifting her about as necessary, and it worked! Thank you.

  11. Great lesson Katy! It relates so nicely with our understanding of neuroplasticity and specificity for motor learning too.

    This is a very motivating post for those of that design rehab programs for adults learning to move again after injury. No wonder they are falling down over the tiniest surface level change once they are out of their inpatient stays? We’ve only retrained them to walk in the one condition of perfectly level ground. Time for change!

  12. Katy:

    Everyone growing their own food is also a natural way to develop load carrying capacity. Not to mention the other spiritual and physical benefits of eating homegrown organic foods. We are a fully functioning body biosphere!
    I recommend that we grow food 24/7/365, its not hard to do! Agape and Namaste!

  13. 1) Cute new hair!
    2) OMG that R is just ten lbs. less than F! Wasn’t she just born?
    3) Fab post, as always. I especially love the oblique point – that drives things home.

  14. This is brilliant,, I am a Pilates Instructor, more in the therapeutic format and this is a great means to communicate to clients and potential clients the difference between exercise and pilates, I see compensation patterns in all my clients and this makes it a very easy way to communicate. Also I would assume the load is more visibly experience with movment

  15. Hi Katy, I just found this, great stuff.

    In the training world one well regarded technique is the loaded carry, which includes farmers walks, waiters walks, suitcase carries, and more. They are simply picking up something heavy and walking with it. Great for building full body, functional strength, just as you say.

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