Rolling, Righting and Posture
And some fun practical exercises
This post is an excerpt from a new book that I’m (very slowly) writing called Healthy Movements for Human Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective on Exercise. Each chapter is about a different “primal” movement like squatting, crawling, climbing or throwing. This excerpt is about rolling. (A previous excerpt is here.)
Where are the wheels?
Animals and other living things are made up of anatomical structures that appear strikingly similar to products of human engineering. The heart is a pump, and the kidney is a filter. The muscles and bones work like levers and pulleys. The nerves are like electrical wires and the brain is a computer.
But where are the wheels?
They’re hard to find in the natural world, which is kind of surprising given how useful they are in man-made machines. Some creatures make themselves into ball shapes and roll around, such as armadillos, pangolins, wheel spiders and certain caterpillars. But rolling can’t help you go uphill or get over obstacles, so its not very useful as a means of locomotion.
But rolling comes in handy for other things. My dog rolls a lot when wrestling with other dogs, as a way to transition between being stuck on his back and upright on four legs. This is an example of “righting” which means quickly moving from an unbalanced or bad posture to a more neutral and functional posture.
Righting is often required in situations involving wrestling or fighting, and also falling or regaining balance. Cats have extraordinary righting skills in the air. If they are falling in the wrong position (with their with their feet up), sensory receptors quickly detect the problem and activate reflexes that roll the cat into a better position to land on its feet. Because righting is involved in two functions that directly impact survival (fighting and falling) the reflexes that control it must have been under significant evolutionary selection pressure for a long time. In other words, we all evolved to be good at righting. And rolling is one of the simplest forms of righting.
Humans don’t have as many chances to roll as four-legged animals, because our spines are vertical, not horizontal to the ground. But we frequently use rolling in situations where we have lost control of our normal postural orientation. Soccer goalies and parkour athletes rehearse rolls as a way to make their falls more graceful and less jarring. Practice for jiu jitsu and other ground-based martial arts is often called “rolling” because it involves frequent transitions from back to front. Some of these rolling movements involve flexing the spine into the shape of a ball.
For babies, rolling is one of the first purposeful full-body movements. Transitioning from lying on the back to front is a key developmental milestone, and the first lesson in righting. It challenges the ability to sense the position of the body relative to gravity, and to make quick changes in spinal stability. Thus, we could look at rolling as one of the most basic forms of education in postural organization.
Righting and Posture
In an upright posture, there is at least some tiny degree of righting happening all the time. Even as we stand still, our center of mass is always falling a bit to one side, moving back to the center, and then falling again, so that we are always oscillating just a few millimeters around a center point. This is a highly complex activity, but can be simplified as follows: the body detects movement away from a position of balance, and then restores it with a certain pattern of muscular contraction.
The vestibular system plays a central role here. Sensors in the ears detect changes in head tilt or acceleration, and relay messages to the spinal cord. Then the spinal cord makes appropriate changes in muscle tone. For example, if the head tilts right, neck muscles on the left immediately tense to prevent a fall to the right side.
Postural adjustments also depend on sensory organs in the muscles that detect stretch, such as muscle spindle fibers. If muscles on one side of the trunk suddenly get longer, that means the body is moving to the opposite side, so they tense to maintain position.
Here’s a simple exercise to feel how this works. Stand up and put your hands on your abs then move your upper body slowly backwards. The abs immediately tighten to prevent a fall. The opposite happens when you put your hands on the low back and lean forward: the low back tenses. If you tilt right or left, you can feel action by the muscles on the opposite side waist.
These contractions happen in chains that span the length of the body. If you repeat the same exercise leaning back, you will notice that it’s not just the abs that activate, but the whole front side of the body: shin muscles, quads, abs, and front of the neck. This line of muscles is often called the anterior chain. It works together as a functional unit in either flexing the body forward or preventing it from extending back. The posterior chain has the opposite function - it runs from the muscles under the foot, to the calves, hamstrings and back. You can feel this whole chain activate as you try to resist falling forward (for best results lean forward with the body in a straight line like Michael Jackson.)
The concept of muscle chains has been around for many decades, and has been advocated as simple way to understand muscular anatomy by various thinkers like Francoise Mezieres, Paul Chek and Tom Myers.
There are some differences to these classification systems and some of the categories are admittedly arbitrary. But each system is based on an idea that is basically correct: functional movement requires coordinated muscular teamwork, and certain groups of muscles frequently appear on the same team. Some of the most commonly identified teams or chains include the anterior, posterior, lateral and diagonal.
The anterior chain flexes the body forward and prevents it form extending too far back. The posterior chain is heavily involved in propelling the body upwards or forwards in explosive movements like sprinting and jumping. The lateral chain helps provide stability when the body is balanced on one leg. The diagonal chain is involved in rotational movements like throwing and kicking, and coordinates the contralateral pattern of limb activity (right leg works with left arm) during gait.
So what do these chains have to do with rolling? Rolling activates each chain in quick succession, because it rapidly changes the body’s orientation to the line of gravity. It’s like a dynamic version of the tilting experiment we did in standing. And because the body is horizontal and not vertical, gravity has more leverage to pull on either end of the chain, which puts them to work from end to end.
When you are your back the anterior chain is dominant, and when you are your stomach it is the posterior chain. The lateral and diagonal chains help with transitions from one side to the other. To feel each of these clearly, get onto your front, back or side and slightly lift your head, feet and/or hands away from the floor, and you will feel the whole chain turn on. Think of rolling as a series of coordinated variable planks. It enhances awareness of how the different parts of the body work together, especially in their connection to the middle of the body.
Babies develop their coordination from the core to the extremities (i.e proximal to distal.) This is the same order in which locomotive coordination developed on the evolutionary time scale. Our ancestors first powered their locomotion purely through spinal movements (when they were fish), and movements of the extremities came later (when they grew arms and legs).
With rolling, the trunk of the body often plays a leading role in controlling movement because the trunk is in contact with the floor while the hands and feet are in the air, the opposite of the common pattern.
Thus, rolling can be a novel movement that builds better overall body awareness. That’s why its often used in basic physical education, athletic development and even physical therapy. And it’s fun.
How to practice rolling
Here are some simple ideas for incorporating some rolling movements into your exercise program.
1. Play with specific transitions
Recall that point of rolling is not locomotion (getting from A to B), but righting (changing your postural orientation). So pick a specific postural transition that you want to practice, and use some kind of rolling movement to make the transition. For example, you could move back and forth from any of the following positions using some form of roll:
lying down on your front, back or side, with the legs bent or extended
sitting in various positions: legs long, side sitting, on knees, cross-legged
half kneeling or kneeling
Some transitions are easier than others. The easiest would be simply rolling from front to back or side, which doesn’t require any vertical movement, and which allows you to roll along the long axis of the spine, like a pencil. This type of movement pattern comes up in everyday movements like just getting out of bad. The harder transitions would involve rolling end over end, as in a forward roll. Or they might require some vertical movement, such as going from standing to lying down. These movements typically occur in a more dynamic or chaotic context.
2. Play with variable ways to roll
Most rolling transitions can be done in multiple ways, with variable limb positions and actions. An arm or leg can assist with rolling by pushing, pulling, providing support, or changing the center of mass and balance point.
For example, consider the different variations you could use to perform the simple action of rolling from your back to your left side. You could do this by:
Bringing both knees over the chest, and both feet in the air, then arcing the feet and knees over to the left, so their weight pulls you into a roll to the left
Same movement with just the right leg, while the left leg stays elongated and passive
Both legs stay long and passive, and the roll is initiated by reaching with both arms to the left
The roll is mostly powered by pushing with the right foot into the ground
Another example of rolling options: imagine you are doing a forward roll from a squat or half kneeling position to your back. You could do this in a symmetrical fashion, as in a gymnastics somersault, rolling directly over the top of the head and using both hands for support.
Or you could tilt the head to one side, and roll more over the opposite side shoulder, a technique you might see in martial arts or parkour. Here’s an excellent and quick demo from a jiu jitsu instructor:
Another way to introduce variability and creativity into rolling is the use of artificial constraints that challenge you to roll without using certain movements that would normally be available. For example, while rolling from front to back, you could imagine that one or more limbs is paralyzed and can’t help with the movement. (Gray Cook discusses this method in his book Movement. Here’s a related paper.)
Another constraint would be doing the movement with a minimum of muscular effort or momentum. While rolling from your front to your side, you could imagine that you were a baby without any real strength, and could only accomplish the roll with good coordination and timing.
You can also constrain your movement options by “gluing” a hand to your head, or shoulder, or knee, or foot. This requires you to be creative in how you make the transition. These types of constraints are often used in the Feldenkrais Method. For example, try rolling from your back to a side-sitting position (also called Z sitting) with a hand around each knee, as in the video below.
Or make the same transition with a hand around the outside of the foot (a movement I used in last week’s online movement lesson.)
As you experiment with different ways to roll, note which methods can be done with the most ease, smoothness, balance, and speed.
More on that below.
3. Cultivate smoothness
Good movement is usually smooth movement. Here’s a blog post with the science explaining how and why we know this. It explains that smooth movement is basically the opposite of jerky movement, in that it minimizes abrupt, intermittent and discontinuous changes in acceleration. All great athletes move smooth, and rolling is one of the easiest ways to feel the beauty of smooth movement.
To stay smooth when rolling, try to maintain a constant rotational speed. Avoid starting with a rapid jerky acceleration to create the oomph and momentum to get going. Avoid ending the roll by abruptly crashing into the ground. Roll like a ball, not a square or triangle.
One test of smoothness is reversibility - if you can reverse the direction of your roll at any point along its trajectory and go in the opposite direction, with a minimum of hesitation, this means you aren’t just ballistically throwing yourself from position to position.
It’s easier to be smooth if you move very slowly, which allows you to sense unnecessary effort, and to find the most efficient techniques. Slow rolling should have a rhythmic, lazy, almost hypnotic feel. A good result from some slow rolling would be feeling relaxed, loose and flowing.
To add some vigor and athleticism, you can speed things up.
4. Play with speed
Before trying to go really fast with your rolling movements, make sure you are feeling pretty smooth with the slow versions. But if you’re feeling comfortable, speeding things up can be very invigorating and fun.
One way to practice speed is to imagine that there is some very good reason that you need to move fast, possibly related to falling or fighting.
For example, imagine you are on your back and need to quickly roll to your side to direct your feet to the left to ward off an approaching attacker. (Like my dog at the dog park.)
Or, start on your back, and then immediately roll into a position where you could get up and sprint away in a random direction. Think about the exact series of movements that would allow to accomplish these tasks with maximum speed and efficiency. If you're having trouble figuring it out go really slow. And remember that slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Another fun task: come into a squatting, kneeling or half kneeling position and imagine you need to dive to catch a soccer ball in any direction. How could you incorporate some minor rolling movement, or make some part of yourself round, to cushion the impact of hitting the ground?