As coaches, therapists, and trainers, one of our major goals is to improve the movement ability of our clients. Better movement can help reduce injury, provide more variation of training, and help gain results faster. Many times, professionals try to achieve this goal by implementing unique strength exercises, stretches, or various "balance" drills. However, this rarely causes the type of results we desire.
I was in this same position of frustration with my own clients' results until I started to learn about a unique system of training known as Z-health. It did not take me more than a few minutes of listening and watching its director, Dr. Eric Cobb, to know this system was something unlike anything else I had seen or studied. It was not just the amazing drills that took the body through all planes and ranges of motion, but the fact the drills caused dramatic results in our posture, movement, and performance.
I am excited to have everyone have the opportunity to gain insight into this very exciting new system.
[ Q ] Dr. Cobb could you give us a little background on yourself so that we may understand where some of your philosophy comes from?
Sure, I'd be happy to. I like to tell people that I came out of the womb fanatically interested in two things ? fitness and fighting. As I look back, these two subjects have been the two most consistent themes in my life. Additionally, I was born with a number of "serious" birth defects, so I imagine that some of my passion developed from a deep survival need.
I started reading very early and was deep into studying health and fitness by the time I was 7 or 8. I began training in martial arts at the age of 5 and grew up playing baseball and tennis. When I went to college, I originally planned to major in exercise physiology. During my studies I realized that, while there were tremendous amounts of information available on health and performance, I wanted more. I jettisoned my exercise physiology studies in favor of human biology and set my sights on chiropractic college, hoping to gain a more integrated view of the human body.
During chiropractic college, I was, for the first time, introduced in depth to work coming from the former Soviet Union. I began studying the work of Dr. Vladimir Janda and Dr. Karel Lewit ? both of whom were world-renowned musculoskeletal specialists. Their work was a revelation to me.
Here, for the first time, I was exposed to cutting-edge principles about whole-body integration that was backed up by hard science and physiology! Many of their concepts and research ideas validated my own thoughts and intuitions and sent my personal training and treatment ideas in new directions.
In the midst of my schooling and subsequent years of practice, I was also continuing my martial education. During this time, I had the opportunity to work and train with some of the most elite teachers and fighters in the world. Two of these men, Stevan Plinck and Tony Blauer changed how I thought about almost everything related to combat, martial arts and movement skill. Many of the things I learned from them coalesced into concepts that helped Z develop.
Additionally, a key turning point in my thinking came about after a two-day seminar with yet another fighter and trainer, Scott Sonnon. Scott brought from Russia to the US, sets of what their Olympic trainers called biomechanical exercises. Scott systematized these upon his return to the US, and my subsequent exposure to his work helped spawn many of the unique movements found in Z.
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Z-Health is a unique amalgam of basic science concepts, neurophysiology, and various training paradigms filtered through intuition, experience and on-going research. One of the reasons that some of the movements seem familiar is that they are. There are only so many ways to move the human body, and we've been at it for quite some time!
The difference in Z from many other training programs is in the specificity of the movements, its neurological re-training focus, and the gradual, systematic nature of exercise progressions.
To fully understand the system, you need to realize that it evolved first out of a personal need and desire to maximize my athletic skill and movement health. Teaching and practicing combatives is one of the most demanding of all athletic events because the movements are multi-planar, multi-dimensional, fast, powerful and potentially dangerous. So, it requires peak physical abilities in many arenas to be world-class.
In attempting to increase my own skills, and in the midst of studying with Tony Blauer, I became very interested in the science and physiology of fear and its effects on the body. In my college and chiropractic college years, I extensively studied the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, F.M. Alexander and Thomas Hanna, as well. Each of these men made vital contributions to describing the many negative habits and inefficient movement patterns connected to our fear reflexes.
Z, as both a system of movement, and a training paradigm, evolved in an effort to teach the body how to defeat the effects of low-grade "fear" activity during normal life and sports performance. These fear reflexes often manifest in what we call the Enemies of Efficiency: The Startle Reflex and Sensory-Motor Amnesia.
The Startle Reflex is commonly known as the "flinch response", "red light reflex", or "going fetal." It's a protective mechanism hard-wired into the human nervous system, designed to protect and guard against injury from an IMMEDIATE PHYSICAL THREAT. Unfortunately, the nervous system often fails to differentiate everyday stressors from a physical threat. As a result, many people walk around "armored" all day. This is exhausting physically and eventually turns into bad posture and poor movement skill.
Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA), on the other hand, is a term coined by Thomas Hanna, the originator of the movement health system known as Somatics. The essence of this concept is that when we fail to regularly move any area of the body, the nervous system gradually removes conscious control of that motion from our awareness.
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A perfect example of this is the slouched posture we see everyday (and sometimes in the mirror!). From a physiologic and health perspective, there is nothing beneficial about this posture ? it's more work to maintain, it's visually unappealing, and creates wear and tear on the body. Why is this posture so prevalent? As people spend more and more time in this posture because of excessive Startle Reflex activity, their nervous system adapts the body to maintain that position.
Experience has shown that virtually everyone suffers from some level of movement inefficiency because of the startle response and SMA. Ultimately, Z-Health works by teaching you how to inhibit these reflexes in your training, making your form, posture and respiratory integration fluid and efficient.
As for the name, I get asked that a lot! There are really three reasons. The first is that Z-Health's foundations ? both academic and personal ? come from the influence of many fields of study and many individuals. As a result, I've always believed the system was bigger than simply "The Cobb Method". I wanted a name that reflected that fact.
Secondly, because Z was heavily influenced in its early stages by Russian and Eastern European practices, we wanted to "pay homage" to those traditions. Zdorovye is the Russian word for health, as well as the name that Sonnon gave to his original system when he returned to the states.
In looking for a name that was short, sweet and easy to remember, the "Z" just kind of stuck. Finally, I try to remind people that the full name of our company is Z-Health Performance Solutions. This was carefully chosen because we wanted our name to demonstrate two important components of our company philosophy:
We work and teach in two distinct arenas ? health improvement AND performance enhancement. And, That health should always come before performance!
The easiest way for me to explain this is have you visualize what happens when you are suddenly startled and flinch. What does your body do? If your flinch is really strong, you will assume a kind of standing "fetal" position, right?
Your arms will bend and flex, your head moves to protect your eyes, your shoulders will raise, your abs will tighten, your knees will bend, etc. In other words, your body will flex forward and curl up tight to protect all of the important stuff. Amazingly, all of this happens unconsciously. It's a beautifully designed reflexive survival system that you don't have to think about ? it just happens.
When you start thinking about the startle reflex in relation to training things begin to get interesting very quickly. If we look at the squat, as an example, you can see evidence of what I call "neurological fear" all over the place: tight and raised traps, hypertonic pecs, flexed bi's and tri's, clenched teeth, a "turtled" head position, etc.
Every single one of these is a neurological bracing or "startle" mechanism brought on by the "threat" of the lift. If your body perceives the load, setup, or performance of the lift as potentially dangerous, any of these startle reflex movements may show up. Unfortunately, while these things can help protect you from injury, they also put the brakes on your progress, especially if they become an ingrained part of your training! Learning to recognize these performance inhibitors is key in reaching your full potential.
Absolutely not. In fact, this is completely contrary to the purpose of Z! Our company motto is, "Z-Health will help you do whatever you do ? or want to do ? better." The system is truly a "missing link" in the health, fitness and sports performance world that can help people maximize their results ? no matter the field. Do some people choose to make Z their main fitness pursuit at advanced levels?
Sure. Advanced Z is very challenging, builds terrific strength, coordination and athleticism. That's not the main goal, however. Z is really a scientific, systematic approach to maximizing movement health and performance in all fields! That means that it should have a place in everyone's training program ? but not necessarily the pre-eminent spot. Top priority is always dependent upon an athlete's needs and goals.
Wow, great questions! This will take a bit of explanation so let me take each subject individually.
I absolutely agree that postural training concepts have become very "mainstream" over the past 5-10 years. This has been both a good and bad thing. On the good side, focus on postural efficiency is a vital component of health and fitness. Unfortunately, it has often been approached from a very mechanistic standpoint that doesn't translate well to the real world. Einstein once said, "things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Postural Re-training is often a classic example of "too simple" an approach.
To really maximize the benefits of postural retraining (and they are numerous and powerful!), you first have to ask an important question ? which posture are you trying fix? Most people think of posture in terms of static, standing posture. However, static postural analysis has limited benefits in the real world because real life happens IN MOTION.
In Z, we focus on dynamic/in-motion postural assessment and analysis because when the body is moving ? everything changes.
While it would be really nice to be able to statically assess a client's posture, give them the standard "rehab" exercises and see great results ? this rarely happens. The control of posture, and the application of that control are neurologically-mediated mechanisms, and simple stretching and strengthening exercises rarely create the desired result.
In Z, we focus on postural re-training from an "inside-out" approach. In other words, we begin by focusing on specific control of each joint complex/area in the body. The movements that we emphasize provide heavy proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system.
Experience has shown us that when utilizing this approach, postural correction occurs almost spontaneously and the corrections continue to function in more dynamic environments. In other words, by retraining the brain/body connection with regards to posture, we see improvements in both static and dynamic postures. Simply addressing things statically often doesn't accomplish this.
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Now for the functional training question. I believe that the movement toward more functional training has been a very good and necessary paradigm shift in the health and fitness industry. Unfortunately, functional training is still inundated with a variety of myths and misunderstandings.
The first thing that I try to get across to anyone that I work with, especially the trainer's in our certification programs, is that the governing law of human physiology is the SAID principle... Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. In other words, the body is built to respond and adapt to the specific, repetitive challenges that we place on it.
What does this necessarily have to do with functional training? Very simple. EVERY FORM OF TRAINING IS FUNCTIONAL... IT JUST MIGHT NOT BE FUNCTIONAL FOR YOUR GOALS! While this may seem obvious, much of the fitness industry has lost sight of this fact.
As an example of this, let's take a quick look at the ubiquitous use of Swiss balls in modern training. Understand that Swiss balls were first developed for use in REHABILITATION... not sports performance and athletic development. In many ways, I believe that functional training was first born out of a frustration in the REHABILITATION field with the failure of traditional forms of training.
You have to understand, however, that rehab is not the same as athletic preparation. While there is some crossover, injured body parts are often not as neurologically "smart" as an uninjured area. As a result, in rehab, training on unstable surfaces often can make all the difference between getting well and suffering with chronic pain.
Now, however, we have entire fitness classes taught with people on BOSU balls, Swiss balls and other unstable surfaces. Is this inherently bad? No. Is it really addressing functional balance and strength for most sports and activities? No, or at least not according the SAID principle!
I was talking with a NCAA Division I golf coach recently about the state of training. I said, "Unless you're planning on playing golf during an earthquake, there may be more effective methods of practicing than on a BOSU ball." Hear me clearly on this, I am not against VIRTUALLY ANY form of training. I am COMPLETELY AGAINST uneducated training, however.
In Z, our approach to functional training is much the same as I talked about in re-training posture. We think first of the athlete... not the equipment. In other words, mobility, coordination and body-control are our mantras. Once an athlete has really developed precise proprioceptive body control, we believe every single training modality becomes more effective.
Z is about a ruthless pursuit of what we call "effective efficiency". We want to train in a way that makes the body work at its peak of efficiency... which means a focus not just on proper technique, but also with the integration of posture and breathing into every movement. It's a very different way to train for most people, and the rapid results we witness and hear about daily are simply amazing.
In Summary: Z-health is a system of neuromuscular education. Through the utilization of specific joint mobility, plyometric, and other drills the body learns how to move in a more efficient and pain free manner. One will find they can relieve chronic (or sometimes even acute) aches/pains, improve physical performance, and as Dr. Cobb likes to say "become better at whatever they do".
About The Author
Josh Henkin is owner of Innovative Fitness Solutions (www.ifsstrength.com) in Scottsdale, Arizona. Coach Henkin has presented nationally in the field of fitness and sports enhancement. He is also the author of High Octane Sandbag Training manual and DVD (www.sandbagexercises.com). You can reach him at email@example.com.