CAPA ROLF LINES Vol XXVI nº 04 1998-08-August_Página_01

Exercise and Balance

Rosie Spiegel is an Advanced Certified Rolfer, a certified Practitioner of Rolf Movement, and an instructor in body therapy and yoga since 1973. She is the author of Bodies, Health, and Consciousness and Yoga in Motion. Rosie practices in Foster City, California. She conducts workshops and lectures nationally.
Pages: 11-14
Year: 1998
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES, Vol XXVI – nº 04 – August 1998

Volume: 26
Rosie Spiegel is an Advanced Certified Rolfer, a certified Practitioner of Rolf Movement, and an instructor in body therapy and yoga since 1973. She is the author of Bodies, Health, and Consciousness and Yoga in Motion. Rosie practices in Foster City, California. She conducts workshops and lectures nationally.

From the sessions that Rolfers and Rolf Movement Practitioners actually do with their clients to the time when a client fully discovers and continues to rediscover the pleasure and stability that come from living in her structurally integrated body, many factors come into play. One element that might positively affect the outcome and the benefits of Rolfing® is the proper usage of exercise. The more I understand the laws that govern the movement and mechanics of our uniquely human bodies the more respect I have for other forces that determine what our clients’ experience of living in their bodies entails. As one who participates in sporty, athletic, and movement-based activities practically on a daily basis, I will borrow from my personal experience to substantiate much of the data presented here. In addition, I have worked with a number of professional trainers, observed my clients’ and students’ involvement with exercise, and read many volumes on this subject.

I hope that the era when Rolfers believed that our work is permanent, no matter what, has come to an end. It is simply unrealistic to expect that our work and the magic of our touch can stand on their own with no participation on the part of the client. One aspect on this topic that is uniquely important concerns developing strength. Many years ago I realized, “Gee, I can’t make my clients’ bodies completely strong with my hands.” I would think this at times when inherent weaknesses in the client’s body appeared to be the culprit that caused recurring pains and instabilities. Although there are techniques that are more economical and more efficient for greatly increasing strength, and these will be explored throughout this paper, there are several ways that Rolfing can help somewhat to strengthen a client’s body:

1. Balancing the areas of chronic restriction (“locked short”) with the areas that are lax or overly stretched (“locked long”) enables the client to move with more internal support. This is similar to developing strength because adjacent body segments that support each other better allow for more sturdiness. A person who is standing on a ladder, reaching upward to change a light bulb, will be more secure when the abdominal muscles are in better relationship with the tissues overlaying the lumbar vertebrae and the paraspinal ligaments. In a situation like this, because of the increased internal support, this person does not need to overly brace his legs, for example, to compensate for a lack of stability throughout his spine. This analogy could extend to someone reaching overhead to throw a basketball into the hoop.

2. By offering the client resistance with our hands against certain body parts during certain manipulations, the client’s body can slightly increase in muscle tone. However, it is usually beyond the scope of a Rolfing session to sustain this resistance for long enough to substantially change the tonus of the muscles in question.

3. Through movement re-education, the client can learn to implement certain strategies that augment the strength she needs and desires to develop balance in her body. For example, by remembering to allow her head to float back toward the top of her body and remembering that her neck can move more vertically toward the ceiling (rather than in an anterior direction, flexed at the junction between the cervicals and thoracics) she is allowing the muscles of her upper back and around both shoulders to become more toned. In my movement training I loved learning about under- and over-utilization of muscles and muscle groups. In this instance, the upper back muscles are becoming more appropriately utilized. Muscles that are toned definitely provide better support.


In order to strengthen muscle tissue it must be contracted against some resistance over time. Muscle tissue that is overly lax is unable to provide necessary support to the body segments lying adjacent to it. Weak, overstretched, poorly toned muscle tissue plays an enormous role in problems associated with hyper mobile joints, chronic pain, debilitation, poor stamina, and a tendency toward fatigue. Given the limitations that Rolfing can provide to strengthen our clients’ bodies, it makes sense that the addition of a well planned exercise program could augment the objectives we bring to our sessions with our clients. There are tremendous advantages to the strengthening aspect that exercises provide for our bodies. This is especially true of a cross-trained approach that does not leave our bodies overly imprinted with the movement patterns dictated by a single form.

The one glaring contraindication that strengthening muscle tissue entails occurs when segments of the athlete’s body are foreshortened to the point that the overall myofascial strain pattern is intensified. The resting length of muscles changes as a result of strength training. If done to excess, a person’s body can loose considerable alignment to the point that the goal of establishing support and alignment via strength training is missed. The classic image is of a weight lifter whose body is bent over because of the extreme shortness in the muscles whose job it is to flex his body.

The ideal situation is one in which developing strength and endurance are complemented with learning to lengthen and relax those same muscle groups being worked. Muscles that are worked without the pump/release cycle that is inherent to a workout session combined with Rolfing or stretching cease to serve from an overall body alignment viewpoint. Overly and chronically contracted muscles are analogous to lax, overstretched muscles insofar as the limitation they present in creating support and balance in our bodies.

“The benefits to stretching and lengthening soft tissues via Rolfing, yoga, and other means are complemented by selectively developing strength and endurance in those same areas.”

The benefits to stretching and lengthening soft tissues via Rolfing, yoga, and other means are complemented by selectively developing strength and endurance in those same areas. If is a simple recipe to reverse the equation and say just the opposite: Developing strength and endurance should be complemented with the benefits added via a program of lengthening and stretching soft tissues. To Rolfers, creating length is given. We need to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the overarching benefits that strengthening brings, with the caveat that the interplay between the two approaches is where true balance lies.

Through yoga, dance, skiing, biking, roller blading, hiking, running, jumping on the trampoline, weight training, golf, and other activities, my body has learned the merits of physical conditioning. A chronic shoulder pain that I’ve nursed for years always diminishes after a mildly strenuous work out with medium weights. The situation has improved vastly via weight training, this coming after decades of manipulative body therapies and various physical activities. My shoulder simply works better in all the ways we Rolfers know to observe the indicators we use to measure progress: increased range of motion, decreased tension, sensitivity, and pain, increased stability, and a greatly improved sense of wellness in this part of my body.

This is similar to the description above of the upper back providing better support when the muscles are balanced with other body parts that lie adjacent to it. A hyper-mobile joint (such as an ankle prone to recurring strains) that is balanced and realigned under a Rolfer’s touch combined with exercise in which the foot is used appropriately in relation to the structures that lie above it (particularly the ankle joint and the lower leg bones) is effective indeed. Walking mindfully with well-fitting, well-designed, comfortable and sturdy shoes over short distances at first, then building to longer distances, can greatly enhance the balancing effect of the Rolfing manipulations. We can set our client’ foot to be in better relationship with her ankle and leg bones. The strength that develops over time, in usage, is the way the client implements these changes and allows for long-term improvement. A foot that feels to the client and appears to us to be more balanced in our treatment rooms is a foot that will work better providing the client properly puts the foot to use. There is no better substitute that the strength that develops over time in the context of the client’s own life.


There are times when exercise, if done improperly or when contraindicated, can worsen a structural problem that is being treated with Rolfing. The forces on our bodies that exist during exercise include adding weight to limbs, joints, and soft tissues. Another force entails prolonged usage with the added demand of keeping the muscle in a contracted state. It may not tire you or alter your body to go up on tiptoe once in a while to reach for something. This is quite different from the kind of structural change and considerable effect on the entire fascial web of a dancer’s hips, calves and ankles that results from her remaining on her toes for hours of practice per day. The primary contraindication that this illustrates is the cost to the overall body alignment when one or more segments are worked rigorously without the addition of stretching and lengthening which would have more of an overall balancing effect.

An area of restriction, such as the rhomboids as in the case of chronically adducted scapulae, would not profit from any exercise that tends to tighten or shorten the rhomboids. Imagine a person who is lifting weights, attempting to strengthen and isolate the deltoids by holding weights in his hands, arms in the abducted position, 90° to the torso. It is an over utilization of the rhomboids to contract with the arms in this position. Furthermore, it lessens the potential to isolate and strengthen the deltoids by shifting the burden of the weight to the area between the shoulder blades. Most significantly, the weights, say 20 pounds, add a load to the over burdened rhomboids, thus compounding the structural and mechanical problems that occur as a result of the restriction in this part of the body.

It astonishes me when I observe how many clients will perpetuate the misuse of weight training because they do not make the association of the chronic upper back fatigue with the burden added to their shoulders because of the way they hold the weights. This is an excellent indication for movement intervention. Frequently clients can make simple corrections to help off-set the deleterious effects of faulty habits that occur while exercising simply by having them pointed out to them.

Continuing on the topic of increasing the demand, there is another scenario that should be addressed. The general way to describe this is to say that a poorly aligned body could disorganize itself further under the rigors of sports and athletics. So many examples come to mind. Imagine a client with bowed legs (Genu varum). Knees that are in this particular configuration tell the story of femurs that are relating poorly to a pair of tibias and fibulas. Invariably, when the knees present in this anomalous position, the way the femurs articulate with the acetabulum is as affected as the tibia is in its articulation with the talus. When legs are well aligned, the force of the foot contacting and rolling over the ground moves like synchronized waves through the entire lower body, up through the hip and eventually through the pelvis and spine. In bowed legs or knock knees (genu valgum,) this wave action is inhibited. The force of the foot striking the ground, instead of moving through the legs, literally gets stuck in the areas where movement is inhibited via poorly articulated bony segments and restrictions in the surrounding soft tissues. It is precisely as a result of this phenomenon that the alignment problems worsen. It is similar to the effects that an earthquake has on a building that is resting on a poorly designed foundation. With each subsequent quake, the foundation moves predictably toward the weakened position.

As Rolfers we should be inquiring about our clients’ activities. This definitely includes their exercise program; what they do in their bodies via sports and athletics often holds the key to decode the particulars of their myofascial strain pattern. Most sports are unilateral in their approach. This means that the two halves of the body are used differently, versus a bi-lateral approach. An example of the former is golf; an example of the later is yoga. During the rigorous demands of exercise our bodies are imprinted with the strengths, stretches, and movement sequences that come into play with the repetitious behaviors inherent to the sport or activity. Given the demands of exercise, it is quite significant whether the sport of choice is imprinting our bodies equally on both sides, such as in bike riding, or if it is setting up imbalances because we always use the two sides of our bodies differently, such as in golf.

It is within our purview as Rolfers to address the rotations we see in our clients’ bodies. Therefore it would be extremely helpful to know under what particular demands this body is being subjected. In gathering this information we are able to give the client feedback regarding the effect these sports may be having on his or her structure. If you knew that your client loved to rollerblade, what effects can you imagine that blading has on her body? If there were a unique rotation from your clients left knee to her right shoulder, you could ask her if she turns while she blades, and if so, toward which side. Many people favor one side or another during sports. Many people repeat movement patterns during sports, thus exacerbating their bodies’ asymmetries. A tool used in Rolf Movement Integration is called “pattern perturbation.” This is used to shed light on a myofascial strain pattern by purposefully encouraging new and unfamiliar movement options. “Pattern perturbation” could be implemented easily in the case of the roller blader with a spinal rotation. Suggesting that the client practice her turns toward the unfamiliar direction could be implemented to provoke and loosen the areas that are foreshortened and that contribute to the client’s proclivity to turning only in one direction.


Many approaches to fitness unwittingly encourage our clients deeper into their patterns. Ballet teachers are notorious for teaching all students to hoist their spines upwards, turn their legs externally, and draw their bellies inward. Aerobics instructors repeatedly teach their students to tighten their abdomens to “protect” their lower backs. Golfers are often taught something that looks like a hunch when putting on the green. It is easy to imagine how frequently alignment issues are confused in the translation of the physicality of various exercise forms.

The problem is not necessarily with the sports or activities themselves. It is my theory that teaching exercise and sports is often in the hands of people who do not understand structure. This can occur along a continuum that includes horseback riding to yoga. It also reflects certain biases held by teachers and participants in various activities. I would never deem it appropriate to challenge my daughter’s ballet teacher on her views on lift and external rotation. This is her culture; it reflects deeply held beliefs she has toward her craft. She may be able to teach ballet, although she may also have a tremendous lack of understanding of body mechanics and human plasticity outside of the dance arena.

“Many approaches to fitness unwittingly encourage our clients deeper into their patterns.”

It is not my place to critique the appropriateness of these gestures as they pertain to this classical art form. However, as a Rolfer and movement teacher, I have quite a few opinions as to the cost to the dancer’s overall body integrity when these movements become rigidified in her structure. Likewise I have thoughts and opinions regarding weight lifters, Stair Master enthusiasts, and runners who exacerbate strain patterns by using their bodies uneconomically while working out. Take someone who is climbing a Stair Master with the program set too high given the relative strength and endurance of the climber’s legs. At the gym where I work out I always see these people with their shoulders hauled upward toward their ears, grossly over utilizing their upper bodies to the point of straining themselves in order to compensate for the fatigue and weakness in their legs. This is not the fault of the machinery. The person lacks an understanding of principles known to Rolf Movement Integration practitioners such as support and balance. The individual simply brings her poor body mechanics like a preexisting condition to stair climbing, subjects her body to the rigors of this particular type of exercise, and finds herself intensifying the patterns that already lie, in her body’s tissues.

As a fitness enthusiast as well as a Rolfer and Movement Practitioner, I am encouraged by the possibility of intervening in the lives and the practices of our sports oriented clients and students. If we can make a difference in the way a sedentary gentleman gets up out of his chair and walks across the room it is easy to imagine the quality of care we can provide to those who work their bodies more intensively. Whether it is a weekend warrior or a dedicated practitioner in the performing arts, people who use their bodies under the demands of sports and athletics provide a tremendous opportunity for those of us who love to work with bodies in motion. We take what we do and multiply it by one hundred, figuratively speaking. Understanding fascial planes takes on a whole new meaning when we are considering the coordination, stamina, grace, and strength required in many exercise and athletic forms. There may be no better arena for clients to practice what we teach than on the playing field.

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In