The Missing Link

Pages: 34-36
Year: 1998
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – (Genérico)



With mounting interest in problems of the upper appendicular chain, especially in repetitive motion injuries, more attention is being given to Rolfers’ work with the arms. “Arm work” was a virtual afterthought in Dr. Rolf’s original recipe, usually addressed only in the eighth or ninth hour. Occasionally some attention would be given to releasing contracted or compacted tissue in the arms in earlier sessions, but the relation of the arms to the integration of the whole structure remained something of a mystery.

The importance of the arms both in balance and function in the structure is often difficult to see because we are initially trained to observe clients standing, relatively motionless. Also, we understand the body as being supported from the ground up. If we pay attention to arms at all, we seldom look further than checking if they hang freely, not dragging on the axial structure. Of course, this is important for free movement in the axial structure, but in everyday life a person’s arms seldom hang. Arms are almost always engaged in some activity; they are lifted to various degrees in every plane while the hands grasp, push, and throw. The arms’ relationship to the practical organization of the body is much more than the elimination of drag.

Most of us have encountered situations with our clients when problems in the upper appendicular chain hands, arms, shoulders, thoracic outlet respond positively to tissue manipulation during a given session or series of sessions, but tend to recur over time. This can easily happen when the use of the hands and arms is not being linked to the balance and functioning of the body as a whole.

This article will explore integration of the activity of the arms into the whole structure. The hallmark of a balanced, integrated structure is taken to be the capacity of the whole spine to move through its range of extension and flexion unimpeded. (Appropriate rotation will be assumed also, but won’t be specifically addressed.) I will consider two separate situations where the integration of arm activity into the balance of the structure is critical to Rolfers: the use of one’s hands, arms, and shoulders as a Rolfer in practice, and in a client’s making use of the link between arms and spine appendicular and axial activity-during Rolfing sessions.


There’s a joke within the Rolfing community that we humans are still basically quadrupeds. This assumes that the tendency to use the arms as weight-bearing structures is natural, even though it leads to various restrictions and injuries in the upper girdle. It also seems to be assumed that for certain functions-such as Rolfing-this weight-bearing on the upper limbs is inevitable, as though arms truly functioned as forelimbs. But the quadruped forelimb and the hominid upper limb have different clavicular structures; the human clavicle orients the upper limb in a way that allows more movement in more planes than the quadruped’s forelimb.

The assumption that the arms are necessarily weight-bearing in an activity such as Rolfing again comes from our habit of seeing support as coming from the ground up, from below. What else would support a normally upright body inclined from the vertical? An answer to this can be extracted from the theories of Hubert Godard.’ Consider that the body of the Rolfer is not static, is not only supported weight. The body is in constant movement, however subtle, responding to internal activity and to the gravitational field. In the moving body two gravity centers, one located in the thorax at about the level of T4, and one in the lower body, at about L3, are in continual interplay. Support comes from both these centers. This support is in evidence when the spine can freely flex and extend through its primary curves. This can be experienced as the capacity to go into lordosis and extend from lordosis in the lumber and cervical curves even while the hands are in contact with a client. If the arms are weight-bearing, this spinal movement is restricted or non-existent. If weight rests on the arms, the large extrinsic muscles, such as trapezius and latissimus dorsi, must have some degree of rigidity to stabilize the arms for weight-bearing. Since these muscles also attach along the entire length of the spine, there is also rigidity in the spine.

We often become accustomed to this sensation of weight bearing through the arms because we feel that bringing more pressure into the arms and hands-leaning into them-increases contact. However, more pressure decreases mobility in both the axial structure and appendicular structures. It can be argued that lack of mobility decreases sensitivity as well; it raises the question of whether “better contact” is actually being achieved.

This situation can be avoided by finding support from the upper gravity center, rather than from the upper limbs. The following steps will help you discover the sensation of having support from the upper gravity center.

Imagine that you have two spines: the front spine consisting of the sternum and the rectus abdominis; the back spine basically being the erector spinae. It may be easier to find this sensation of two spines with the help of another person, who can place their hands on your back and your sternum at about the level of T4. Giving weight alternately onto the front and the back spines, and finding the place of equal weight, locates the upper gravity center. This is a place where the erector spinae have tonus, but are not so tight that the front of the body has to contract or compress in movement to counterbalance the backward pull of the extensors. When the body is inclined forward, you can have the sensation of resting into the front spine, which can then be felt as a place of support.

“The hallmark of a balanced, integrated structure is taken to be the capacity of the whole spine to move through its range of extension and flexion unimpeded.”

To find support without making the arms weight-bearing, it’s also important to access the two-directional movement of the spine in this position. When weight is given to the upper gravity center you will be able to feel that the head can extend upward-or forward, in an inclined position-while the sacrum and coccyx can extend in the opposite direction. You can test this by slightly exaggerating the cervical and lumbar curves, and then lengthening the spine by extending head and tail. (If you experiment with this on your own, make sure you’re not moving head and tail by pushing back through the thoracic spine or tucking the pelvis.)

To have freedom of the spine in this way is different from having weight bearing support from the ground. It is also different from ?correct body mechanics.” Good body mechanics are often taken to be positions where the body appears supported in straight lines and there is strong contact with the ground. However, these postures can be achieved and still compromise spinal mobility. “Correct” becomes static, and without spinal flexibility, any pressure through the arms loads in a direct line into the shoulders and neck. The hands become merely a surface which pushes against an object, or a client. It’s possible to have a correct “look,” and still stress both your own and your client’s body.

If the spine is freed by support from the upper gravity center, then the second component of integrated arm movement can come into play: the scapulae will be able to glide appropriately.

The phenomenon of scapular glide is not one we generally consider. Often our initial goal in working with a client is to diminish scapular movement, at least when it is indistinct from arm movement. For instance, in looking at arm abduction, we look for the arm to move without initial scapular involvement. We can over generalize from this, and conclude that scapular glide is not desireable. However, coordination between arm and scapula varies with different movements. Scapular glide is essential to reaching movements. In the context of maintaining structural integrity while Rolfing, if there is a sense of reaching into the client’s body, the client’s experience of contact is enhanced, though there is no increase of pressure in the practitioner’s hands. The scapulae glide forward via contraction of the serratus anterior, the arms are not rigid, and spinal mobility is maintained since the scapulae are not stabilized via the trapezius and latissimus.

The feeling of contact through scapular glide is disconcerting at first since we are accustomed to equate effectiveness with effort, and effort with tension. It seems to us appropriate that arms and shoulders should bear tension with bodywork, and this is consistent with the sensation of weight going through the arms. Stabilization of the shoulder girdle is necessary in a pattern of pushing, when arms needs rigidity to transmit the weight of the body. However, if a pushed object isn’t moved away, the force of the push is driven back from the point of contact. In bodywork, when we push, the client isn’t thrust away, and muscular tension is transmitted back toward the spine and neck with effort.

In determining appropriate movement for the upper girdle, it is essential to consider the function of the hands in each movement. Are they being used as surfaces for the transmission of force, or for sensory information? It is the use of the hand that determines whether the scapula( are permitted to glide, or are stabilized to push. If we see the function of the upper axial complex as weight bearing, or even as pushing, then the hands are relegated to the role of hoofs.


In Rolfing practice, use of the hands is key to integrating the upper girdle with the rest of the structure. It’s axiomatic that asking clients for movement while we are working with them increases the effectiveness of Rolfing. The question of incorporating movement brings us back to issue of long-term change, change in function, in working with the upper girdle and axial-appendicular relationships. In order to change the use of the arms, the movements used in Rolfing must have meaning. Involvement of the hands is essential to provide that meaning.

Recent kinesiological studies have shown that proprioceptive information comes from the periphery of the body, as well as from the stretch receptors in joints and the fluid of the inner ear.’ Integrating hand and arm use can therefore be essential in providing different information to the structure about its location in space. By bringing the hands into use during Rolfing sessions, the body gets additional proprioceptive information. Muscle groups primarily concerned with balancing the body in gravity-such as the erector spinaeare subjected less to reflex responses and become more available for change.

Closed-chain movements are most effective in integrating the arms in Rolfing sessions. A closed-chain movement is a movement in which there is a fixed contact. For instance, having your client slide her arm up along the table while you work with the shoulder would be a open-chain movement; providing a dowel or moderately-sized ball that the client grasps turns this into a closed chain movement, even if the shoulder joint motion remains exactly the same. However, the additional neural information provided by the stimulation of the hand in grasping allows a change in coordination throughout the body.

The usefulness of involving closed chain movements can be seen particularly in seated back work. For most people, the shift in balance involved in leaning forward demands stabilization of the upper body, usually seen in tension in the trapezius and levator scapula. Even if the client is asked, “Let go of your arms,” there is seldom relaxation of the scapulae. However, if the client rests his hands on a large physioball, and allows the ball to roll away as the spine rolls forward, the scapulae are able to glide, and the orientation in space that the sensory information from the hands provides allows increased extension in the erector spinae. (It should be emphasized here that the client’s weight does not rest on the ball; it only provides a movable object for the sensory stimulation of the hands.)


Addressing the activity of hands and arms provides additional opportunities to bring integration into the structure. In order to do this, the arms need to be seen not as weight-bearing structures, but as important parts of the movement of the body. Integration of hand activity with upper limb movement also provides integration, as the hands provide sensory information that the body uses for proprioceptive orientation. Far from being an “afterthought” in the Rolfing process, working with the arms is essential.


1. Please see Aline Newton’s excellent and oft-cited article, “Basic Concepts in the Theory of Hubert Godard,” Rolf Lines,July 1995.

2. Ferrington, D., and Rowe, Mark, “Cutaneous Mechanoreceptors and the Central Processing of Their Signals,” andMcCloskey, D. I., “Proprioceptive and Related Somatosensory Mechanisms,”both in Proprioception, Posture, and Emotion, D. Garlick, Ed., University ofNew South Wales, Kensington, Australia, 1982.

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