By Paul Chek, HHP, NMT
No matter where your mind went when you read the title to this article, chances are good that following my advice for better pumping will make you feel good! In this article, I won’t be telling you how to "get pumped," since Arnold did enough of that for all of us.
This article will explore four key muscular pumps, or what I call bio-pumps (life-pumps). Bio-pumps are muscles that cause pressure changes within body cavities. The four key bio-pumps I will address are the respiratory diaphragm, heart, the deep abdominal wall and the pelvic diaphragm or pelvic floor. To get a better historical perspective on the evolution of our pump systems, we must briefly explore evolutionary biology and embryology.
A Brief History of Evolution and Human Movement
If you study evolutionary biology or embryology, you will find that Homo Sapiens are composed of, or have remnant traits of, many of our evolutionary ancestors. When the female’s egg is fertilized by the male sperm, gestation begins with a single cell in a fluid environment. In this environment, the single-cell beginnings of a human are analogous to the single-celled ameba that was among the first inhabitants of our planet. From there, progressive cell division leads to more complex structures with progressive changes in movement characteristics as the fetus grows.
By the eighth week, the fetus will begin to demonstrate movements classified as naval radiation, a movement model that can be seen in sea creatures such as the starfish, with limbs oriented around the mouth as center (2). After birth, we continue to develop our brain, nervous system and supporting physiological systems in concert with movement patterns that are common to other ancestors.
Although there are a few developmental stages, the first notable ancestral crawl pattern is that of a reptile. Next, we see the developing child display mammalian motor characteristics, ambulating like the dog, cat, or horse for example. In due time, we see brachiation (arm) patterns that are similar to those used by the monkey or ape. Brachiation patterns provide the necessary bridge between mammalian movement and upright walking. Once upright, progressive steps are made toward bipedal gait, which is the signature movement pattern of the human being.
The Need for Pumps
What is fascinating is that if you remove the arms and legs of any human, you end up with a model of the original single-celled ameba; you have a cavity (cell wall) filled with organs of digestion and elimination (Figure 1). The single-celled ameba, under a microscope, can be seen to expand and contract (like a jelly fish), serving both to pump fluids and nutrition inside its cell membrane and waste outside, while moving toward food and away from predators (Figure 2).
As we evolved, we developed the need for a number of specialized and beneficial fluids and are in some way dependent upon movement to be more effective. In fact, it has been said that a human being is nothing but a container invented by water so it can walk around (3)! All of the important fluids that want us to move, walk or jump for joy are essentially varying manifestations of water, some of which include:
- Intracellular fluid
- Extracellular fluid or interstitial fluid
- Lymphatic fluid
- Cerebral spinal fluid
- Urine (feces is ~70 percent water)
- Synovial fluid
- Digestive fluids
The fluids listed here, many derivatives of water, depend on movement of various types for transport. While there are a number of transport mechanisms we could discuss, to keep this article from becoming obese we will focus on learning how to best utilize the four primary pumps and assist their action with exercise or movement.
Let me Introduce Your Pumps
Certainly you are all familiar with the heart. The heart is probably the one piece of anatomy that the greatest number of people are familiar with, if for no other reason than because it is linked to the most common disease that kills us! The heart was not designed to work alone.
It is an organ that relies heavily on the support of our other key pumps, as well as the natural pumping action created by use of all the muscles of the body. Therefore, cardiovascular fitness is truly dependent upon total body fitness!
The remaining three of the four major pumps I’d like to discuss are part of what is often referred to as the Inner Unit (IU) in modern musculoskeletal rehabilitation literature. The inner unit consists of the primary muscles involved in stabilization of the trunk, which in-turn affords stability to the extremities (Figure 3).
Aside from the deep stabilizers of the spine (particularly a group called the multifidus) the key muscle groups of the inner unit system that serve as stabilizers are also pumps. The major pumps that support the heart and general physiology are:
- The pelvic floor musculature, often called the perineum or pelvic diaphragm
- The deep abdominal wall, which includes the transverse abdominus and some fibers of the internal oblique muscle. It should be noted here that all the abdominal muscles play an important role in the pressure fluctuations that ultimately serve pumping functions in the body.
- The respiratory diaphragm
How Your Pumps Work
As you can see in Figure 3, all the major pumps, aside from the heart, are intimately related to stabilizing the body, thus they serve a dual function. In fact, most muscles in the body, including the outer two layers of abdominal musculature serving a triune function due to the fact that most muscles:
- Are pumps
- Provide some form of stability
- Act to move the body
To better demonstrate how the stabilizer/pump systems work, let us use walking, a primal activity, as an example. When you walk, there are a series of muscle actions involved in both stabilizing and moving the body, which includes many large muscles in the trunk, and extremities, as well as in the inner unit muscles. (Figure 4-6 showing the AO, PO and DL systems).
If you view the electromyographic (EMG) recordings of several muscles taken from a subject while walking (Figure 7), you can see the wave-like activity of muscle action followed by brief periods of rest. Note that some muscles become active as stabilizers just prior to heel strike, while others are more active to move the body.
If you look at the EMG tracings for the rectus abdominis (Figure 7), you can see a definite sinusoidal contraction, which produces alternating phases of contraction and relaxation, giving the pump-effect; when the inner unit muscles contract, they cause pressure increases in the abdominal cavity, moving fluids in the direction of least resistance, which causes flow, much like an old-style water pump (Figure 8). Under the influence of such pumping pressures, blood always flows toward the heart in the venous system, aiding circulation.
You don’t only get the pumping effects from walking, you get them from most any functional movement; unsupported while balancing your own body against gravity. For example, your pumps work when you perform activities like bending over to pick up an object (Figure 9). When you are in the gym exercising, be it in aerobics class, rowing on a rowing machine or performing a squat, you are supporting your physiology.
Arguably the king of bio-pumps is the diaphragm. When you are breathing naturally, using your diaphragm correctly, the rib cage expands in three dimensions: vertically, laterally and anterior/posterior. As the diaphragm contracts, affording inhalation, a negative pressure is created in the thorax (above the diaphragm) and a positive pressure is created in the abdominal cavity (below the diaphragm; with exhalation, there is a relative reversal of this process).
The pressure changes produced by proper diaphragmatic breathing occur somewhere between 20,000 and 26,000 times a day, depending on your resting respiratory rate; those with optimal breathing habits will be on the lower side. To really appreciate the importance of breathing and your diaphragm as a key bio-pump, think of how nice it would be if a skilled massage therapist were to manually pump muscles and knead the waste fluids out of organs with over 20,000 strokes a day: your masseur is built in if you just breath naturally (in through your nose with your tongue in its natural rest position) allowing your diaphragm full excursion.
It is very important to realize that the abdominal wall and diaphragm have an intimate working relationship; the diaphragm is a breathing muscle that assists in stabilization, while the abdominal muscles are stabilizers that assist in respiration. When you let your abdominal wall become weak, uncoordinated and/or distended due to poor dietary, lifestyle and exercise habits, you will compromise the entire bio-pump system!
As you can see in Figure 10-A, when the abdominal wall works correctly, the internal organs are properly supported and rest in the correct position to maximally benefit from the massage given by diaphragmatic movement. When the abdominal wall becomes dysfunctional (Figure 10-B), the viscera (organs) lose their support and hang from the visceral ligaments. This disrupts diaphragmatic excursion, pumping, oxygen transfer and circulation of most all major fluids in the body. Not good!
This is one very good reason to learn to exercise your abdominal wall correctly. A simple test to see if your abdominal wall is not working ideally is to simply stand up and take five or six natural breaths, sensing how much effort it takes to breath. Then, lie down on the floor (face up) and take another five or six natural breaths, noting how much effort it takes relative to when you were standing.
If it is easier for you to breath while lying on your back than when standing, chances are very good your abdominal wall needs specific testing and conditioning to improve your natural pump actions! You can learn more about testing and exercising the abdominal wall in my video programs titled "Scientific Core Conditioning" and "Equal But Not The Same." Today there are many good books on breathing. One of my favorites is "Breathe To Succeed In All Aspects Of Your Life" by Tania Clifton-Smith.
Fighting Constipation With Natural Pumping
Very few people (even among those in the health care professions) realize that the human being is the only mammal that has to push feces up hill. Once the undigested residues leave the ilium and enter the cecum (lower right abdominal region where your appendix is), the fecal matter must be pumped up hill in route to the transverse colon. Another of the most primal of all human movements, the squat, provides substantial assistance to the colon in this regard (Figure 11).
As you squat into the position natural for defecation in the wild, the right thigh compresses the cecum, assisting fecal material up to the transverse colon, while the left thigh pressurizes the lower descending and sigmoid region, aiding in evacuation. Next time you are constipated, try doing 15 to 20 slow, deep squats at breathing pace; breathing out as you lower and in as you raise, always staying as relaxed as possible. You may well find that you can now move your bowel!
Now that you have a basic understanding of how the pump systems work, let’s briefly look at how the pumps support your health and well-being by supporting the movement of key bodily fluids.
Why Fluids Need Pumps
Blood requires the action of the heart, which is greatly assisted by the action of muscles; when muscles contract, they push blood toward the heart via the veins and when they relax, they absorb fresh, oxygenated blood via the arterial and capillary system. The circulatory system delivers blood via microcirculation to a myriad of cell aggregates throughout the body, at which time the fluids become interstitial or intercellular fluids.
Once delivered into close proximity of the cell aggregates, osmosis and diffusion become transport mechanisms for both the nutrition going in and waste going out of the cells. The process of diffusion is only effective over very short distances. For example, it takes about 3.5 seconds to diffuse a distance of 10um (the diameter of one cell). But it would take 11 years for diffusion to carry a molecule 10cm or ~ 4.5 inches (3)!
With this in mind, you can more easily envision how movement of the body, which acts to pump fluids into and out of areas where transport is relatively passive, is important. In fact, wherever circulation is chronically blocked, there is stagnation of fluids, resulting in such changes as sclerosis, scarring and eventually cell death.
The fluid milieu between the cells becomes lymphatic fluid once it enters lymphatic circulation. Lymphatic fluid serves numerous important functions from delivering cellular nutrition and waste removal to being an important transport mechanism for immune antibodies. When our lymphatic system is not functioning optimally, we tend to swell.
A common example of poor lymphatic return seen in people who are too inactive is the 24-hour sock line; they take their socks off at the end of the day and when they wake up in the morning, they still have the imprints of their socks on their legs above the ankles. If an athlete injures a ligament, muscle or joint and the area swells, active movements (such as pedaling a bicycle or walking if tolerable) can be used to pump the lymphatic fluid and swelling away. This improves the general circulation in the area, speeding the recovery process.
When joints are painful, lymphatic circulation can be very effectively enhanced by swimming, aqua jogging with a floatation vest, or simply treading water. How water exercise can greatly aid circulation is explained in my article titled "The Healing Power Of The Pool".
Digestive fluids are stimulated by exercise because exercise not only causes pressure fluctuations in and around the organs, it elevates metabolism. It is also important to remember that every organ needs blood, oxygen, nutrients and waste removal. These vital functions are all facilitated when you get adequate natural movement each day; how much you need varies from person to person, but if you look and feel great and have for some time, you are probably getting an adequate amount.
In addition, the Yogis have known for thousands of years that specific exercises benefit specific organs and physiological functions. Pumping is one of the key reasons yoga exercises work! For example, the right exercises performed at the correct intensity will actually stimulate and assist peristalsis, the wave-like contractions that occur after you swallow and move the food all the way to your anus.
Synovial fluid is the fluid that lubricates your joints. The synovial membrane is generally thickest around the outer edges of the spinal joints. What I have found clinically is that by moving through full ranges of motion, like you generally do in yoga, while stretching naturally, or natural movements such as squatting (as seen in Figure 11), is that that there is increased synovial fluid released at end ranges of motion.
Stimulation of the synovial membrane to lubricate joints is one of the reasons that exercise instructors and physical therapists want you to perform full range of motion exercises.
Many people with sore backs have benefited greatly from my video program titled "Swiss Ball Exercises For Better Abs, Buns and Backs", which is really a great low-level exercise program for anyone, child to elderly. This program takes advantage of the dynamic ability of the Swiss ball and uses all sorts of easy and effective pumping exercises that can be done right at your desk or in your living room. If you don’t like exercising outside or have a very hectic schedule, you can get a lot of mileage toward a healthier body by using a Swiss ball as a chair (Figure 12).
If you are more athletic, you may find my video titled "Swiss Ball Exercises For Athletes" more suitable to you. My new book titled "How To Eat, Move and Be Healthy!" has many excellent health and vitality building exercises, stretches and explanations on how to build your own customized eating and exercise program so that you keep your body in an anabolic (building) state to achieve maximum resting metabolism while enhancing your physiology so you look good both on the outside and the inside!
As you can see, there are many very good reasons to get some regular exercise. I’m not asking you all to become gym members and start pumping up (Austrian accent), I’m simply sharing the beautiful design of the human body so you can better understand that if you are not moving adequately, you are actually abusing your body! If you do that too often, or long enough, you will impede spiritual expression.
What I mean by that is that our spiritual being uses the body as a vehicle of expression. When the body is working well, you don’t know you even have one, therefore, you are afforded maximum spiritual expression. You have the natural ability to create, think, express, love and to do all the wondrous things that make us uniquely human. Your body is designed to move, and movement is life, so it’s time to get moving!
Paul Chek is a Holistic Health Practitioner (Ca.) and Certified Neuromuscular Therapist. He is founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Vista, Ca. If you enjoyed this article, you will love the greater scope of information available to you in his new book "How To Eat, Move and Be Healthy!" For more information on Paul Chek’s books, videos, audios, correspondence courses and articles, visit his Web page at www.chekinstitute.com or call 1-800-552-8789 (U.S.) (1-760-477-2620 International) for a free catalog.