Taking Out the Slack

What it Means and Why it is of Central Importance

By Deane Juhan


Deane-Shoulder.jpg

A student of mine just wrote me the following:

“When we were going over “taking the slack out”, can you quickly explain to me the goal of doing this and anatomically what exactly is the slack we’re taking out?”

“From my understanding of muscle slack, slack occurs when muscles and tendons are not activated and therefore at rest. If we’re taking the slack out, is the goal to get the muscles back to a better length-tension relationship?”

“Also, if the muscles are over active and very tense, are we still taking the slack out in them? 

"If you wouldn’t mind briefly explaining this I would greatly appreciate it. Just want to make sure I’m super clear myself so I can properly explain this to clients.”

This is an excellent question, one I frequently hear from students, and It is something all practitioners should be clear about.

"First take out the slack before initiating the movements" is something I heard Milton say over and over through my years with him.  Here is why.

He was referring primarily to the slippage in the skin as we try to move the deeper tissues.  If this slippage is not prevented by taking out the skin slack, much of the movement will be lost in merely sliding the skin layer back and forth on the surface below it.  So the initial preparatory movement when setting any body part into motion is to gather this skin slack up with a moderate pressure and a tautening of the skin layer in the direction of the movement you are preparing to stimulate.

“I had had so much of his body--both in depth and extensiveness--set into motion and creating sensations from his own tissues that there was no sensory room left over to focus on what my hands were doing.  He became so engaged with the experience of himself that I was all but irrelevant.”

Again, if you do not take out this skin slack, much of your  motions will be simply swishing the skin layer back and forth.  And this traction on the skin slack goes much deeper than the skin itself.  Under the squamous layer, the skin's surface is connected to the loose structure of the connective tissue that binds it to the underlying fascial sheath that encloses the body as a whole.  In turn, this fascial sheath is connected by connective tissue webbing that extends into the deeper tissues--muscle bellies, blood/lymph/neural tubing embedded within the CT matrix, all deeper facial planes, all organ compartments and individual cell compartments, and ultimately to the periosteal continuum surrounding the entire skeleton.

As we take out the skin slack, the loose layer of CT underneath it is stretched, engaging the denser fascia of the encompassing body sheath below it.  As the CT body-sheath is in turn stretched, its connecting matrix stretches the CT surrounding the deeper muscle tissue as well.  And this stretching then extends to fascia surrounding blood vessels, lymph vessels, nerve trunks and axons, and, as I said, ultimately to the skeleton deep beneath the skin.

As we then more directly engage the muscle cells in their compartments, each rhythmic, rocking movement is aimed at coaxing the tone and length settings of muscle fibers, non-intrusively asking these fibers to give up some tonal tension and length bit by bit; "give me another millimeter on this rock, and another millimeter with the next one, and so on," is how like to phrase it in demonstrations and to my clients on the table.

If the skin slack is not taken out, and if this skin stretch is not steadily maintained as we are working, then much of our movements are engaged in skin slippage and not on the deeper tissues below it.  So the bottom line is that tautening the skin pulls taut all the webbing of the CT matrix deep to it.

(I find in rather conceptually misleading to talk about "layers" of fascia; the matrix is a three-dimensional spider web, with all components woven into one another, down to the individual compartments of single cells, and indeed into their very cytoskeletons within them.  How then do we talk about, and accurately conceptualize, "layers" in a continuous and ubiquitous CT spider-web-like matrix?  Not very well, I suggest.  In the matrix is an array of thickenings and thinnings that define more or less the looseness or denseness of various CT components--dense, for instance in the fascia lata of the outer thigh or the plantar fascia of the foot, and looser in the webbing that connects all the tubes of blood, lymph and nerve sheaths to all the tissues around them.  It makes no conceptual sense to label different parts of this continuum as separate "layers" like a cake, since everything is woven into everything else on all levels.  It is not a stacking of layers, but rather a single integrated whole.)

This point of view is a real paradigm shift in how we think of the body's essential physical unity at all levels.  For my thoughts here I am deeply indebted to the work of Jean-Claude Guimerteau's revolutionary research of CT properties.  I highly recommend two of his masterful videos--"Strolling Under the Skin" and "Muscle Attitudes."  Here you will find images and commentary about CT that are not, to my knowledge, available anywhere else.  They are many times over worth the investment.  They can be found on Amazon or Jean-Claude's website.  Be sure you get a version that includes English over-dubbing of the original French.

So let me give you a couple of examples of my own experience of these ideas in practical applications:

1) Engaging the lattisimus dorsai in order to lengthen its fibers so the arm can fully extend overhead.

Client face down, I softly place my hands on the skin covering the lattisimus. With a little added pressure I stretch the skin toward the shoulder blade and socket.  I feel the first fibers of CT just beneath the skin tautening. A little more pressure and stretch engages the thicker fascia of the body sheath. And this in turn engages the lattisimus muscle sheath, which transfers a gentle pull on the muscle's fibers within it.  Maintaining the "slack out" stretch, I nudge the muscle fibers more and more toward the shoulder, lengthening them bit-by-bit, rock by rock.

As the lattisumus muscle fibers are coaxed to lengthen, and the stretch begins to extend in turn to other CT muscle sheaths and the muscle fibers within them, and finally down to the bones, I feel my rhythmic nudges engage the rib cage; then the spine; then through the spine to the pelvis.  From my single hands position then, I am able to engage the skin slack, the body sheath, the various local muscle compartments in the area of the lattisimus, the rib cage, the spine and finally the sacrum/pelvis where the lattisimus is anchored south of my hands.

As I continue my nudges north toward the shoulder, I feel all of these soft tissue components lengthening and the bones moving; when all the various slacks are out all the way to the pelvis, I can feel its weight through my hands like feeling the tug of a yo-yo at the end of its string as I rhythmically nudge everything north, using both my nudges north and the counterweight of the pelvis tugging the opposite direction to lengthen the lattisimus and everything else in between.  

It is a constant mental/physical/feeling focus on my part, moment by moment ("be here now...and now...and now") that lets me track all of these elements participating together to bring them all into the movement and extension of the lattisimus and the arm, just as they all would in an unrestricted reach of the arm overhead.  Many things happening at once, and many of them occurring not where my hands are physically.  Only by continually engaging the "slack out" stretch of all these tissues as things progress do I effect these deeper and more extensive lengthenings of them.

Often during a demo I will rock without taking out the superficial slack, swishing the skin back and forth as I do so.  Then I will take out the slack and repeat the movements.  The student on the table will always say, "When you take out the slack I feel the movements much deeper and more extensively."  Exactly.

And clients in my studio often respond by saying, "Wow, I can feel my bones move all the way down to my pelvis (perhaps even down the the foot).  Voila!  We have reached deep core structure from a single surface hands position.

2) Rocking the leg

Client face up. I softly place my hands on the skin of the thigh/quadriceps area.  I begin by stretching the skin rolling inward in toward the midline between the client's legs.  As the skin grows taut, I feel an engagement of the body sheath and muscle bellies deep to it.  As I continually maintain (and increase) this stretch while I am rocking, I feel the quads rolling back and forth around the shaft of the femur.  Then I feel the femur itself  beginning to roll back and forth.  As the bone of the femur becomes engaged, I can see the rolling of the lower leg begin as well.  As I continue to accumulate the stretch down to the bones and toward the foot, I can see and feel the foot wagging back and forth at the ankle, and eventually the toes wagging back and forth at the end of their metatarsals.

As with the pelvis through the lattisimus fibers in example 1, I can use this weight of the foot as a rhythmical counterweight to the movements of my hands on the thigh--leg rolls in, foot wags out, leg rolls back out, foot wags in, and toes begin to flop as well.

So, as things progress, I have felt the slack come out of the superficial skin surface, felt the CT web engage the body sheath, then the muscle bellies of the quad, felt the quad engage the movement of the femur, and felt the movement of the femur travel all the way through the lower leg to the foot and toes. Be here now...and now...and now...

And again, voila!  From a single hands position I have penetrated the movement and the lengthening stretches of the entire leg and foot.  And at the upper end of the femur I have also felt the engagement of the rotators attached to the trochanter, which in turn engage the movement of the sacrum and low back.  None of these deeper and more extensive engagements of rhythmic movement take place unless I have taken out the skin slack, and progressively increased and maintained the slack-out stretch to deeper tissues as movements progress.

This principle of "slack out" is the same for every body part(s) that I set into motion, and must be re-engaged every time I shift my hands position to another placement.  Otherwise I am just swishing superficial skin back and forth, and much of the movement never reaches deeper and more extensive tissues.

I will end with a brief personal anecdote from my practice.  I worked for about an hour and a half on a client, and as he came off the table he looked at me wide-eyed and said, "I could never tell where your hands were!"  Bingo.  I had had so much of his body--both in depth and extensiveness--set into motion and creating sensations from his own tissues that there was no sensory room left over to focus on what my hands were doing.  He became so engaged with the experience of himself that I was all but irrelevant.  This was one of the greatest complements I have ever received in my many years of working.

I hope this offers some insight into the idea of "taking out the slack," and why it is of central importance to every rhythmical movement we are introducing to the tissues.  If you wish to respond with comments or further questions, please feel free to contact me at deanejuhan@gmail.com.  I look forward to continuing dialogues on a wide variety of subjects.