A Weekend with Z Health, by Jeremy Fein
I got glasses when I was 3, and started wearing them when I was 4. With two parents and two older sisters all wearing glasses, growing up to be called “four eyes” was a foregone conclusion. I have gotten so used to wearing them that when I find myself without glasses, I still instinctively go to adjust them on my face, finding only nose.
Growing up, roughhousing with friends ended when a lens popped out and the hardest part of learning a new sport was often figuring out the probability that my frames would end up busted. Learning to drive was surprisingly easy to coordinate, but I usually wouldn’t see a street sign until it was too late to turn. Any time I wasn’t wearing glasses–”how many fingers am I holding up?” “Can you tell who I am?” Yes, but I have a headache and would would rather not be the center of attention of the blurry world surrounding me.
One of the most powerful aspects of my first weekend with Z Health was reflecting on past experiences through a new…lens. Despite excelling in school, I always struggled to read out loud–whenever my turn was approaching in class, my heart started beating faster, my forehead would sweat, and my face would gradually ramp up to its full tomato alter-ego. The most dramatic example of this was having to chant large portions of Hebrew text in front of a congregation of eager-to-be-proud family friends at my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve always looked back on this as an experience about religion, community, stage fright, and coming of age. It wasn’t until 16 years later at Essentials that I saw it as a lesson in vision: struggling to read text is a threat to the brain.
Fast forward 15 years, and I was at Z Health’s Essentials of Elite Performance. As Dr. Cobb put it, Essentials is his elevator pitch–a “quick” introduction to Z Health in 21 hours of lecture and practice over 3 days…We covered overviews of three of their bigger courses: R-Phase (Injury Rehabilitation, Neural Re-Education, Mobility Restoration), I-Phase (Visual, Vestibular, and Proprioceptive Integration Training), and S-Phase (Sports Specialization). I’ll present some of the principles and tools we explored, and add thoughts on my personal experience. This will not be exhaustive and I am not a neuroscientist, but I hope this will spark further thought and help you decide whether to take a course. A continued conversation is always the best way to learn more, so please feel free to reach out with questions.
Neural Plasticity is the idea that the brain can and does change. Our brains adapt, which means that someone who sits for 8+ hours every day will get really stiff in non-sitting positions, people born missing an entire hemisphere of their brain can function surprisingly well, and Z-Health can teach people to see better!
Dr. Cobb says, “the body you have is the body you’ve earned by how you move.” If you bore your brain with the same stimuli all day every day, it will become less plastic. Novelty of stimulus, then, becomes an obvious driving force for learning. Look no further than a young child–each new sound, feeling, color, etc is approached with awe, and it is no wonder that children learn so rapidly.
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM DOES 3 THINGS
Receive Input → Interpretation/Decision → Create Output
Inputs can be exteroceptive, proprioceptive, and/or interoceptive. If you want to either maintain or improve your brain’s current ability to interpret inputs, you could start by making sure you’ve got a healthy diet of all three. Exteroception–awareness of our external environment–tends to get the most attention, though I think we collectively ignore how much we struggle with this. Even people with 20/20 vision can have major visual deficits (see VISUAL WORK section). Proprioception–knowing where we are in space–is a major emphasis in Gymnastics, but not often elsewhere. Interception–awareness of internal bodily sensations–seems to be a focus of some meditation and yoga worlds, but again, gets often overlooked by the general public.
This framework of input → interpretation/decision → output will apply to everything we do, but I’ll leave it at one popular topic: pain. We often talk colloquially about pain as an input–”My knee hurts, so I can’t do X or have to do Y.” Z Health describes pain as an output that our brain creates. So a more educated line of thinking might be, “my brain is struggling to predict what my ankle, knee, and hip will do when I run 5 miles after work, so it creates a pain sensation to inspire a behavioral change.” Each time you experience pain, try to think of it as an output, and one of many data points to consider.
VISUAL WORK, AN EXAMPLE
Spending entire days indoors staring at screens neglects many of our visual skills. Training neglected areas of the brain can have dramatic effects over time, but it can also produce immediate changes. Z Health emphasizes assessment and reassessment in order to determine the effects of our training in real time. Let’s say you like to stretch your hamstrings before you go for a run. If we test whether the stretches you choose will make you run better, worse, or no differently, you could make adjustments to the warmup that will help you perform at your peak.
This was an actual first experience with my co-worker–no acting here!
Showing that internal rotation can improve immediately does NOT mean that visual work is voodoo and everyone who stares at a pen will be a contortionist. The assessment demonstrates that your nervous system is being exposed to something it isn’t used to, and likely struggles with. Remember, “the body you have is the body you’ve earned by how you move.”
Because Jess reassessed better, this would be considered a “high performance” drill for her. She could use this in a warmup something involving shoulder internal rotation, but also anything else–heavy squats, going for a run, taking an exam, etc. Had she reassessed with less range, this would be a “rehab” exercise–it could still be beneficial to work on, but wouldn’t be recommended before having to perform.
We are constantly perceiving threats–being chased by a cheetah, stress at work, heavy squats, relationship drama, etc. When I’m walking around struggling to see things in my periphery, perceive relative depth, etc., these, too, are threats. We have a bucket that can fit so many of these inputs, but at a certain point it will overflow. When we get overwhelmed, our brain will send outputs that lead to behavioral change, like the knee pain mentioned above. Two fundamental aspects of the nervous system are that it prioritizes survival and it is highly predictive. If visual struggles are making it hard for me to predict my next move, it won’t matter how much my coach wants me to squat or my partner wants me to be attentive…when my threat bucket is full, my nervous system has more immediate tasks to deal with.
EXPERIENCE AND LOGISTICS
During the weekend, we went back and forth between lectures and practical applications. For each concept Dr. Cobb introduced, he would demonstrate a test or tool of some sort, and then give us a chance to practice with each other–this helped us understand the concept, then practice coaching it, AND learn something about ourselves. It also kept us moving, which enabled us to keep spirits high for an information marathon.
A very high percentage of attendees experienced a noticeable change in range of motion or pain during the seminar itself–some to the point of shock. I personally entered the weekend with two areas of pain–old squatty knee pain and a broken big toe playing “monkey in the middle” in Thailand–classic, right? During Essentials, my knee pain went away. I found myself hesitating in simple movements that ended up being surprisingly pain-free, peeling back the layers of ranges from which my nervous system had protected me.
My toe pain wasn’t as quick to respond. As Dr. Cobb explained, the context in which chronic pain is created will affect how resistant it is to change. The week I broke my toe involved an amazing time at Movement Camp in Thailand, but also limping 30+ hours across the world and breaking up with my girlfriend of the time–no doubt a complicated context. In the weeks following Essentials, I continued working with the drills I found to be the most useful in the weeks following the course, and my toe continued to feel better. I went into Essentials wondering whether I could improve my vision, and came out with some pretty compelling evidence.
The Essentials course is pretty affordable to start with, plus anyone who has taken it can give away huge referral discounts (feel free to contact me!). After your first time, you’re allowed to go back and repeat the course as many times as you’d like. There was someone at my course attending his EIGHTH Essentials, and he said he’s learned something new every single time. In addition to theory and practice, there was an element of sales during the weekend. I thought Dr. Cobb earned this by providing a ton of information for such a low price, but I thought they could have done away with a few of the reminders. The more in-depth courses (R, I, S, etc.) become significantly more expensive, and are described as similar to a Master’s Degree.
Last thing: go check out the book The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. By weaving together dramatic cases of surprising nervous system adaptations, it teaches the layperson about neural plasticity and our history of understanding it.