Butch Phelps on the Brain-Body Connection

Butch Phelps is the founder of the Stretch ‘n’ Release Technique and The Muscle Repair Shop. He coaches clients to regain the freedom of movement they once had and age more pain-free. He is a Licensed Massage Therapist and holds a bachelor’s degree in aging sciences. His studies have allowed him to better understand how our muscles and bones can break down as we grow older and how we can correct most of the common ailments older people suffer from. He has also studied the mental side of aging and how our brains are affected by lifestyles and diets. In his practice, he helps his clients to improve their lifestyle choices and eating habits by using health assessments and collaborating with them to find the best paths to a healthier life. In this interview, we discuss healthy footwear, the right way to stretch and the brain-body connection.

Butch Phelps on the Brain-Body Connection
Butch Phelps

Greg: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you entered your current line of work?

Butch: I got into my current line of work almost twenty-two years ago. I had lost about 105 pounds and had been working out like a fiend. And I noticed my back kept getting more and more painful. So I took an early retirement from my job and decided to go to massage school. I thought that, worst-case scenario, massage would be an easier job that I could probably still do. As I progressed in massage school, I started to realize that my knowledge of muscles was moving very fast and that the muscles of the human body intrigued me. So I finished that degree and started training with a guy named Aaron Mattes, who does active isolated stretching. Because the massage was helping but it wasn’t doing everything. The active isolated stretching also helped, but it was still coming up short.

Then I got invited to meet a professor from the University of Washington. We started discussing the brain-body connection, or how the brain works with the muscles of the human body. And I started to realize that my muscles were actually more emotional than they were physical. As an athlete, this idea was very difficult to comprehend. But once I got it, I realized that if I could release tension from the brain, then my muscles would physically release as well. And that allowed me to use the stretching, to use the massage and to help myself by using my brain to let those muscles go.

Then, as I started looking back at massage, I realized that therapists would strap you down to do assisted massage. That was really going against the brain. In other words, the brain felt uneasy. So I decided, let’s take the straps away. We can start working more with the brain-body connection and get the person laying there to release their muscles. And it started working well. Since that time, I went back to school again and got a degree in aging sciences, which is the study of how the human body ages, both mentally and physically. And it deals with conditions like dementia, orthopedic injuries and so forth.

As I’ve developed my practice over the years, I’ve worked with people with joint replacements and back surgeries and different types of diseases like fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases that tend to either make people feel stiff or rob them of their energy. And by freeing those muscles by relaxing their minds, people started to notice they were moving around with less pain and had more energy in their day-to-day lives.

Fast forward twenty-two years later, and the back pain that I had back in 2000 no longer affects me. The thing is, I don’t teach anyone anything that I haven’t done to myself. Because I want to know what it feels like and I want to know if it works. So when I can describe to them what they should be feeling and they can feel the same thing, then they know that I’m not just spewing theory to them. I’m actually teaching them what I know.

Greg: I know that there’s a pretty strong brain-body connection between emotional and psychological stress and lower back pain. And you mentioned that many people have muscle tension that is linked to emotional tension or psychological tension. Are there muscles that are more susceptible to emotional states?

Butch: I would say no. The best way to visualize the brain-body connection is to think of your muscles as the emotional fingers of the brain. Or picture an octopus with your brain as the head of the octopus and your nervous system and muscles as the tentacles. The body from the shoulders down is going to react to whatever’s going on in the head. If you imagine somebody who is angry, think about the posture that they hold automatically. And compare that to someone who is sad or depressed or someone who’s happy.

So when people start to feel pain in their body, if it persists more than a day or so, and if they’re taking painkillers but nothing seems to be helping them, they’ll start to get into a more depressed state. And as they do that, their gate will shorten and their shoulders will typically round. Instead of leading with their belly button when they walk, they’ll lead with their nose. That position increases the compression on the spine because all the muscles on the front side are starting to shorten in that posture.

When somebody is under chronic stress or angry, then the muscles are in a more tense mode. And that rounded posture compresses the vertebrae in the spine, which compresses nerves and can cause tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. So the psychological component of the muscles has almost everything to do with how people react and feel orthopedically or neurologically in their body from a muscle standpoint.

Greg: You talked about building that brain-body connection by teaching a client to stretch while they visualize the muscles and how the muscles work. Can you offer an example of how you would talk someone through a specific stretch?

Butch: Yes. The calf is one of my favorite areas of the human body and an easy one to demonstrate this with. We have four muscles in our calves. We typically think that if we drop our heel off of a step or a curb, or we lean against a wall, or we get on a slant board, then we’ve stretched our calves. And what we don’t understand about the calves is that the calves control the foot vertically for walking, but also laterally in supination and pronation and rotationally at the same time. So what we want to do is individualize each of those four muscles. I use an eight-foot yoga strap, which I give my clients, and I’ll show them how to sit on the floor with their back up against the wall and then put the strap around the ball of the foot.

Anatomical diagram of the calf muscles

Well, when they start to pull their foot, almost ninety percent of the time, especially with guys, you’ll see them wrap the strap around their hands like they’re going to pull their foot off the end of their leg. They’ll pull so hard that the leg will literally lift up so that the heel is off the ground. And I’ll always laugh and say to them, “Well, this is great. What you’re doing now is a bicep curl using the weight of your leg.”

So I get them to lay their leg flat on the floor, totally relaxed. The strap is around the ball of the foot. And then I tell them, gently start to pull the toes back towards you. Concentrate on breathing out as you’re pulling that strap. And realize that what you’re doing is you’re not pulling taffy when you visualize the stretching. What you’re doing is you’re allowing the muscle to just let go.

As they do that, some people are looking for that pain in the back of their leg. They get disappointed sometimes when they don’t feel it. But I’m not really looking for pain. Because if I pull so hard that there’s a ton of pain there, then the brain is going to contract the muscle to stop the pain. So what we want is that release of the muscle as the toes are coming back towards you and allowing that feeling—it’s up right up behind the knee, just below the knee on the calf—to let go.

You’re going to hold a stretch for five seconds at a time and repeat it ten times. Repeating ten times is to build the brain-body connection and show the brain that we didn’t die. Every time we did that we were safe. After you’ve done ten repetitions, then you rotate the foot over, say to the inside. And as you start to pull the toes back towards you, now you’ll feel the stretch move from the middle of the calf out to the outside of the calf. And you’ll do that ten times and then you’ll rotate to the outside. Now you’ll feel the stretch more to the inside of the calf.

If you play a sport like tennis or golf where there is rotation through the swing, you might think the rotation starts in the hips. But the rotation starts down in the ankles. And as you have the rotation through the ankles, then the calves, then up through the hamstrings and then through the hips, now, the torque is not on the lower spine. So getting your ankles and calves to move properly can help reduce back pain.

The whole time I’m working with a client, I’m talking them through how to breathe and allow the muscles to let go versus just pulling with brute force. And secondly, I want to really build a visual in their head that the reason I’m doing this is it’s going to help with my back pain from up in my back all the way down to my calves. So the whole session is more of a teaching session. I’m focused on their problem and showing them how this calf stretch can help their back pain.

It’s a lot of information in the beginning. I always tell my clients, “You’re probably going to remember ten percent of your first visit. Don’t worry about that. Keep asking questions. We’ll keep talking about it.” I’ll keep repeating it because what I want is to build that brain-body connection with a visual in your head as to how your body is mechanically working.

And then when they’re done, I typically send them home with two or three stretches to do for a week. I’ll also send them the videos on their computer that they can follow each day. But it’s a daily thing. When you think of a dog or a cat, they stretch every day. And with your muscles being so emotional, every thought you have, every movement that you do, you’re going to tighten your muscles again.

Greg: So are most of your sessions like that where it’s very much a total body stretching session?

Butch: No. Typically, if I had to stretch somebody’s entire body it would probably take two, two and a half hours. When I’ve worked with people in the past and done that, the person laying on the table is just exhausted. The person laying on the table and releasing those muscles is more fatigued than the person helping them do the stretches. So I figure about an hour to an hour and a half max is about what somebody can deal with. In that period of time, you can really work the lower body, or you can really work the upper body.

When I try to do when someone comes in is listen to where their pain points are and listen to what movements cause those painful areas to act up. What time of day? What kind of jobs or activities are they doing? So that we can start piecing the puzzle together as to what might be causing most of that pain. And then once they come in, we address that. We focus on trying to stop the pain first. Then they can come back as they want to and learn how to help the rest of their body. But it takes about two to three sessions of an initial consult with somebody to really get them to grasp that visualization and understand the brain-body connection. But then once they do that, it becomes much easier.

Greg: In other words, for something like lower back pain, there’s more involved than just releasing the back muscles.

Anatomical diagram of the quadriceps muscles

Butch: Yeah, exactly. Recent reports have said that eighty percent of Americans will experience low back pain in their lifetime. And it can be from a number of different things. Most commonly, people will say, as long as I’m sitting, I’m fine. But if I lay in my bed on my back or I stand for long periods of time, or when I get up after sitting for a while, my back really starts to hurt. And what happens is most therapists go straight to the back because that’s how we’re all trained in school.

The reality is, the pain could be from the quadriceps, especially the upper quads, which are on the fronts of the thighs. Or it could be from the inner thighs, or it could be from the calf muscles. So if you have a job where you’re sitting behind a desk all day, then as you’re sitting there, the quads—especially the upper part, probably about four or five inches below your hip joint—can get tight in that area.

And when they do, because the quads attach to the back of the pelvis, they tilt the pelvis forward, which increases the compression on the spine. The reason that compression happens is that as the pelvis tilts forward, the whole torso starts to lean forward. And we don’t want to walk around like old men or old women. What we want is to be able to stand up straight. So people will contract the muscles in the low back to pull the torso back up straight. That’s where the compression comes in.

Once you release those quads so that the pelvis can come back underneath, now you don’t have that compression because the whole body is in alignment. The inner thighs can do the same thing, and there are four muscles in the inner thighs. The difference is the inner thighs attach to the lower part of the knee and come into the pubic bone. When they pull the pelvis forward, the pain is going to show up in the middle of the low back. Whereas tightness from the quads is going to show up on the outsides of the back.

Now, what can set that off too is how you walk. If you take shorter strides and your calf muscles are short—which means that your ankles aren’t bending as well—your will literally walk from your upper quads and use the muscles on the front sides of your thighs to move your legs forward. And you can see that in how people walk. If a person’s shoes are too hard-soled where the soles are too thick and they don’t bend in the middle, if you watch them walk, you’ll see that their foot sort of stays flat and they’re lifting from their upper quads, which can also lead to back pain.

Anatomical diagram of the hamstring muscles

Now if somebody says, when I sit, I have back pain, but when I stand, it goes away, chances are that’s the hamstrings in the back of the leg. So it just depends on the nature of when they feel it, what are they doing, that kind of thing, as to what’s going to be the solution.

Greg: You described how thick-soled or stiff-soled shoes can contribute to back pain. Are there other downsides to this type of footwear?

Butch: For many people, the shoes we love can be painful to them. The reason is that their calves are too tight and are not properly stretched. Most calf stretches that we are taught are really Achilles tendon stretches and do not stretch all four calf muscles. This prevents the ankle from bending properly and places too much stress on the foot, especially the arch area.

The second problem is that most people are taught to wear shoes with arch supports and heel supports. These shoes atrophy the muscles of the foot and calf, making it impossible for them to ever exercise those muscles. This can lead to arch pain, heel pain, Achilles tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis. Once I teach them how to properly stretch those areas, the pain goes away in a few days. And now they are ready to move into shoes like Xero Shoes, which I think are the best shoes for the human foot.

You also want a shoe with a wide enough toe box for your toes to spread with every step. This improves balance. Minimalist shoes allow the arch muscle (plantar fascia) to flex and become strong, which is similar to doing bicep curls to improve the strength of your biceps.

Every step you take should include the toes spreading and the arch expanding. Narrow-toe shoes prevent this from happening. Add in the arch supports and heels and now you have a cast on each foot. Next time you are out and about, watch other people walk. Focus on one foot and see how little their feet bend just behind the toe. This limitation will cause the ankle to be unable to bend, which renders the calves non-existent.

Greg: You described stiff, narrow shoes as “casts” that can cause the muscles of the feet and calves to atrophy. Are there some other examples of clothing or daily habits or environment that can cause that sort of muscle atrophy or compromised movement patterns?

Butch: Yeah, I always tease my clients about their recliners, because here in Florida they have a lot of recliners. But you’ll notice that if somebody sits in a recliner for long periods of time, the positioning of their body as they stand up starts to develop a very similar posture to the chair. What happens is you’re shortening the abdominal muscles, you’re shortening the outside chest muscles so you get that rounded shoulder with a head forward posture. And if it’s a chair that has a thick headrest on it and you watch someone sitting, their head will start to tilt more forward so their head is out in front of their chest. That’s going to cause the muscles on the front of the neck to shorten.

Over a long period of time, they start to get that old man or old woman look where they’re tilted over as they walk. And then they go back to the back pain, and that’s the reclining position. You’ll notice that their quads and their inner thighs will shorten. And then you get back pain from that. What will also happen is they’ll get in their car and they’ll recline the back of the seat back. They have to do that because their head is tilted forward because these muscles are short. Lifting their head up puts too much pressure on the back of their neck. So they recline their seat back so that they got their eyes up where they can look out over the hood of the car.

So there are various things that we do each day. I mean, even something as simple as if you carry a book bag or a purse on one side of your body all the time, your shoulders will start to shift from trying to hold up that weight. So all those little things contribute.

The common thing is if my neck hurts, well, I think there’s a problem in the back of my neck because the pain is there. Or if I wake up in the morning and I can’t turn my head, there’s like serious pain back there. Keep in mind that with the neck, you have four major muscles. You’ve got two on the back side coming up and two on the front side coming up. So if the muscle on the front left side is tight—I’ve slept on it the wrong way or I’m carrying a book bag on this side—if I turn my head to the right, that front-left muscle has to be able to release.

And if it doesn’t release, I’m going to get pain in the back-right side of my neck and upper back. Everybody’s going to go there because that’s where the pain is. I’ve seen people put injections in the back of the neck and upper back because the pain is there. But the cause is actually coming from the opposite side. Once you free up that front-left muscle, now the back-right muscle doesn’t have to work so hard to turn my head.

Anatomical diagram of the muscles of the neck

So stretching and building that brain-body connection is a daily thing. But I’m not talking about stretching the whole body every day. What I’m talking about is probably taking fifteen, twenty minutes max, first thing in the morning or last thing before you go to bed. Think about what you did the last ten or twelve hours of your day. And then you want to reverse that trend in your body so that you can perform that day or go to bed that night and sleep well.

And then the next morning you want to do it again. Because during the night, you’re tossing around the bed, your muscles are always working. You can have a dream and you’re running from whomever in your dream. Well, your muscles are all tensed up by the next morning.

Again, if you think of a dog or a cat, they stretch every day, three or four times a day. We should be doing the same thing. We don’t need a special stretch class or special clothes or special tools. All we really need is a yoga strap, a tennis ball for softening the muscles and a little time. But once you build that brain-body connection and get the brain to let go, then it works.

Greg: You’ve been doing this for twenty-plus years. What are you still curious about? What are you still learning after all that time?

Butch: Oh my gosh. I’m learning all the time. You start to see how the shoes we wear play a role, the food we eat plays a role, the relationships we have play a role. So food is one I’m digging into now more and more. Take foods that are high inflammatory type foods. We’re talking about refined carbohydrates, like pastries and pasta and rice and white potatoes and so forth. These increase the inflammation throughout our body. When you have that, it makes the body have to work twice as hard to move. And it can create some brain fog, which can cause some stress and muscle tension. So it’s important to look at what we’re eating and its relationship to how well we move.

The other thing that interests me now is, every day, I try to go and walk barefoot in the grass outside just to reconnect with the earth. I’ve been studying how the energy levels from the earth move into the human body. And there are certain things about the earth, the magnetism, that as the human body walks barefoot, it can connect with some valuable things out of the earth that help with the energy of the body.

Greg: As far as walking barefoot, is the connection, magnetic, electrical or some of both?

Butch: Some of both. I mean, it’s the energy of the earth coming from the magnetic forces of gravity. But also the electrical systems of the earth are actually connected with us as human beings. I think that the problem for so many people is we’ve been disconnected for a long time. But when you start reconnecting with that, you’ll find that it increases the energy level in your body. When you’re walking across the dirt, that’s where all of our minerals—the magnesium, the potassium and so forth—are really coming from. And as you are connecting with the earth, you start to take on that energy level in your body.

One of the things I always think about is our connection with the trees. I was listening to a guy talk about it the other day. He said, if you think about the trees, the trees are really one-half of your respiratory system. Whatever you exhale, the tree inhales, and whatever the tree exhales, you inhale. So there’s this synergy that’s working between us and the trees just for our respiratory process and our body. And when you put it that way, that’s a whole different view of looking at a tree. My gosh, that’s half my respiratory system when I walk outside.

For more on the brain-body connection and Butch Phelps’s work, visit his website or Youtube channel.