Our bodies are composed of many supporting systems, but let’s focus on two that have the most effect on movement: the skeletal and muscular systems.
The body is simultaneously one of the most complex and the most simple machines in existence: how we treat it 100% determines how it functions.
Like a building, the body is made up of interlocking support structures. Your skeleton is very much like the framework that outlines the shape of a building, and your muscles are the wood and building material arranged in a specific pattern to contribute to the soundness of the entire structure. What’s extra cool about the building that is our body is its unique ability to move in so many different ways.
The intrinsic connection of the two body systems, muscle and bone, determine your ability to move. But it’s the balance of the muscles around the skeleton that determine how.
It seems like there is this giant void in the understanding we have of our own bodies. And it’s not necessarily our fault! We get classes in school about the geography of the earth, but not the geography of the body. That’s reserved for “specialized training.”
But I think everyone needs to know a few basic things to avoid and prevent pain, and to make the connection that how we treat our body every day – from the food we eat to the way we train – has an impact on how the body looks, performs and on how long it lasts.
Our bodies were designed for function.
We see in front of ourselves and therefore most of the movements we make are in a forward direction. There are specific muscles that work over and over in your daily activities that end up developing more than their opposites, the muscles that counterbalance them around our joints.
Think about how you sit at the computer, how you sit to eat, how you drive, that you walk and bicycle forward and on and on.
Over time repetitive motion takes its toll. We’ve all seen the propensity many elderly people have to lean forward, hunch over and have a head way forward from their center of gravity. This is because they have been using the SAME muscles so much without the balance of using the opposite muscles, their overworking muscles are literally pulling their bones forward.
What we may not realize is that most of us are part of the way towards that already.
There is nothing wrong with any of the above activities – in fact, I want you to be able to enjoy every single one of them in abundance.
What I want you to notice is the similarity in each of those common postures, and think about the way you move every day that uses the same muscle groups over and over.
When a muscle works, it contracts. Imagine your bicep doing a curl, every time it comes up, it contracts.
If all you did all day long every day was bicep curls, eventually the muscle wouldn’t be able to come out of the contraction.
It wouldn’t be able to grow any more either, and would stay stuck in a semi-contracted state all the time.
It would pull on the bones that it was attached to, your lower and upper arm bones, causing your arm to stay flexed all the time.
If however, we were to simultaneously train the opposite muscle to the bicep – which is the tricep…
Have you ever been at the gym and seen those extreme bodybuilders whose arms don’t fully extend? Who sort of walk around looking like bulls? There is a propensity in a sector of the uneducated and purely aesthetic focused fitness population that wants only to train the “vanity” muscles of the chest and biceps.
This is an extreme example, but if you can picture that you know that overdevelopment of these specific muscles pulls the elbow joint into extension and the shoulder joint into forward rotation. You might be getting stuck in a position due to overuse at your job or sport, and not even realize it.
While it’s easy to see how an imbalance could happen between the bicep and tricep, what actually happens more often are imbalances between the front and back of your body, or the right and left side.
Modern life subjects us to many misalignment issues, repetitive motion injuries and stress around joints that we don’t realize is there until something gives way.
We don’t always use opposing muscles in a balanced way.
Often some muscles get overused, and others underused leading to strained backs, unsteady knees and other types of joint pain that over time can cause big problems.
So what is the answer? How do we solve this problem without having to take medication for pain (which I personally think simply addresses the symptom, and doesn’t fix the problem)?
The simplest thing you can do RIGHT NOW is to become aware of your body postures and daily activity positions and think about what the opposite movement to them would be.
For example, a lot of the pushing moves or arms in front of you moves have an opposing pulling move that would work the opposite muscle group. But we don’t do them nearly as often.
That’s why it’s SO important to add moves like rows, reverse flyes, superman lifts, swimmers and more into your routine more than you would in a normal “balanced” exercise plan might include. You have to be responsible for thinking about what else you’re doing so you can tweak your program a little to bring your body into balance around your daily activities.
1. If you take the time to exercise, think about exercising the side of your body that doesn’t get used as much during your daily activities.
I’ll give you a clue – it’s not your chest! The back muscles are the most neglected muscles in the body, and can have the most benefit in improving posture and decreasing pain.
Here are some excellent articles from the blog to help you strengthen these often weak areas of the upper body, which can show up as wrist or shoulder pain, or as upper mid back pain (I have “knots” in my shoulders!):
- 5 Moves to Build a Strong Back (no equipment)
- Back Strengthening Exercises for Less Back Pain
- 2 Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises (kettle bell or weight)
- Back Pain Sucks! Do This Stretch
2. Think about sitting upright and engaging your core and back muscles while you’re sitting all day.
Make sure you adjust your desk so the height allows your head to view the computer screen without having to tilt forward.
3. When you train for a specific activity you enjoy, consider cross training the muscles that you don’t use as much for your sport.
If you’re a cyclist, think about what muscles you use to perform that repetitive exercise day after day. It’s a lot more quad than it is hamstring. Do some exercises that engage your hamstrings on your days off. Unless you’re competing and under the care of a coach, I’d highly recommend you train for balance in your legs as well as performance in your rides. Your body will thank you in the long run.
If you’re a runner, consider taking a few spin classes or doing some squats to work your quadriceps muscles. Runners get a lot of development in their hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
4. Seek the care of a Physical Therapist, a Manual Therapist, an Occupational Therapist, or Sports Massage Therapist specializing in neuromuscular and trigger point therapy, or another kind of practitioner who is acquainted with alignment of the body if you are experiencing pain or discomfort while training. Some discomfort is normal – exercise isn’t supposed to always be “easy” haha 🙂 But actual pain needs to be addressed.
Training on poorly balanced and poorly aligned joints will inevitably lead to injury.
For further reading:
- How to Train When You’re Sick or Injured
- Cryotherapy Review
- From the Ground Up: How Your Feet Aid Your Alignment
- Post-Workout Stretching and Using the Foam Roller
Train for balance, and strength will be inevitable.