As clinicians, we often explain injuries in the form of strength or flexibility. We’ll drill you on exercises that have been proven to engage specific muscles or stretches that make you feel your tightness. Generally, these issues get addressed with onset of the direct feedback that something has gone astray–PAIN. Although pain appears to be fairly black and white (it either hurts or doesn’t), the road to pain often starts weeks, months, or even years prior. Strength deficits and hampered range of motion often go undetected for months due to our inept ability to compensate. As I state in prior articles, our body is amazing. It has systems for checks and balances, a way to compensate for developing issues. Good thing, too. Relying strictly on one area for function would be disastrous for living. A failing ankle without a knee, hip, or trunk to compensate would leave you bed-ridden and unable to walk. Again, completely unbeknownst to the person, your brain will make deliberate changes to your movement in response in an attempt to keep you functioning. These compensations become hardwired into your movement. The movements are now automatic, learned habits that fire subconsciously.
What does this mean for you? Not only must you restore strength, but you’ll have to spend time re-learning your movement. We all know about the importance of strength training, but how about movement training? You need to feel and own your movement. The difference between strength, muscle activation, and movement is often overlooked. Muscles can be both strong and weak at the same time. Yeah. I said it. A strong muscle can generate force, but can it play nice with those surrounding it? Will your new found strength even be used if your brain has trained the movement to get by without it? It’s a tough question to answer through research, but we know more about movement and the neuromuscular system than ever before. In practice, I can abolish knee pain during a squat by biasing the glutes to activate. The same can be said for those with back pain. How is it I can toggle from a runner from painful to non-painful with a few simple cues? The answer lies in your bodies inept ability to run on autopilot. Again, your brain has trained the body to function with compensation. Simply adding strength or range to the mix doesn’t necessarily equate to improved movement.
It’s fairly crazy how one person can look so strong or weak on exam, but then when we ask them to function in sport and their movement fails to reflect what we’ll see on the table. If you train your body for the strength test of course you’ll test strong (hello clamshell and leg raise exercises), but more often than not you’ll still function poorly with movement.
It’s fairly crazy how one person can look so strong or weak on exam, but then when we ask them to function in sport and their movement fails to reflect what we’ll see on the table.
Since these movements are perceived as “normal,” self assessment is almost impossible here. You’ll need a trained eye for not only identification, but to instruct you on movement correction. From clinical experience, there are a few factors that affect your ability to correct your movement. First, the duration of time spent compensating can directly influence your ability to not only feel, but fix the movement. Simply put, the longer you’ve been compensating the more ingrained the habit and the harder to break. Second and more influential factor is your body awareness and coordination. Those who are better at coordinating movement and being in tune with the spatial relation of their body parts will generally have an easier time fixing movement.
Luckily we can continue to run with poor movement–our anatomy allows it. Fixing movement is really reserved for a few groups. Those with glaring form issues: flailing feet, outward/inward pointed toes, and excessive hip drop. The second group is for those who have fought persistent on/off injury for months (or years) on end. It’s also reserved for those who are running to put food on their plate. A level where everyone is elite and first and second place are separated by fractions of a second.
Below is an example of a young runner who you would expect to perform weak while running based on exam, but shocks me when she overshoots her strength testing.
The importance thing is to fix the strength and flexibility issues first. Afterall, it’s tough to change your movements if you don’t have a prerequisite strength to stop the compensation. So go find out how you’re compensating and start rewiring your nervous system to break bad habits. Learn and feel how your body moves. Only then can reach your full potential while avoiding persistent injury.