For some people, fitness can be a real struggle. They train five days a week and strength gains come along slower than a snail trekking through molasses infused mud. They stretch and stretch, and yet their body is still as rigid as a two-by-four. And for reasons unbeknownst to them, there is always an injury lurking around the corner. Sometimes you need to tackle these problems head on. As a coach, it will always be easier to say “You need to lift more weight, stretch more throughout the day, and use better form!” However, sometimes there is a deeper issue at play, and believe it or not, all of these problems may be interconnected. It’s time for you to learn some unsexy science so we can remove your road blocks and get your body working with you instead of against you.
I’d Like You to Meet Your Kinetic Chain
I’ll try to make this learning moment as painless as possible, but one thing you do need to understand about your body is that (in terms of movement and function) it is one long chain, referred to as your kinetic chain.
As you can see, each section of the body is responsible for a function of either being mobile or stable. So when you see mobility listed at the hip, this means your hip joint should be able to move freely in most any direction, as it is a ball-in-socket joint. When you see stability listed at the lumbar spine (think low back), this means your low back muscles should be strong enough to maintain relative stiffness and position while you move. This whole chain runs all along your body, and just like any other chain, when one link isn’t working correctly, the rest of the chain becomes compromised.
If the chain on your bike was rusted, cracked, and broken you could ride around on it for a while, but how long until it breaks down and your bike is rendered useless? Your body acts in a similar way. Your body knows you need to keep moving- even if it’s on borrowed time. Neighboring areas of your kinetic chain will change their function to insure you can keep going. For instance, if you have tight hips but you need to bend over to pick up an object, your body will gladly bend your low back for you so you can move that spiffy couch into your new home! But now you have your low back bending under load, trying to perform the function of your hips, when it was supposed to be strong and as stable as a tree trunk. You can move with poor mechanics for a while, but it’s only a matter of time before you throw out your back, strain a rotator cuff muscle, develop plantar fasciitis, and so on.
Pain; It’s NEVER Normal
This kind of pain, birthed from dysfunction, can develop all over the body. One of the biggest issues is addressing the pain properly when it arises. Unfortunately, most people’s first inclination is to attack pain right at the source. For instance, when our lower back locks up, usually our first idea is to stretch it out. But your lower back didn’t lock up only to have you keep stretching and tugging on it; it locked up because your lower back is designed to be stable, and it’s trying to tell you “LEAVE ME ALONE, BRO!” You stretching and pulling at it for relief is going to be about as effective as trying to calm an angry bear by beating it with a stick.
Instead, we implement what we know about the kinetic chain in our bodies and investigate around the source of pain. We look at the neighboring areas above and below our lower back, which are our hips and thoracic spine (upper back) and make sure those areas are as mobile as they should be. So long as we don’t experience pain, we stretch those areas and instead, place our low back in a stable position and strengthen the muscles responsible for keeping it strong under tension (multifidi, lumbar extensors, abdominals- your true core muscles). As you fix the dysfunction in your body, you’ll hopefully find relief.
The ideal approach is to not wait until you’re in pain to get your body functioning correctly. Begin using your body now in the way it was designed and avoid pain altogether. Look at the image I have shared, stretch the areas that need to be mobile, and practice stabilizing areas that need to be stable. Are you someone who experiences low back pain but has never bothered to gain full range of motion in the hips? Are you someone who experiences small aches in the front of the shoulders when you press, but has never once stretched your arms overhead? Are you someone who experiences achy knees but also allows your knees to wobble inwards, shake, and quake when coming out of a squat? If so, maybe it’s time to reassess how you move and throw 10 minutes of some deep stretching into your daily diet.
Unlocking Your Strength
If avoiding pain and injury wasn’t persuasive enough, then know this: if you have dysfunction in your body, then you’re also leaving strength on the table. Your brain and its connection to the body is the most intelligently designed piece of machinery to date, so it knows when to pump the brakes.
When you are tight in areas that were designed to be mobile and mobile in areas that were designed to be stable, then your nervous system will literally hold you back to prevent you from injuring yourself. Your brain and nervous system will inhibit you from exerting maximum force, no matter how hard you push or pull.
When we discussed your body acting as a kinetic chain, it was not a metaphorical comparison. Your body is literally a chain for force to travel through when performing resistance movements, such as a bench press or deadlift. When one segment of your chain isn’t performing the way it was designed, your nervous system responds by pumping the brakes with a little tool called neuromuscular inhibition. Just think, how useful would a crane be if the arm used for lifting was made of rubber instead of metal? So reclaim your strength and spend some time getting your body to move the way it was designed.
Reclaiming Your Body
The direction of this article was to get you thinking critically about your body and empower you to take control of your health. A better understanding of how your body functions can save you from injury, get you feeling better, and help you perform better in the gym. Of course, if you’ve torn a ligament or have a herniated disc, you will need to see a physical therapist. Pain can result from a number of things ranging from traumatic injuries to muscular imbalances. However, I also firmly believe people should not feel hopeless every time they develop a case of tendonitis or tweak their back.
On the same note, if the whole purpose of exercise is to create a stronger and healthier version of you, then getting your body to function correctly will be the easiest and least strenuous progress you will ever make in the gym. So spend some time mobilizing and treat your body kindly, because it’s much easier to work with your body rather than fight it every time you move.
It always benefits you to have a professional instructor guiding you along your path for all the details. Having a professional by your side, who is educated in the matters of fitness, nutrition, and the human body, insures you are getting the most mileage for your efforts. I am an ACE certified personal trainer with a B.S. in Exercise Science and I have a strong passion for coaching others in all matters of fitness. Click HERE to view my profile page. Please contact me with any questions.