Phil Learney is a performance coach specialising in strength, conditioning and nutrition. He is based in London.
Have you ever seen a toddler pick a toy up from the floor? They squat down with flawless form. They move like we are supposed to move. It’s biomechanically perfect.
But modern life eventually takes its toll and makes adults move in the laziest way possible. Most people spend too much time sitting down, have terrible slumped posture, and when they do have to pick something off the ground it’s all bent back and rounded shoulders.
As no stranger to the gym, you’re unlikely to suffer the same biomechanical movement issues as more sedentary types, but if you’re over 25 and started training back in the day when good gym-floor coaching was practically non-existent, then it’s likely you’ve picked up some poor movement habits over the years.
As humans we tend to focus on and resonate towards what we’re good at, but when it comes to how well you move you really need to work on those movement patterns you’re worst at. If not, the result is almost always pain and injury.
Believe me when I say that training a total beginner to the gym who has good motor ability and proprioception is far easier that someone who has been training for a long time but with poor mechanics. Those with ingrained bad movement patterns are much harder to correct than to teach someone new how to move properly. That doesn’t mean that it’s too late for you, as a likely experienced lifter, to correct any biomechanical problems you might have.
And the chances are you do have movement issues. A lot of us develop them from trying to lift weights we can’t actually structurally handle. We therefore disregard the correct movement patterns and instead rely on simply moving the weight from point A to point B. Generally using compensatory mechanics that over time become the norm. As an IronLife website subscriber I imagine you are used to training a little smarter than the average gym junkie, but I’ve seen many common biomechanical problems over the past 20 years, and all of them can be avoided or corrected.
If you have movement pattern problems the chances are you’ll know it because it often manifests as joint or muscle pain or injuries. However, the site of any pain is not, as many think, the weak point and cause of the injury. In most instances it is the victim of weakness further up or down the biomechanical chain, often in the key supporting and stabilising areas.
Two of the most common examples are the knees and the lower back. People injure these areas and often resort to excessive numbers of focused exercises on those specific areas seemingly to rectify this apparent ‘weakness’. But the problem nearly always lies with the stabilising muscles being weak or inhibited and the site of the issue being the dominant part. The injury site is therefore conversely overworked and overactive in most functional movements.
Joints are often one of the key problem areas with many modern postural and structural issues. The two areas of most concern are the hip joints and the glenohumeral (shoulder) joints. Many of the problems we encounter at the hips are related to modern lifestyles. Spending hours sitting alters hip-joint kinematics, and therefore when we do stand up we make adjustments to compensate for this. Over time this results in poor posture, mechanical issues, pain and injury.
Sitting down for extended periods shortens and creates tightness in the psoas major, psoas minor, illiacus, rectus femoris, sartorius, tensor fasciae latae (TFL), pectineus, and to some extent also affects the adductor longus, adductor brevis and gracilis. All of these muscles are in some way involved in hip flexion. If they spend an extended period being shortened then they become dominant over surrounding tissue.
An inability to perform hip flexion correctly when squatting results in a posterior tilt, or where your butt quite often tucks under (this can also be a non-corrective skeletal issue). This creates inhibition in the glutes – so they don’t fire – overcompensation by the erector spinae, and even in some cases knee pain.
This creates a vicious cycle because all of these areas will then become tight and/or overactive. Movements that involve extension of the hips will now load the erectors (back extension) and the hamstrings provide little, if any, support and stabilisation eccentrically for the knee joint. You can see this happening during back squats when someone moves into the bottom position and the adductor magnus steps in to do the job of the hamstrings. This alongside the imbalance between the hips/glutes, tight ankles, impaired quad function and inhibited hamstring function causes the knees to cave inwards.
Additionally, having tight hips and dysfunctional glutes can cause anterior rotation of the pelvis when standing, which results in tuberosity of the ischium and pulls the hamstrings into a pre-stretch position.
Therefore, tilting of the pelvis will cause hamstring problems and/or injury, and while many people interpret as a hamstring tightness issue, it’s actually because the origins, at the pelvis, of the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus and the long head of the biceps femoris have moved.
Countering these biomechanical flaws requires inhibiting and lengthening the overactive tissue. Myofascial work on the illipsoas and rectus femoris would be a good starting point, then lengthening both through static stretching to make them less active. (This is what static stretching does, which is why it is useless when done with athletic performance in mind: it should only be used to inhibit overactive tissue.)
If there is tight and overactive tissue moving to the opposing side of the joint almost guarantees that the antagonist is inactive or has reduced activation.
In the case of a tight or overactive iliopsoas the glutes will be inhibited and inactive. By understanding the fundamental roles of the glutes we can incorporate a series of activation movements to fire them to develop a functional movement pattern.
This type of muscular issue is known as reciprocal inhibition. Here’s what you need to do:
• Inhibit the tight and overactive area
• Lengthen and stretch the overactive area
• Activate the antagonist
• Cue and remember to use within the movement pattern
The shoulder joint
The glenohumeral or shoulder joint is slightly more complex as there are two different muscle groups that can be responsible for almost identical actions: the anterior head of the deltoids, and the pectorals.
More often than not, down to several underlying factors, posture being a major one, many movements targeting the pectorals are dominated by the anterior head of the shoulders, therefore inhibiting the pecs and over-developing the anterior delts.
Lifestyle – desk-sitting, all-day computer use – has resulted in us spending excess time at a point of forward flexion and anterior (front body) dominance, leading to the shoulders becoming internally rotated.
As we are strong in this internally-rotated position we favour movements that maintain it, such as pull-downs, bent-over rows, pull-ups, barbell deadlifts, barbell pressing, which all internally rotate the hands and therefore pull the shoulder joint forward.
Dominant front delts
From a dominance perspective this brings the upper back into a pre-stretch, leading the upper back muscles to either fire before the shoulder moves into a stable position or the limbs of the upper body simply flex without the back retracting. The posterior delt takes very little load and the anterior portion of the shoulder consequently becomes over-worked and over-developed.
Over time the pecs shorten and become inhibited, which results in both a lack of development aesthetically and mechanical function. The anterior head of the delts continues to get stronger and over-developed until the joint kinematics of the glenohumeral joint are compromised to the point of injury, typically posteriorly, or through subluxation (incomplete or partial dislocation) of the shoulder joint.
A simple way to think about this is from the perspective of the thoracic spine and scapulae. The spine is classically forwardly-flexed in a compensatory pattern, so to adjust, pick up the length through the abdominals and extend the thoracic spine.
At the same time lightly – but don’t fully – retract and depress the scapulae. This will soften the shoulders.
Now, when lifting and utilising the using the upper body, try to maintain this position as a start and end point. Additionally, try not to tense through the neck by holding your breath or gritting your teeth when lifting. This will shorten the neck flexors, and make the extensors and upper portion of the traps work harder. You’ll end up with traps like a coat hanger but a poor ‘rounded’ posture and barely any shoulder width.
Remember that pressing movements proportionately hit the anterior head significantly more than the medial and posterior parts. Also be aware that without establishing a good start position to the scapulae, thoracic and glenohumeral joint, your deadlifts and squat will also inherently suffer. Here’s what to do:
• Fascial roll the upper back and through the posterior portion of back, but not the posterior delt.
• Focus on some trigger work into the pec insertion at the front of the shoulder, this may also extend into the biceps which is also commonly shortened due to the internal shoulder rotation. This increased range will allow you to set the shoulder in a better initial position.
• Throw in some static stretching for the pecs and mid and upper segments of the back and you’ll have a glenohumeral joint that functions as it’s supposed to and result in better and more proportionate development.
• Establish a good start position through soft retraction and depression of the shoulders. This, under load, will make you feel a stretch across the posterior portion of the shoulder.