Okay, by show of hands, how many people reading this have had one or more of the following:
Neck pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, wrist pain, upper back pain, lower back pain, hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain.
All right, you can put your hand down now EVERYONE.
We know that pain as it relates to exercise is sent to our brain by nerves from our muscles. I am going to establish a scientific FACT here so that people are not confused: YOUR JOINTS DO NOT HAVE NERVES IN THEM. (articular cartilage – the surfaces in joints that slide on each other to allow joints to move smoothly has no ability to send signals to your brain.) SO STOP BLAMING YOUR PAIN ON YOUR JOINTS!
The pain you feel in your joints is not due to the joint itself or the health of the joint. It is due to the tissues that support, or are supposed to be supporting the joint. When we move, we put force into these supporting tissues. What they are able to do with the incoming force dictates whether we can move freely, or whether we are restricted in our movement and we feel pain. Think of muscles as your body’s shock absorbers. If your shock absorbers on your car are not working appropriately, you are going to have a bumpy ride.
Ok, so what can I do to give these tissues a jumpstart on doing their jobs and absorbing force correctly? Glad you asked:
Posture is a dirty word that makes people think of rules and etiquette and WORK! Let’s use a neighbor word for posture that might not evoke so many groans: POSITION.
Position basically means in what angles we are moving or holding our limbs. Simple concept: Human beings all have the same basic design in our bones and muscles. There is not an individual anatomy or physiology book for each human. This means that when I put my limb at a different angle than you do, I am going to use muscles differently than you will, even though we have the same bones and the same muscles. However, the musculoskeletal system is designed to work most efficiently in one position for absorbing or creating force in any movement. This carries over from person to person because of our common design. This is precisely why your coach emphasizes lifting with consistent and proper form. Form should look the same every time, and should be based on an understanding of how the body is designed (biomechanics).
The problem with position does not start in the gym. It starts at your desk at work, in the driver’s seat of your car, and lounging on your couch at home. It is found mostly in the 23 hours per day you are NOT at the gym. Our brains are constantly learning from the information being sent from our muscles. They are learning what length and tension muscles should be held at to support us and allow us to do what we need to do, and also learning where it should deposit scar tissue as a protective means, keeping force away from tissues and neurologically blocking communication with areas of muscle.
So, if I sit at my computer all day and roll my shoulders forward and hunch, the balance between the length of the upper back and the length of the chest and shoulder muscles are thrown off, not to mention our BREATHING. (lots of articles and videos exist on this subject). That means when I get to the gym to do my overhead squat, handstand pushup, pullup, pushup, press, or any upper body exercise, the foundation my body is working from with my upper body position is the one I provided it from my crumpled up cubicle-dweller or Neanderthal posture all day! My brain believes that shoulders rolled forward, neck forward, chest shortened and upper back over-stretched is the normal position it should maintain, so our misinformed muscles (which were not designed to work out of ideal biomechanical position for extended periods of time) become overly fatigued in areas or simply cannot keep up with the demands of our workout. The result: PAIN and RESTRICTED MOVEMENT.
The same fatigue scenario plays out in the lower body, pelvis, and lower back, creating patterns of muscles functioning outside of their ideal roles, because we have taught them to do so by our position throughout the day (as well as in the gym). I have Anterior Pelvic tilt highlighted, because for those of us who lift weights, this is a very common problem!
So what can I focus on to help myself?
The field of study we are touching on is again called Biomechanics. As a general rule, the more right angles and straight lines we can keep when standing/sitting/moving/lifting, the closer we will be to functioning how our muscles and skeleton work together best. To get a little more specific, these two tips will likely provide the best effort to result ratio.
- Neutral Pelvis Position
- Elevated Sternum Position
(I will be writing a future article discussing the pelvis, low back, and a troublemaker muscle called the iliopsoas, so stay tuned for that!)
KEYS TO KEEPING A NEUTRAL PELVIS:
- Stand with your feet hip width apart, feet parallel with each other and equal pressure between balls of feet and heels as well as between insides and outsides of feet.
- Keep a very slight bend in your knees.
- Use your hamstrings to tilt your pelvis so that your pubic bone is in line vertically with your sternum. (note, this should not involve much forward or backward motion of the hips, mostly tilting.)
- This should make you feel as if you are standing very tall and upright.
- The same concepts can be kept when sitting or lying down.
KEYS TO KEEPING AN ELEVATED STERNUM:
- Engage your lats (latissimus dorsi) to lengthen your pecs (pectoralis major) and your traps (trapezius).
- This muscular action should not move the spine, it should move the scapula.
- An elevated sternum position does NOT involve arching the back.
- If you stand with your back against a wall, pulling your shoulder blades back and down to flatten them to the wall will accomplish elevating the sternum.