Balance is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the performance world. For myself, when I talk about someone being balanced, I'm referring to the body existing in a harmonious flow.
The majority of all injuries occur due to some type of imbalance. When something does not go as planned, the body is a compensating machine. It happens without a thought from our conscious brain. When you're trying to accomplish a task and some sort of imbalance is preventing you from doing it in the most optimal manner, something else will immediately pick up the slack and find a way to get the job done. Over time, these compensations become a big problem. Your musculature and connective tissue becomes overworked and the likelihood of something breaking, tearing or straining goes up.
The most common imbalance in modern humans relates to the ratio of strength and range of motion in our quads vs. in our hamstrings. Because of the lifestyle we live today, we tend to become quad dominant very quickly, meaning the quad muscles are doing a lot of jobs they were never designed to do. Why is this? A big part of it is our modern lifestyle that constantly sees us seated and/or hunched over, but another aspect of the equation is that so few people practice the movement patterns needed for the human body to function at its highest capacity. With quad dominance, the one that most comes to mind is the Hip Hinge.
To use the posterior chain properly, we must learn to bend at the hips, not just at the knees. When all we do is bend at the knee and absorb force at that location over and over, our connective tissue begins to take a beating. When we walk, squat or bend over (hip hinge), our posterior chain needs to be involved.
The posterior chain includes the chain of muscles on the backside of your body. It begins with the traps at the top and works its way down, including the rhomboids, lats, erector spinae, glute max, glute med, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus and the muscles of the feet. All of these muscles work together for specific movements. The majority of the posterior chain muscles are responsible for extension of the body. Most humans exist in a constant state of flexion. Think about it, what do most humans do for the majority of their day? Sit down with their neck and torso craned forward, usually with their hands out in front of them. That's all flexion. That's what you do at a desk when you're working on your computer, it's what you do when you're writing or reading in class, and it's what you do when you're slumped on your couch looking at your phone. I could go on for days with examples of how we spend majority of our time in flexion. This has a domino effect on how our body works.
Our bodies are experts at adapting to imposed demands. When the body is surviving and does not need a specific part to do so, the body will not use precious energy to keep it active. Therefore, the muscles will atrophy. Because of our lifestyles of being in constant flexion, the posterior chain is what suffers the most. This doesn't only impair performance, as many posterior chain muscles (such as the glutes and hamstrings) are designed to power athletic movements, but it often downright hurts.
Take the glenohumeral joint in the shoulder, for example.
The humerus, the bone of the upper arm, sits in the middle of the glenohumeral joint to create the shoulder. Here is where the clavicle (collar bone) and scapula (shoulder blade) meet. There are several muscles that articulate at this position, including the pectoral muscles (chest), the deltoids (shoulder), the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis), and the lat and traps. These muscles are designed to keep the ball of the humerus in the middle of the joint regardless of what chaotic movement occurs. Unfortunately, imbalances can make this job incredibly difficult. When the pec major (chest muscles) are strong and shortened, it pulls forward on the joint. In order for the joint to get back to where it needs to be, all of the posterior muscles of the shoulder need to be just as strong. In fact, they need to be stronger due to the lifestyle that we live as humans in constant flexion. This only comes from training. Completing lots of proper pulling exercises and correcting posture can go a long way. It's why many strength coaches now recommend performing two pulls for every push in the weight rooms. And this is just at the surface of the larger overall issue.
Let's get back to quad dominance.
The hamstrings and quadriceps both play a huge role in knee stability. The knee is comprised of the meeting of the femur (upper leg bone), tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), and the patella (knee cap). To stabilize this joint and create movement, there are ligaments and musculature all around it. Proper function of all of these is essential to optimal and long-term health. The quad is usually the muscle that is the most active, due in large part to the repetitive human movement patterns we've discussed, which can throw things out of balance and is often a cause of knee pain.
Strengthening the other muscles to combat this is the key. Stretching or foam rolling will rarely get to the heart of the issue. And when it comes to training, getting strong through a joint's full range of motion will always promote health best. Getting your hamstrings stronger in relation to your quads will certainly help, but addressing issues and the ankle and hip is also key to conquering knee pain, improving performance and reducing your likelihood of injury.
Learning and training the hip hinge with exercises such as the Deadlift and Kettlebell Swings is a great way to start making progress against quad dominance and to limit the quads' propensity for overcompensating many lower-body movements meant to require significant contributions from the posterior chain. Hip Thrusts and Glute Bridges can be another tool. If you're constantly feeling any lower-body exercise mainly in your quads but not your posterior chain, that's a telltale sign of quad dominance. That's one reason even athletes fall victim to quad dominance. There's no quick fix for quad dominance, but it can be greatly improved with a smart and persistent approach. My advice is to find a certified strength and conditioning or fitness professional who can analyze your movement, design an appropriate program, and progress you accordingly.
Photo Credit: emiliozv/iStock
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