Here is a question to ponder. What does it mean to work with a fully integrated team? Maybe a utopic image of people collaborating and toiling together for a common cause comes to mind. In reality we know teams rarely work this blissfully. Disagreeing factions arise, in-fighting flairs up, and some individuals seem to bare a dis-proportionate share of the load while others seem to be totally checked out. Although I am describing a dysfunctional team here, these same concepts hold true in a dysfunctional body.
When I interview new clients to learn about their exercise programs, I often hear a list of exercises which are designed to isolate and focus on individual parts: biceps curls, leg presses, chest presses, and so on. Usually, these same folks seem to injure (or worse, re-injure) their backs, hips, knees or shoulders, when they play their favorite sports or engage in an serious activities such as heavy yard work.
Why? Because they are training their bodies in pieces, focusing on one part at a time, then asking it to perform as a coordinated team.
If human bodies were made like robots, this approach would work. But human bodies have parts that are very inter-dependent. Most golfers and tennis players recognize that the power behind their effortless swing doesn’t come from the shoulder alone; it starts from the feet pushing against the ground, is super-charged by strong hips and legs, and then transmitted through an athletic twisting core, out their shoulders, down their arms and hands and into their swing. And yet, many continue to train their bodies in pieces. If you focus on strengthening individual pieces of the body separately, and not as coordinated movement chains or systems, you may find that at best, your performance doesn’t improve, or at worst, you injure yourself.
Imagine lifting a 50 lb. bag of mulch from the ground. If you have trained your body in segments, you might walk up to the mulch thinking, “ I have to lift with my legs. Are my arms strong enough? Wait! Don’t forget to engage my core…I think?” You could really hurt your back doing this.
Now imagine you have trained your body to coordinate its movements (or movement patterns) differently. I’ll use a “dead lift” pattern as an example. Done right, the dead lift starts by getting the weight back in the heels as the hips shift backward. The spine remains straight as your hips sink backward and downward, and your straight arms reach for the weight. You take a good breath in, then on a strong exhale, you compress your abdomen, clutch the weight with straight arms, shoulders drawn back, and drive through your heels, bringing the hips under the shoulders to stand. Your strong core assists the shoulder blade and neck muscles to maintain good alignment while the arms hold the load and the hips and legs return you to standing.
Although in this example I mention several individual parts, the body is trained to move a substantial load more effectively by pressing powerfully from the ground through the legs, hips, and core via a strong connection with the shoulders, arms, and hands. In this scenario, all of your parts are seamlessly coordinated. Meaning, all of the muscles and joints have a role, and work in a specific sequence to minimize strain and maximize lifting power. The magic happens once you have truly “trained” a movement pattern– it becomes a habit! Meaning, you don’t have to think about it …you just do it—automatically.
When your body is trained in this manner, you might approach the mulch challenge differently. You think: “Pull the bag close to my body; get a solid grip, take a breath, now exhale and drive through my heels … up we go!” You had to think less and your risk of injury went way down!
A word of caution: if you’re used to more isolated exercises, and I’ve successfully convinced you it’s time for a change, please don’t just ditch those in favor of full-body exercises on You Tube. The first step is to have a professional assess your movement. Part of that assessment will determine if there are areas that lack mobility (are stiff), or if areas lack stability (or control).
Attention to these deficits will help you avoid injury when transitioning to a more integrated exercise program, and inform the professional which movements need to be influenced and trained most. It will also ensure that you move more efficiently, with no parts having to over-work to compensate for weakness or inability in other parts.
An integrated exercise program can be the key to better performance, more efficient movement, and a lower risk of injury from your favorite sports and activities. Although you will likely need to learn some new exercises, these workouts are often fun and rewarding, and many times shorter, since you will need fewer exercises to get the job done.