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Why You Cannot Blame A Single Muscle For A Movement Problem

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 08 April 2019
Hits: 7743

One of the biggest changes I ever made in my training career was understanding that it is impossible to blame, or credit, a single muscle for movement function. We hear this all the time, "you need to fire your glutes", "your hamstrings are tight", "you have a weak VMO" or,  "you have a weak core", the list of muscle blaming is endless where we one single muscle is made totally responsible for an injury or poor movement function. The problem with this assumption is that muscles perform multiple roles all within a split second to create movements like walking, running or even standing up out of a chair. Some muscles are more concerned with stability and deceleration, while others are focused on locomotion and acceleration and all of this happens in a blink of an eye. While it may appear for a certain muscle to be weak or tight, addressing it individually ignores how this muscle is truly used and the interaction it has with its synergistic partners. It also ignores the reason of WHY it is weak or tight in the first place! The reason I changed my thinking with exercise many years ago was my method of looking at individual muscles did not work! I helped some people but there were many that did not improve or became worse from this approach. This article I am going to explain what led me to find a better way to train and where we are now able to help many people with complex injuries and problems that previously we could not. And to help enhance your knowledge I have included a series of quotes from leading experts.

Why Do We Blame Single Muscles?

 

There is several reasons for our thinking to jump to conclusions of blaming a single muscle. When in pain we seek out advice and treatment from an expert and describe the area in pain. Our minds think of the body similar to that of a mechanical problem in a car and if a part is broken it just needs to be replaced or fixed for the car to run again. Unfortunately the human body is much more complex than a car, and just replacing a "part" very rarely works if you have not addressed the reason the joint or muscle was injured in the first place.

The second problem is to do with the modern thinking from the experts people seek out.

One of the first things taught to anyone working with people to improve movement whether you are a health practitioner, personal trainer, or strength coach is the human anatomy based upon the muscle's origin and insertion model. This is essential to understand on a basic level where muscles are and what their simple function is. This places our attention on the function of muscles as pulling of the insertion to the origin and is very easy to comprehend and apply exercise strategies to improve this.

What is more difficult to understand is the role of several other muscles working further from the moving limb/s and how opposing muscles can work in contraction at the same time. This is where the understanding of the slings and fascia combining multiple joints and muscles together is not taught as often and as a result not common knowledge. A great book to read on this is by Thomas Meyers called "Anatomy Trains".

For example the muscle interaction during the act of walking every muscle from the trunk down has one function the minute your foot hits the ground. All the muscles of the lower limb (glutes, quads, hamstrings etc) act together to stop the ankle, knee, and hip from bending to prevent you falling to the ground. All the muscles have the same function which is to apply the brakes and slow you down - (reference Movement by Gray Cook).

This goes right against the concept of the origin and insertion understanding of movement. But when you really think about it you will see it will make perfect sense. During the landing phase of running the quads are contracting eccentrically to prevent the knee from flexing while the hamstrings are contracting to prevent both the knee and the hip from flexing. We have not even spoken about the role of the muscles in the foot and ankle as they are also contracting at various stages to decelerate, lock, and unlock the multiple joints in the foot to provide motion. I get so many emails every week with questions about what are the best exercises to strengthen your VMO for a knee injury? Not only is this a waste of time, it completely ignores the reason the VMO became weak in the first place. Watch the video below for a detailed explanation of this.

I also suggest to read our article Why The Big Toe Is Critical For Stability to see exactly how important the interaction of muscles and joints in walking and running really are.

As this seems so complex it makes sense for us as humans to try break down a complex puzzle into small manageable pieces. When we do this it is easy to end up in the "cause and effect" ways of thinking and looking for absolute answers to problems that can only ever provide "grey" solutions.

Gray Cook refers to this as "reductionism" and he makes a great observation. "Breaking down movement into isolated segments has not reduced our musculoskeletal injuries or made us fitter or leaner."

Scientific research is another example of applying an isolated method of thinking and ignoring the fact we are all so uniquely different with many variables that can influence the findings and conclusions. Pick up any magazine about health and fitness and you will find almost half the magazine filled with statistics from researchers claiming results from applying an isolated approach. Nutrition is another perfect example of this in action and a reason why there are so many different diets that all claim to be the best.

We must move beyond thinking in isolation and look at the body as a whole. It is only through looking at the body as a system of many systems all dependent on each other can we effectively improve our health and fitness.

Functional Versus Isolated

Whenever we perform an isolated exercise we are employing a muscle action that is against the function of the nervous system and a pattern that we would never use. This does not necessarily mean it is "bad", for there may be a specific purpose for doing this, it just means it is against how our brain coordinates movement using what is known as motor programs. It is also unlikely to change the movement causing pain if the fault within the movement is not addressed.

"Patterns are groups of singular movements linked in the brain like a single chunk of information. This chunk essentially resembles a mental motor program, the software that controls movement patterns. A pattern represents multiple single movements used together for a specific function. Storage of a pattern creates efficiency and reduces processing time in the brain, much as a computer stores multiple documents of related content in one file to better organize and manage information." - Gray Cook.

Functional can really be simplified into observing how we move in a standing position where all joints and muscles are involved in either a role of stabilizing or moving.

When you begin to look more at the way a movement is coordinated and spend your time trying to enhance the efficiency of this movement you will see greater results with your training. You will no longer get hung up on what appears to be a weak or a tight muscle for you know it could be so many different things.

You will find a ton of information about Functional Training in the Free Report below.

Let's use an example to further explain why it is impossible to blame a single muscle for a movement problem. Below is a picture of where there is an obvious problem with a squat and we can discuss the multiple things that could be the reason behind this.

What We Assume Is A Weakness Could Really Be Muscle Inhibition

When you observe someone who cannot perform a squat and their knees fall into the middle "knock knees" the very first thing that pops into our head is.

They have weak glutes!

But what if during an isolated strength test such as the clam or hip extension they show great strength? Can you still conclude it is solely a lack of gluteal strength?

Something you must consider is the impact of what is known as muscle inhibition for muscles are not designed the same way.

In Vladimir Janda’s book “Assessment & Treatment of Muscle Imbalance” he explains great detail muscle inhibition and the difference between tonic and phasic muscles.

  • In simple terms tonic system muscles are prone to tightness or shortness and are more concerned with stability, posture, and working for long periods. They are made up mostly of slow twitch fibres and are easily facilitated with constant repetitive movements.
  • On the other side is the phasic system muscles who are prone to weakness or inhibition and more concerned with fast and powerful movements. They are predominately fast twitch muscle fibres and require specific movement to keep them functional.

The tonic muscles by way of their design begin to develop a method of overworking and dominating all movements and in essence “shut down” or "steal" the phasic muscles workload completely. This creates an imbalance within the body as muscles not capable to perform various movements continue to work developing trigger points and tightness, while at the same time other muscles are becoming weaker due to lack of work. The longer this stays this way the further the imbalance becomes and reaches a point of chronic pain. Which is why we MUST approach a muscular imbalance by identifying these tight muscles with tests and putting a plan in place to weaken their overworking nature. To strengthen the weak muscles first without weakening the tonic muscles is a waste of time, as the tonic muscles will continue to “steal” the workload within the movement pattern and exacerbate the problem.

In the example of our guy in the squat above he could be squatting like this due to overworking hips and adductors caused from sitting for long periods over riding his ability to contract his glutes. You could try mobilizing his hips and adductors prior to the squat and see if his squat improves. If it does you may be on the right track. See article - Are Your Tight Hips The Cause Of Your Back Pain Or Knee Pain?

Watch the videos below of an example of this with knee pain.

However we cannot be certain this is all it is, for we need to look at how he coordinates stability which brings us to the next point.

Weakness In A Large Muscle Could Be The Result Of Poor Stability

One reason beginners to exercise are so weak is nothing to do with their muscles but how their brain coordinates movements. As they are not sure of how to execute perfect form and their brain just does not understand how to coordinate movement it slows everything down so it can understand and make sense of what is going on, but when this happens the timing is disrupted. What you must understand is TIMING is everything.

Another great quote by Gray Cook relevant to this example is - "Are dysfunctions anatomically specific or movement specific?  The gluteus medius may appear to do what it needs to do in a bilateral stance (IE squatting), but as soon as we get to a single leg stance or split stance, the person’s movement may deteriorate.  Is the problem really the gluteus medius?  Or is the problem the fact that they don’t move well in that pattern?"

True stability is all about TIMING! Being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement. And it not just limited to the legs or the trunk. All joints require stability! When your body slows movements down to make sense of what is going on you activate muscles in a way they are not designed for and in some cases even activate muscles that are not even required to complete the movement. This is where stiffness and overload of smaller muscles begins and we see what appears to be weakness, when really the person was not using the right timing and making the movement harder than it needed to be.

Lack of timing is not limited to beginners and also exists for many experienced gym enthusiasts when they perform a new exercise for the first time. They may have great strength in similar movements but that does not translate to the movement skill they need now. Before they can develop strength they need the skill, they need the timing, they need the stability and mobility in order to perform it correctly.

Common strengthening programs applied to muscles with stabilization as the focus will likely increase concentric strength but have little effect on timing which as we discussed is the essence of stabilization. This is where many core programs are providing little help to people for they are not teaching the brain the most efficient way to create stability. The belief here is that if you train your core like you would with a bicep curl to make a bicep stronger, you can improve your stability and move better. Unfortunately it does not work this way at all as the stabilizers do not function in this way. This is another example of where the origin and insertion method of thinking blinds people into making poor exercise choices.

See article - Are Core Workouts Overrated?

Another thing to consider with a guy in the squat is his lack of foot stability!

Our ability to walk, run and jump is all initiated by our feet. But it is not just walking or running, it is for any movement you do standing up, neural signaling begins at the feet as they are the first part of the body to feel the ground and tell the system what to do. The feet are loaded with thousands of nerve receptors that are very sensitive and designed to help us move. They tell the brain where you are, if you are balanced enough to move yet, and basically instigate movement before it even begins. The better the feet are functioning, the better the signal all they way up the kinetic chain, and the more efficiently we can move. Unfortunately due to many factors ranging from poor footwear, lack of exercise, poor exercise choice etc, our feet become lazy and weak, and so begins the catastrophic destruction of our movements and joints.

If he has poor foot stability there is no way he will be able to derive the correct timing and movement at other joints to their full potential. See article - Exercise Solutions For Weak Feet

We have made progress but we are still not yet done. The dysfunction could be a protective mechanism.

Stiffness And Tight Muscles Could Be A Protective Mechanism

The body is very smart and can anticipate pain before you even move. It can instantly rearrange and change motor programs and movements to protect itself from harm and is another factor to consider when observing what appears to be a tight muscle or a weak muscle. Using a thorough assessment process is essential to ensure you do not miss the protective mechanism at work in a movement. It can be difficult to spot the real problem as you will see many other things happening that are a compensation to protect the real underlying problem.

Take the example of our guy doing the squat again and lets say we have found on our mobility assessment that he is hypermobile! We could not find any stiffness in his hips, knees, ankles or thoracic region and he demonstrated full mobility. In theory he should be able to squat "ass to grass" yet we know that he cannot and shows tremendous stiffness instead.

This is something I see quite a lot with people who have incredible ankle, hip, quad, and hamstring flexibility with our lying on the floor stretches, but when I ask them to squat they can barely reach 90 degrees of hip flexion! They are so flexible on the floor but extremely tight when they try to squat! Why?

What is happening is that they lack stability and strength to move into these extreme positions safely. The body anticipates the potential danger of the muscles being unable to protect the joint from damage it creates it's own version of stability, otherwise known as STIFFNESS! No amount of stretching or mobility work will make any changes to the squat, if anything it will make it worse. The only way to get rid of the stiffness is to learn how to create stability within the movement pattern of the squat. Creative techniques and clever coaching will make a huge difference here and the progress can be very quick if done well.

See the video below for more detail.

On the flip side of this is where someone lacks mobility and neglects the importance of stretching or mobility work and constantly searching for new exercises and ways to increase strength. Once again the body will limit the range of motion and as a consequence effect the timing and strengthening of the fast twitch phasic muscles. As long as mobility is compromised the stiffness is acting as the body's new method for stabilizing. With enough repetition it becomes great at moving in this manner and will rearrange all similar motor programs to use this same method.

If mobility is improved and the person is instantly shown a better strategy for movement the body will begin to see that stiffness is not the most efficient option. Care must be taken as to how much exercise is applied for if too much is applied too soon the brain will resort back to its original plan as the stress is too great. If there is not enough challenge the brain will still not see any need to integrate this new information into the motor program.

Quality is everything and why you should only work with good form if learning a new exercise or you are coming back from injury.

You can read more about mobility in the article - Mobility or Flexibility?

Below is a video demonstrating an example of a protective mechanism at work.

Summary

I hope you have found this article helpful and it has not confused you. It sounds very complicated at first but really it is very simple. Everything comes back to HOW WELL YOU MOVE. The minute we started to train muscles and body parts individually instead of full body integration we ruined our highly efficient motor programs that our brain and nervous system had in place. You only have to observe toddlers and how well they move without needing isolated exercises to create stability or stretching to improve mobility. (see infant development exercises for more on this.)

Instead of blaming a single muscle for pain, dysfunctional movement, or poor athletic performance take a look at the various factors discussed in this article and you will find a much better solution.

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