Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Physical Therapists spend a lot of time talking to patients about creating more “optimal movement” patterns. But what does that really mean, and does “optimal” even exist??
The answer: sort of.
We do have a general idea of what healthy movement patterns
should look like, but as far as “optimal” goes, it’s a pretty loose term. Everyone is different, so what might work for me is not the same for you. Optimal may be a bit subjective, but we can still work to make sure that our movements patterns are healthy and not going to lead to problems down the line.
Let’s look at the 3 major components of healthy movement:
When these 3 elements are well-balanced, our body is able to move much more efficiently. If we start to develop imbalances between these elements, we begin to compensate and place excessive stress in areas we don’t want it. This is where the risk of pain and injury starts creeping in. Knowing which area your imbalances lie will help ensure you are focusing in on the most ideal types of exercises for your own needs.
Let's take a closer look at each of these things...
Mobility is the ability to move a joint through its entire range of motion unrestricted. Each joint has a normal degree of movement allowed and is dependent on 2 main things:
Muscle length- Sometimes, a muscle is physically too short and it restricts movement at the joint.
Joint mobility- When our joints move, there is a smaller amount of movement that is occurring between the joint surfaces that you cannot see with the naked eye. When those joint surfaces are not gliding enough in the right direction, it affects our overall range of motion. (This one is difficult to judge on your own unless you know what you are looking for, but a PT can help determine if this is what might be effecting your mobility).
Sometimes only one of the above is limited, sometimes it's a combination. Either way, both can result in a loss of mobility. Without adequate mobility around a joint, our muscles have a difficult time activating as efficiently as they should.
Let's use a push up as an example:
In order to perform a push-up correctly, I need to have enough mobility in my shoulder, wrist and elbow joints so I can get into the proper position. If I can’t get there, it doesn’t matter how strong I am. I won’t be able to complete the movement without the mobility OR I will start majorly cheating and getting the movement from the wrong place.
It is essential to healthy movement that we maintain good mobility so that our muscles are able to activate more efficiently and avoid compensations during functional movements.
Once we have achieved adequate mobility, we can start working on building stability. Stability is when the muscles surrounding a joint activate to hold the joint in proper alignment through the entire range of motion so that we have solid foundation for movement. There are a few different structures that provide stability to a joint, including muscles, ligaments and joint capsules. Stability is slightly different than strength in that it entails more low level muscle contractions that are underlying our bigger movement patterns.
Let’s look at our push-up example again:
During a push-up, you need adequate strength in the chest and triceps to be able to perform the movement. However, it is the underlying stabilizers (in this case, the rotator cuff muscles) that are working to keep your shoulder joint in the proper alignment as you move through the motion. This stability component is largely responsible for preventing excessive stress and discomfort in the front of the shoulder during the movement.
People tend to focus a lot on strengthening muscles, but not so much on the stability piece. Going back to basics and mastering these smaller stabilizing movements will ultimately help you better progress your strength with less risk of injury.
Motor control is how a group of muscles are able to coordinate and move in-sync with one another to produce healthy movement that is free of compensations.
For many, this is the most difficult piece achieve because you are basically trying to re-program your brain to tell your muscles what to do and when to do it. We develop our movement patterns over the course of months and years, so trying to change them can take a lot of time and repetition. The good news—once you learn motor control it sticks with you. Take, for instance, riding a bike. We have to crash 50x before we get it right. But once we learn it, we can ride a bike for the rest of our lives. Sure, we may need to brush up on it once and a while, but our brains have engrained that movement pattern and we can re-learn it with minimal practice.
Back to our push-up example:
First, we discussed having enough mobility in the arm to get into position. Then, we made sure there was enough stability to support the movement in good alignment. Now we need that last motor control piece to make sure all the shoulder and trunk muscles kick in when they are supposed to, so that you can actually coordinate the correct movement. This means being able to descend into your push up without shrugging your shoulders, flaring your elbows, or arching your low back.
Building mobility and stability is hugely important, but if you are lacking the muscle coordination and control you’ve got nothing! Taking time away from your lifting to master the correct technique will lead to bigger gains and less injuries. Moral of the story- HOW you lift is more important than how much you lift!
Lastly, we can think about power, speed and endurance.
You have laid the foundation for healthy movement, NOW you can worry about adding in these other elements. Get the basics down first, then amp up your training.
Take home message:
Does optimal movement exist? Sort of, but it looks a little different on everyone. Making sure your movement is pain free and working for YOU is what really matters in the long run. Hit all 3 of these movement components, and you are well on your way to healthier movement. The real take home message is that once you know where your problem lies, you can start to address it. If you don’t really know what the imbalance is, you might up wasting hours on exercises that may not be addressing the right thing just because you saw them on Instagram.
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