It's one thing to train hard, but it's another to work on strengthening your weak links. The past 20 years have seen remarkable advances in improving sport performance, rehabilitation, and getting people to move better, feel better, and perform better in general. A large part of this advancement has been the ability to assess and correct one's weak links.
Wondering what I mean by weak links? Don't worry, you are not alone. Coaches and athletes still have more trouble understanding weak links and energy leaks than any other topic in sports and conditioning. You commonly see tests for speed, power, strength and flexibility, but what about testing how you move?
A weak link is essentially any physical limitation. It doesn't just mean muscle weakness. It might be faulty biomechanics or lack of joint mobility or joint stability. To maximize performance, the whole body must function properly. Since the body is a chain of individual elements, a weak link weakens the entire chain.
Ignoring a weak link increases potential for disaster, and strengthening the wrong links does not improve the chain's integrity. Weak links are why some injuries linger and others disappear quickly. They are why some athletes get better sports performance through weight training and skill training, while others don't and may even decline in performance.
Want to run faster? Throw harder? Feel better? Whether you are an elite athlete, a weekend warrior or just a citizen who wants to move better, here are Top 3 reasons to correct your weak links to prevent common sports injuries:
The Mind-Body Connection
We have a weight-training session, a sprint session and a speed session. We get sports massages and think about stretching every now and then. At other times, we work on technique or simulate competitive situations. This confuses the brain. In competition, athletes need to have it all together in the moment. An athlete cannot compartmentalize training and expect his or her brain to put it all together in competition.
Think of this with regard to motor programs. A motor program is a code or structure stored in the central nervous system that provides neural commands to produce a particular sequence of coordinated movement. The brain recognizes movement, not individual muscles. We all have different programs for different movements, such as walking, running or playing the piano. You can think of it much like a computer program.
What happens when your computer has a virus? It may still function but it isn't quite the same. It typically slows down, displays error messages or other malfunctions and eventually crashes. Well, the same thing can happen when you are performing an activity.
Poor form can become part of the information recorded in a motor program. Quickly identifying weak links, such as deficits in mobility and stability, is important for injury prevention and improving performance, because these deficits create altered motor programs throughout the kinetic chain.
Example: When you have a cast on your leg and cannot bend your knee, you are still able to walk up and down stairs, because muscles and joints compensate for the lack of involvement by muscles that cannot function normally due to the cast. The body is amazing at adapting! But the downside is, if you perform thousands of repetitions with a compensatory movement pattern, your body might hardwire that movement pattern.
"With regards to motor learning, the axiom 'practice makes perfect' should be changed to 'practice makes permanent."
Weak Links Affect Biomechanics and Lead to Energy Leaks
Dysfunction in one region may trigger pain, tightness or weakness in another region. This affects how your body moves. Reduced ankle dorsiflexion range of motion, for example, affects a number of dynamic activities, including run biomechanics, landing biomechanics and squat ability. Scapular instability (shoulder girdle), for example, cannot withstand as great a force as a stable shoulder, affecting throwing mechanics.
Poor biomechanics refers to movement mistakes in which the body compensates and uses suboptimal joint alignment, muscle coordination and posture. These little mistakes often cannot be observed by the untrained eye and don't immediately hurt performance. However, as an athlete continues to practice with poor biomechanics, performance gains are limited and occurrences of nagging pains or injuries are increased.
Example: I worked with a baseball pitcher who suffered an elbow injury. His upper-body strength was great, but he lacked hip and core stability. Every time he threw, his upper limbs, especially his shoulder and elbow, compensated to make up for his weak link. When he improved his hip stability, he threw better. He has been injury-free for one year.
"Poor form, even if it leads to some initial success, will eventually rob the athlete and cost far more time and effort than what is required to fix the weak links."
Balanced forces and torques are required in movements. In other words, if your body is out of alignment, you will waste energy to re-align your body segments instead putting that energy toward your lift, throw or block.
Example: When you run and are not strong and stable enough in your lower body, energy leaks out instead of transferring into more power to run faster. Not only does this reduce performance, it also increases risk of injury. Many ACL injuries, for example, are due to gluteus medius weakness. Watch a runner whose knee collapses in, and you know they are in trouble.
Any restriction, imbalance, or misalignment within the body can affect optimal range of motion and, thus, the quality of force production, force application and movement efficiency. For example, a baseball pitcher with limited range of motion in his hips would have difficulty producing the same work and power output as a pitcher with optimal hip range of motion. His weak link not only reduces his performance but puts him at greater risk for injury.
Weak Links Put the Body at Increased Risk of Traumatic Injury
Ignored weaknesses in mobility or stability increase risk for acute injuries as well. Reduced ankle dorsiflexion, for example, increases risk for ankle sprains and knee joint injuries, including ACL sprains. Professional football players and military candidates who exhibit dysfunctional movement patterns as measured by the FMS (Functional Movement Systems) are more likely to suffer an injury during games.
Be open and willing to test objectively and train accordingly, to administer tests and do what those tests say to do. If you want to improve your speed, hip mobility could be your weakest link. You must commit to work on flexibility. This requires discipline. If flexibility is your weakest link, speed training alone could potentially cause injury or biomechanical stress over time. High-level speed training requires max range of motion and flawless body awareness, both of which are significantly compromised when flexibility is limited.
The best way to find your weak links is to have a qualified FMS professional screen you and provide you with corrective exercises based on your weaknesses. Alternatively, you can do a self-assessment with Gray Cook's Athletic Body in Balance and work through the recommended exercises.
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