Underdeveloped Muscles: the Athlete's Achilles Heel
In Greek mythology, Achilles was known as the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. His prowess was largely due to the fact that as a child he became invulnerable when his mother dipped him in the magical river Styx. Unfortunately for Achilles, his mother held him by his heels—thereby leaving his feet unprotected and bestowing the famous Achilles Heel.
Welcome to life. We all have weaknesses.
Maybe you're quick or strong; but to perform at a higher level as an athlete, you must focus not just on enhancing your strengths but also on curing your weaknesses. (See Finding Your Weaknesses.) Any time the human body distorts from normal, altered joint problems and pain may result. There are three major altered movement patterns:
- Pronation Distortion Syndrome (knock-knees)
- Lower Crossed Syndrome (anterior pelvic tilt)
- Upper Crossed Syndrome (rounded shoulders)
Pronation Distortion and Lower Crossed Syndrome are characterized by tight hip flexors, groin and calf muscles. In addition, athletes with Lower Crossed Syndrome suffer from tight middle and lower back muscles. Those with Upper Crossed Syndrome have tight chest and neck muscles. Bottom line: wherever there is a tight muscle, there's a weak muscle on the other side of the joint. This is called Arthrokinetic Dysfunction.
Common weak muscles are the anterior tibialis or front calf muscles, glutes, posterior deltoids and deep spinal stabilizers in the core and neck. The sooner these problems are corrected, the better. We should be able to squat all the way down to the ground, touch our toes and clasp our hands behind our back. These are basic movement patterns. If we cannot perform these basic postural tests, we cannot attain optimal performance. Here is how to fix these problems.
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) or Foam Rolling
Why are people rolling around on those funny looking cylinders? Because they help release trigger points in tight areas of the muscles. (Check out Foam Roll to Improve Lower-Body Mobility.) Typically, people using foam rollers improperly by rolling back and forth as fast as they can. SMR alleviates tightness only if you hold for 20 to 30 seconds in sensitive areas. Think of SMR as flossing for the muscles. You need to do it every day, and if you don't, you'll get a cavity or in this case, tightness.
Arguably just as important as SMR, stretching is imperative. There are two main types, static and dynamic. In static stretching, you hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Static stretching should be performed after workouts, because holding stretches before a workout can hinder performance. In dynamic stretching, you perform sport-specific movements like knee tucks or leg pendulums. Perform dynamic stretches prior to your workout or practice to prepare your body for activity. Aim to stretch five to seven times a week. (See How to Relieve Lower Back Pain By Stretching.)
- Toe Touch
- Groin stretch (abducting outward while knees apply pressure)
- Quad stretch (on the ground to emphasize hip extension)
- Behind the back
- Lat stretch (holding door)
- Chest stretch (across)
Strengthen weak areas
Imbalances are caused by overactivation of certain muscles. The glutes are weak because we constantly engage our hip flexors by sitting all day. Upper Crossed Syndrome is common because guys perform so many exercises to build up their mirror muscles. Why are so many guys walking around with their arms puffed out like they have large back muscles? It's not because they're buff. It's because they have a muscular imbalance. I refer to it as ILS, "Invisible Lat Syndrome." Avoid this by engaging your posterior deltoids and glutes more. For every push exercise, perform a pull exercise. For every Bench Press, do a Bent Over Row.
- Deep squats over leg presses: Athletes should not do leg presses. They are not functional and the glutes are barely engaged.
- Aussie Pull-Ups over Chin-Ups: When we hang under a Smith machine and pull up, we are activating the posterior deltoids rather than the biceps. (See Pull-Up or Chin-Up: Which is Better?)
- Bent Over Row over cable rows: Standing at a 45-degree angle not only engages the core, but shifts the emphasis to the posterior deltoids.
- Glute/Ham Raises over hip abductors: Arguably among the worst pieces of equipment in the gym, the adductor and abductor machines really have no purpose. You could argue the same about the leg press machine. Activate the glutes by pushing through your heels.
- Do core exercises and stop isolating the abdominals: The core consists of three regions: abdominals, obliques and lower back. Why do we only work our abs? I want to see a 1-1-1 ratio. For every Crunch, do a Side Bend and Lower Back Extension. Holding Planks for 10 to 15 seconds while drawing in your belly button is a great way to engage all three. (The Ultimate Core Exercise?)