By Tommy Staup, MS, USAPL, USAW
Skyscrapers are quite an architectural feat and can take just over a year to construct - depending on size of course. While we may not fully understand who may be operating inside those doors or what their purpose might be, we have a general understanding that the purpose of the structure itself is to physically support any business, organization, etc. that chooses to operate inside. If any one piece of that building is missing or lacks integrity, it may not last long or need repairs more often - it essentially is not a safely functioning building.
Similarly, the human body and its many systems rely on each other to function properly without faltering. At the deepest, most basic part of the body are the bones - the building blocks from which the body is built. Louis Sullivan, an American architect, coined the term “Form follows function,” which essentially means that the appearance of an object, or building, should allow the observer to determine its function. For example, we know just by looking at a chair, that it’s meant for a person to sit in. Our bones, which structure our joints and set the precedence for all human movement, are no different (Levangie & Norkin, 2005).
The design of a joint and its location determines the function of what that joint will be required to do. Joints, with their respective tissues such as ligaments, tendons, and muscles, can be influenced by change and adapt based on the stresses under which they are placed. (Levangie & Norkin, 2005) Whether those adaptations are positive is based on how we move through space and whether we are using our joints the way they are supposed to be used.
Mike Boyle (2010) discusses the joint by joint approach of the body. The body, as previously mentioned, is made of bones which form our joints. These joints form a stacked series which creates the human structure - our skeleton. Each joint is just as important as the next, but also has specific abilities and responsibilities for human movement. The joint by joint approach identifies the purpose of each joint as it applies to movement - one responsibility being stability and the other being mobility. Joint stability is the ability to maintain or control the position of a joint through a specific movement, while joint mobility is the degree to which a joint can move before being restricted. Joints are either stable or mobile, typically not both, and will alternate every other joint. Beginning at the ankle (things really start at the big toe, but more on this later), we are starting with a structure of mobility, while the knee is focused on stability, and so on. Figure 1 below shows the joints of the body and which structures are responsible for what.
At this point, assuming I have not lost you by now, you may be asking why all of this matters to you. Can you guess? Quality of movement provides a basic foundation for your quality of life. Let me repeat...QUALITY OF MOVEMENT PROVIDES A BASIC FOUNDATION FOR YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE. This is true not just in the sense of moving weight, but for your overall health and general fitness. How you move determines how much you’ll be able to enjoy life in the most general sense - maybe not in this exact moment, but certainly as you age. The assumption that older adults have accidents or falls because of age is simply a misunderstanding. While age is a factor, the reality has to do with movement quality - a more accurate measurement of how we age. Poor movement quality means poor movement mechanics. Compounding these issues over time will eventually lead to injury or accident, and poor quality of life. How many older adults (defined as ages 55+) do you see in wheelchairs or walkers “living it up” in life? My guess is not very many. What does this have to do with lifting? I am glad you asked.
Building strength on top of a poor movement or a dysfunctional movement is a recipe for disaster. Maybe not now and, honestly maybe not ever if you are lucky, but at some point you will most likely be faced with injury or pain caused by your dysfunction (Boyle, 2010). Focusing on movement quality allows us to build a proper foundation, which can then be followed by everything else - strength, power, hypertrophy, you name it. Remember the building we talked about at the beginning? Can you imagine if the Empire State Building was carelessly constructed in the foundation because the architect only cared about the aesthetics of the building rather than the integrity of the structure? I promise you, though I am not an architect, it would no longer be standing today if that was the case. This is how many approach their body when it comes to movement - lifting or otherwise.
The concept of tensegrity on a structure is a combination of both tension and integrity - this concept can and should be applied to all structures, including the body. We need both tension (as provided by tissues like ligaments, tendons, and muscle) and integrity (provided by bones and joints) to create the stable, weight-bearing structure that is the human body. If one piece of the structure is breaking or broken, the entire structure will respond. When applied to the body, the symptom of an issue or dysfunction may show up in one place, but is typically caused in another.
The structure in Figure 2 is exactly that type of structure, it depends on each piece to come together as a whole in order to function properly and not collapse. The human body is no different than this structure. Each joint in the stack relies on the next piece to move properly and carry out its own responsibility so no issues occur. What happens when one of the joints is not taken care of properly and movement quality is not the focus across the body as a whole? Welcome to the crossroads known as dysfunction and imbalance - this will lead to injury, as mentioned before. Symptoms will be presented, but the cause of the problem will typically be hidden within the structure somewhere. If one lacks ankle mobility, knee or hip pain will tend to exist. If low back pain is present, there is a good chance that the problem lies within the hips - I should know as I have had both caused by sports and previous work environments.
Now imagine having these pains and discomforts, only to take some medication or see a rehab specialist that only focuses on the site of pain and then go lift heavy on top of that. Better yet, imagine yourself training, right now. You are on the road to a heavy, heavy PR - a weight you had not even considered until now. Who cares about the knee, hip, or low back pain, right? You make that attempt at the weight and BOOM, major pain in one of these areas named above. Guess what? That slight discomfort or lesser pain you have been ignoring just hit you like a ton of bricks. Or maybe you hit the lift and got that new PR, but what’s next? Poor movement quality over time will continue to eat away at the efficiency of your lift. I am all for “pushing through” the pain and “being tough” when the time calls for it. After a while, with enough force, the structure will begin to break down. It will not be a pretty sight, and it is going to take longer to repair than it would have been had you decided to take care of it in the moment of slight discomfort.
Figure 3. Baby Squatting (thePTDC.com)
From birth, we are created to move through space in very specific ways. It is not until school, work, athletics, that we start to alter our movement patterns - for better or for worse - and cause issues within our own structure. Most of my graduate work was done on the hips and low back - chronic low back pain tends to be a cause of sitting for long periods of time without moving (Bontrup et al., 2019). If you watch a child squat, they almost always have perfect form. What changes as we age? Life happens. As athletes and avid lifters, it is our job to take our recovery and movement quality seriously. Life, lifting included, has a tendency to alter movement patterns in specific ways. This is called adaptation. Everyone goes through this process depending on the stimulus applied to the body. It is not a bad thing, it just needs to be done in a strategic and planned approach. Not taking the time to understand human movement can be detrimental to your future, both as a lifter and human being. Take the time to understand, or find someone who does, and ask for the help you need in your approach to lifting. I guarantee you will be better off.
Bontrup, C., Taylor, W. R., Fliesser, M., Visscher, R., Green, T., Wippert, P. M., & Zemp, R. (2019). Low back pain and its relationship with sitting behaviour among sedentary office workers. Applied Ergonomics. DOI: 10.1016/j.apergo.2019.102894.
Boyle, M. (2010). Advances in functional training: Training techniques for coaches, personal trainers, and athletes. On Target Publications: Aptos, CA
Levangie, P. K., & Norkin, C. C., (2005). Joint structure & function: A comprehensive analysis (4th Ed.). FA Davis: Philadelphia, PA.