Is Your Body Ready for Exercise?

January 4th, 2010

Everyone recognizes exercise as a way to improve health and lose weight, but few people realize how important it is to ensure that their bodies are well prepared for it. Failure to do so will allow undetected limitations to cause chronic pain and injury. For this reason, it’s critically important to assess your capacity to exercise safely and address any identified limitations before they lead to significant problems.

Chances are that you have at least one physical limitations that you’re not aware of, and if you choose to exercise without identifying and correcting it, you may very well end up with one of today’s many common complaints and end up worse off physically than if you never exercised at all. Such complaints include pinched nerves or bulging discs in the neck or lower back, tendinitis or bursitis of the knee, hip, shoulder, or elbow, and more generally, an increased risk of chronic pain and acute injury. By making an effort to assess physical characteristics such as your posture, range of motion, and balance of strength, and by including corrective measures in your exercise routine to improve any identified limitations, you’ll greatly increase your resistance to pain and injury and improve your physical function.

The Importance of Good Posture

Every minute of the day, whether you’re aware of it or not, any existing flaws in your posture are being reinforced and are gradually compromising your physical resilience. With good posture, the weight of the body and the associated forces required to remain upright are minimized and evenly distributed through bones, muscles, and tendons. In contrast, the imbalances that are caused by poor posture place excessive and uneven stresses on the body’s supporting structures and greatly increase susceptibility to the many physical complaints described earlier. Exercising with uncorrected posture problems will expose these imbalances to much greater forces, and in turn, will increase the susceptibility to pain and injury even further.

Whether it be for work, athletics, or a hobby, many of us frequently engage in repetitive activities that will eventually alter posture if not accounted for. An athlete or manual laborer who repeats the same motions thousands of times, or an office worker who spends hour after hour sitting, will inevitably develop imbalances in strength and muscle length. Some muscles will adapt to the repetitive motions or positions by shortening while the opposing muscles will elongate. This results in an uneven amount of force being applied to the associated joints which is likely to alter posture, impair mobility, and increase the risk of damage.

Because all of the body’s muscles and joints are connected to each other, a single postural imbalance can lead to another imbalance in a neighboring area and create a domino effect that causes posture to become progressively worse. A common example is the forward head posture which is often characteristic of people who spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer. For every minute of every day that a person with forward head posture is in an upright position, the forward leaning weight of their head, which is approximately 10 pounds, is greatly increasing the amount of strain on the muscles in the neck and upper back. These muscles will eventually elongate while the muscles in the front of the neck shorten. Over time, the shoulders and torso will likely be pulled forward, and as a result of the additional imbalances that this causes, a number of joints throughout the body will be in a compromised and vulnerable position.

The Need for a Full Range of Motion

Even with perfect posture, a joint that has a restricted range of motion will be susceptible to damage whenever it’s required to move beyond its compromised capacity. In addition, neighboring joints will be forced to compensate for the restriction which will increase their susceptibility to damage as well. For example, restricted ankle motion will increase the amount of force applied to the knee and leave both joints vulnerable.

Although it’s possible to meet the basic demands of life with a compromised range of motion, it’s likely to eventually become a problem. When you least expect it, you may need to run full speed, save yourself from falling, or catch a falling object overhead, all of which are likely to push a restricted joint beyond its limited range of motion. Exercising and participating in sports obviously increases this risk as well which is why it’s so important to work on developing a sufficient range of motion prior to doing so.

Most people equate range of motion with flexibility, but it’s really more than that. While muscle length is important, other factors such as joint capsule restriction and the nervous system’s ability to coordinate dynamic movement are important as well. For this reason, mobility exercises that dynamically take a joint through its full range of motion are an important addition to stretching.

The Importance of Basic Strength and Proper Muscle Activation

If a muscle is too weak to perform its basic function, it may encourage poor posture or be unable to stabilize its associated joints or move them through an adequate range of motion. In addition, a muscle may be weak because the nervous system may not be activating it sufficiently enough at the appropriate times. As a result of these factors, neighboring muscles are forced to compensate and are often overworked as a result which can contribute to any of the complaints mentioned at the beginning of the article. For example, if the gluteus medius is weak or is not activated sufficiently, excessive internal rotation of the femur can result and lead to knee problems.

Contrary to what you may think, developing and maintaining a sufficient amount of strength in critical muscle groups doesn’t require heavy weightlifting. In fact, it doesn’t require any weightlifting at all. However, to develop and maintain physical resiliency, you do have to identify weaknesses and use the appropriate corrective exercises to improve the strength and activation of the associated muscles, especially if you plan to subject your body to the demands of exercise or athletics.

Correct the Problem Before it Happens

Problems with posture, range of motion, and muscular weakness are often not addressed until they’ve already caused injury or significant pain. In many cases, such outcomes are never attributed to the physical deficiencies that caused them which leaves a high probability of recurrence. It’s obviously much smarter to identify and address any physical limitations before they have a chance to cause a more serious problem. In contrast to rehabilitation which occurs after an injury, this concept is often referred to as prehabilitation and should be an important part of any exercise routine.

Prehabilitation is especially important if you’re an athlete, if you exercise frequently, or if you engage in a lot of repetitive activity. It’s also important to ensure that your prehabilitation routine is based specifically on improving your individual deficiencies as well as the deficiencies that are commonly associated with your activities.

Assess and Correct

Under normal circumstances, assessing and correcting deficiencies in your posture, range of motion, and muscular strength is typically difficult without the help of a physical therapist or an extremely well qualified fitness professional. This is because it requires quite a bit of knowledge to understand how to identify and correct each of these deficiencies. Fortunately, Eric Cressey, Bill Hartman, and Mike Robertson, all experts in sports performance, have created a great resource that enables the average person to do this for themselves. This resource is called Assess and Correct and provides two DVDs and four manuals demonstrating a number of assessments to evaluate posture, range of motion, and basic strength as well as the corrective exercises used to address any identified issues. One of the manuals even includes specific prehabilitation warm up routines for a number of different sports and activities.

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