In Part 1: Fit, Fast but Are You Functional (I highly advise you to head there before continuing with Part 2), I delved into what is the unifying feature that makes all great athletes, dancers, masters of a craft make the difficult seem easy; they look fluid, efficient and at ease while performing vastly complex movements, sometimes under pressure and with great agility and speed. They are all functional, masters of their bodies to a very high degree. The many sports and activities are feasible as a direct result of the amazing movement possibilities of the human body. That functionality is a direct result of two paradigms – structure (muscles, joints, ligaments) and motor pattern. Unfortunately with that great freedom, comes the possibilities to perform motions incorrectly. Functional stability and as a consequence neutral spine and good posture are the pillars behind functional movement, though what is it that causes functional stability – that is the focus of Part 2 of the the Functional Series – or more precisely Functional Anatomy
Part 2: Functional Anatomy for Endurance Sports
It starts with an apple and a grapefruit
What do an apple and a grapefruit have to do with functional anatomy you say?
Newton and the apple that fell on his head is what made him put a definition behind gravity. Newtonian physics as we know it describe the universe, though those explanation are incomplete and we know that now we through Einstein and Quantum mechanics.
Even at the time of this post, the human body is predominantly viewed in isolation – as a combination of parts, rather than a whole. The biceps moves the arm towards you and the triceps extends it. Both muscles attach to the bones through tendons and ligaments and that is how you get motion. (I am getting to the grapefruit, shortly=) ). Though such an isolated view is quite limited and certainly not functional. An example I already mentioned that knee pain, unless direct damage has happened, is usually as a result of hip instability/weakness and/or loss of range of motion at the ankle – the compensatory movement pattern to go around that weakness/dysfunction is what has caused the problem. Knee surgery will temporarily fix the issue (if at all) unless the causes are addressed. The point I am trying to show is that classical anatomy just like Newtonian physics is a limited view of how the human body produces motion. Everything within the body is connected and usually the site of pain is the weakest link failing in an already dysfunctional movement kinetic chain.
This is how we come to the grapefruit. If you slice a grapefruit in half you see the little cells if you can call them that filled with juice. Gently compressing it from one side will affect the structures to move on the opposite end (you can try it at home). If you are to remove ONLY the water you will be left with something that you would still be able to recognize as the fruit before you removed all the fluid.
We are also 60+% water and yet we have not leaked in a puddle on the floor. If we are to use the grapefruit analogy, it is what is known as fascia that organizes itself into systems, organs, membranes, cells. Fascia is that soft tissue webwork of the body and it goes everywhere – bones cartilage, tendons, etc.
The take away point from here is that fascia is a system. Just like The Force it holds the body together.
It is something we all take for granted – (more or less) upright posture. Ever wondered what is it that holds your skeleton upright? The human skeleton model in the doctor’s office or at school biology had a stick up it’s butt, though we don’t (i sincerely hope for you at least) and yet we manage to hold ourselves up against gravity. It is tensegrity that does it (see the video below) It is in this model that the sticks represent the bones and the rubber bands the fascia (soft tissue). When you push/pull in one end, you get a response throughout the whole system. Guess what? The same happens in our bodies.
Fascia in the human body is organised in meridians or anatomy trains. Ideally they must run straight with no kinks or interruptions as they go. Any interruptions along the way can result in injury, bad movement patterns can echo and affect the whole meridian. For example problem with the foot can result in pain all the way at the neck. I cannot recommend highly enough Thomas Myer’s amazing book called [easyazon_link identifier=”070204654X” locale=”US” tag=”thetalcyc-20″]Anatomy Trains[/easyazon_link]. Below are some examples taken from the brilliant [easyazon_link identifier=”070204654X” locale=”US” tag=”thetalcyc-20″]book[/easyazon_link]. If you just read the introduction and first chapter and than just familiarize with the diagrams of the anatomy trains in the human body you would be well on your way to learning/understanding to move better.
“I Like The Way You Move”
Besides a lyrics to a song by the BodyRockers, your gait, or simply the way you walk is a window on how well everything is functioning when it comes to motion. We have evolved to walk. It is quite an impressive chain of events starting from the foot contact, force production via the legs, pelvic rotation all the way to the swing of the opposite arm and the weight transfer between the legs with each step. It is truly a whole body experience and hence why walking is sometimes a very underapreciated form of exercise. For the same reason when a part of the whole body kinetic chain (no matter how small) is not performing accurately/functionally it is reflected in your gait (you don’t ever see anybody on the verge of exhaustion with perfect running form). Why is this important? We evolved to walk/run. All activities and sports are derivative of walking, no matter whether we are rowing, canoeing, cycling, swimming etc. The most optimal way to perform each and every one of them is by using the muscles and joints the way they have evolved to function.
Let me explain….
Functional Anatomy, Movement, Sports and YOU
You have to start local before you go global
Every movement, athletic or not requires coordinated muscle action – also known as a kinetic chain. For example simply extending your arm starts with the muscles around your spine stabilizing the skeleton(spine?), providing a foundation from where the arm muscles can move the arm away from you. Therefore a kinetic chain can be broken down to its links. It starts with a firm foundation provided by the local stabilizers )joint stabilizers) followed by the global stabilizers and the final movement caused by the global mobilisers
Local stabilisers (joint control)>Global Stabilisers (force production/control through motion/)>Global mobilisers (Movement)
The Local Stabilisers
The muscle providing a firm foundation for most movements is the transverses abdominus (TrA) – see interactive picture below. Local stabilizers get activated continuously (or tonically) and they are designed to stay like that for long periods of time. Due to variety of reasons, including pain and injury the TrA can get inhibited. Even after resolution of an injury it can remain switched off (wrong motor pattern). As mentioned before, your body will find a way to compensate for the loss of this important part of the kinetic chain.
Why is compensation sub optimal? Ever had to tense your abs/core to keep yourself from losing your balance, for example when somebody pushed you?
The Global Stabilizers and Global Mobilisers
As mentioned above the global stabilizers produce force from the foundation of the local stabilizers. When the local stabilizers do not perform their part, the global stabilizers must pick up the slack. Anatomically the global stabilizers have broad attachments to the skeleton in order to distribute force among a wide area. Examples include the Gluteus maximus and the External oblique abdominals.
Those muscles are activated in an on/off manner (phasically). Furthermore the global mobilizes are predominantly composed of fast twitch fibers – they are designed for movement not posture/stability. Therefore when the global muscles are asked to stay on for longer periods of time as well as performing roles that they are not suited for leads to inefficient movement/fatigue. Try walking while squeezing your butt muscles continuously for a minute or and tensing your midsection. Walking funny and having trouble taking full breaths among other things is what you will most likely notice. Granted this is an extreme examples it goes to show the effect of inefficient patterns. Small imbalances, multiplied times couple thousand for a marathon/bike race and even years of walking with bad posture and you start to get an idea on why chronic injuries happen.
Therefore the first take home point is:
Quality of movement vs quantity.
Going further, how does the local/global model that play out in the human body? I am glad you asked. Below are some examples
Kinetic Chains and Control Zones
The Central Zone
It’s not a secret that the central zone or sometimes to (vaguely) referred to as ‘the core’ is well…central to all movement. Why?
I already emphasized in Part 1 that a Neutral Spine position is paramount in any kind of functional and efficient movement. Taking a closer look the deep muscles that provide direct support are the mutlifidus, transversus abdominus (TrA) and the iliac and psoas major (collectively known as the iliopsoas). TrA is interesting in it’s own way that via the thoracolumbar fascia it provides a connection between the upper and lower body. As already described local stabilizers must always become activated BEFORE the onset movement. A neutral spine position takes advantage of the spine stabilizers and as such global muscles are free to do what they do best – movement.
A neutral spine position takes advantage of the spine stabilizers and as such global muscles are free to do what they do best – movement.
Injuries, pain (due to discomfort, cramped position etc) or bad habits though can make you use a different stabilizing pattern most notably the external obliques, rectus abdominus, erector spinae and superficial hip flexors. Problem 1 – spine is free to move (not braced) and since nerves do not stretch the nervous system further tightens muscles in order to protect the spinal cord; movements become rigid. Problem 2 – the tensed external obliques compress the ribs and limit the complete expansion of the ribcage hence limiting breathing – for endurance sports that is especially a limiter.
The point to remember: it is not weakness, rather lack of activation (faulty motor pattern) that is the problem with local stabilizers (TrA, multifidus, etc) or lack of endurance. Therefore switching on an inhibited muscle should be the main priority (more in the next part in the series) followed by a gradual increase of its endurance in a total body (functional) pattern.
The Lower Control Zone
As you are aware by now, everything in the body is connected and therefore having trunk stability does not necessarily equate to functional stability (stability in movement). The trunk is carried by your lower body – most notably the pelvis and the legs. As a result, problems with the muscles of the lower control zone would create a week foundation for your trunk.
A group of muscles that get a lot of attention are the gluteals – Gluteus Maximus, medius, and minimus. If you spend a good amount of your day siting, chances are that your butt muscles are inhibited. Why is that important?
Proper function of the gluteals helps to align the leg (under load) and keep the pelvis level as well as compress the sacroiliac joint. A lot of anatomy terms in one sentence – the important point is that when inhibited or weak, the loss of motion through the gluteals needs to be compensated elsewhere – most notably the knees collapsing to the inside (think x legs) when climbing stairs/pedalling a bike etc and/or bending/arching at the lumbar spine (lower back) to make up for the loss of range of motion at the hip. Neither of those joints have evolved to be moving and supporting weight in that way so eventually knee and lower back pain develops. I am repeating myself though as I have mentioned gluteal activation exercises is what helped tremendously with my low back pain, (“That all tall men have between L5 and S1 vertebrae”).
Furthermore the Gluteus maximus, through the thoracolumbar fascia is connected to the opposing lattismus dorsi forming a sling. That way both muscles compress the sacroiliac (SI) joint in order to support the bodyweight. Any movement the requires rotation (walking, running, kayaking)the sling stores energy, that is used during the next step/paddle/stroke.
If Gluteus medius (GMed) is weak, the rotation cannot happen and the pelvis drops from level. Therefore it puts tension on the quadratus lumborum. In that case, when cycling the pelvis cannot provide a stable platform for the legs to push from so it see/saws over the saddle with every pedal stroke. GMed and minimus (GMin) and the Tensor fascia latae (TFL) work together and when the gluteals are weak, the TFL gets loaded more and the ilitobial band (ITB) gets tight/painful. For other activities such as the ones that involve balance on one leg (even for brief periods of time such as walking/running), other abdominal muscles such as the obliques, rectus abdominis get tensed as well as excessive tension at the ankle/foot. Trendelenburg gait is an extreme example of GMed dysfunction. Therefore a weak GMed and GMin can directly influence breathing efficiency by forcing the muscles around the ribcage to contract in order to attempt to stabilise the movement.
The Upper Control Zone
Similarly to the pelvic girdle, the shoulder girdle has a lot of muscle attachments in order to provide a firm foundation (notice a pattern here…) for arm movements.
The rotator cuff steals all the fame when it comes to upper body functionality. While the three muscles that comprise it play a very important role in keeping the head of the upper arm in the middle of the socket, it it the scapula that is responsible for creating most of the stability. Unstable scapula will cause other muscles (notice another pattern….) that are primarily used for motion to tense for stability and pull the scapula out of ideal position. For example pulling with your shoulders shrugged so you rely on the upper trapezius or lowered – relying heavily on the lattisimus dorsi.
In addition if you use your pectoralis minor (a relatively small and weak muscles) in order to stabilize your shoulder, the forces will get dissipated through the neck, upper back and chest causing pain and tension. In cycling this can be caused by inadequate position of the handlebars (ie. too low and too far aka ‘slammed stem’).
Without proper trunk stability you cannot have a stable scapula, without proper lower control zone (pelvic stability), you cannot have a stable trunk.
Therefore you see why a neutral posture and ‘generating torque’ are paramount for creating any kind of movement and how a person’s gait (walking) is the best way to reveal any muscle joint imbalances and problems.
By now I hope you have realised the unless direct damage has occurred, the cause of the problem most likely lies elsewhere since everything in the body is connected.
Now that you are familiar with the functional anatomy, the next part of the series would focus on how and why muscle imbalances occur and how to address them followed by an article about testing your functionality at home as well as working on improving your shortcomings.
We learn in three ways: visually, auditory and kinesthetically – through motion. The internet and digital entertainment is extremely image and sound heavy and as such our eyes and ears are over saturated while in the same time our bodies remain in stillness and lack what Thomas Myers calls kinesthetic literacy. You don’t remember, however, when you were a baby you learned to walk by feel. As we live, we learn and (sometimes poorly) adapt to our environment. Being a functional human represents the base on which injury/pain free life and high athletic mastery and performance lie on. Understanding the structure and why certain muscles are more adept at specific tasks and not others is the first step towards better kinetic literacy and lifetime enjoyment of movement.
I like hearing what is your take on this articles is please post any comments below as well as share it and visit the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page.
This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.
Trendelenburg Gait Image (Source)
- Part 1: Fit, Fast, but Are You Functional?
- Part 2: The Parts That Make you Functional – Functional Anatomy
- Part 3: Muscle Imbalances, Injuries – How, Why and What to do About it
- Part 4: The Amazing Foot
- Part 5: Mobilis in mobilis – Functional Assessment and Mobilisations
- Part 6: Strength Training Routine
This article is the culmination of the work of some great people, make sure to check them out!
[amazon text=Stability, Sport and Performance Movement&asin=1905367422] – Joanne Elphinston
[amazon text=Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians&asin=070204654X] – Thomas Myers
[amazon text=Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach&asin=0736074007] – Phil Page, Clare Clark, Robert Lardner