Do strength imbalances cause injury? Or are they a natural adaptation grown out of the impulse to survive? There’s no definitive answer, or so it would seem. Theories of injury causes run amok. But they are all the same in that they are theories. Suppositions. What should be or could be. Not what is.
Truthfully, I’m using nothing but should-be’s and could-be’s to try to disprove others. But that’s really what the fitness industry is all about. Few things are absolute. So I hope that my theory gives you a new perspective. One that you never had, or thought of having. One that can help you better understand how to protect yourself in the future.
A QUICK REVIEW
This is the fourth time I’ve written about strength imbalances. It might help if you went back and refreshed your mind.
In the first article, I talked about the shortcomings of the research field. How most machines don’t mimic real life movement and how most recommended ratios are guesses.
In the second article, I talked about how imbalances are nothing more than adaptations, just like strength or size. A baseball player will always be a stronger rotator to his dominant side because he has to be.
In the third article, I talked about defining a human baseline, which makes classifying imbalances even more difficult. It contains quotes from Bret Contreras and Eric Cressey that agree with my ramblings.
IRRITANTS, VIRUSES, AND ADAPTATION
As I mentioned in the second article, imbalances are adaptations. The body doesn’t intend on having one side stronger than the other. It happens because it’s just reacting to what it’s exposed to.
Training is an irritant to the body, kind of like a virus. If you do squats, the body responds by making the legs stronger so it doesn’t get crushed by the weight on your back. If you get chickenpox, the body responds by making antibodies so that it doesn’t get threatened by the disease again.
But if the body responds to training as an irritant, wouldn’t it naturally build itself up into a mega-creation impervious to injury? Theoretically, yes. But the body cares about survival and not performance. That’s why thoughts of cannibalism creep into your mind if you get stranded in the arctic with a few friends.
In addition to the body’s focus on survival, it won’t transform into Megatron unless it’s given the time to recover from the stressful events. Chickenpox isn’t cured in an hour. So let’s take a look at the potential causes of injury.
CAUSES OF INJURIES
Before I give you my three reasons of why injuries occur, remember that these are nothing more than my theories. My should-be’s and could-be’s.
The first reason injuries occur is by simply doing something wrong. Call it bad form, but putting yourself in compromising positions or using bad mechanics will expose structures to stress they aren’t designed to handle. This can be squatting with the knees inward or bench pressing with the shoulders flared. The body can’t move in all directions. Respect how each joint in the body works.
The second reason injuries occur is by not being able to recover from irritants. Recovery being the key word here. The more you stress yourself, the longer it takes to recover. It’s like getting a cold, and then a day later getting the flu, and then a day later getting chicken pox. You’re going to struggle because you’re never working at your highest level and with every disease you dig deeper into your need to recover.
Baseball pitchers that have to get Tommy John surgery fall into this category. Take Stephen Strasburg for example. He got hurt less than one year into his MLB career. Eric Cressey theorizes that it’s not so much a mechanics issue as it is him having to always showcase his talents. When you’re always looking to light up the radar gun with triple digits you never get a chance to slow down.
The third, and final, reason injuries occur is because of a combination of both of the above. This is where most are apt to blame strength imbalances, but notice that it’s nothing about strength in the traditional sense. I break this reason into two categories:
1) Mobility impairment that force your body into bad positions. If your thoracic spine is all bottled up, your upper body isn’t going to handle things very well. Same goes for your hips and lower body.
2) Bad motor patterning that stresses muscles out of sequence. This is essentially my theory of knee pain. The muscles nearest the center of our body are designed to do the bulk of movement. When the smaller muscles take over, they stress themselves more than what they are designed for. This, in my opinion, is how most tendonitis starts. When the smaller muscles start to do more than the bigger muscles, you’re going to have problems.
A prime case for this is Jose Reyes, who is prone to hamstring injuries. It might be easy to blame all of his problems on hamstring strength, but as Carl Valle explains, the problem is more likely due to his mechanics. (Read more in the blog post, More on Footstrike: Jose Reyes and Hamstring Injuries).
If you want to say that injuries are caused by “imbalances,” I probably couldn’t argue. But the moment you bring up strength imbalances, we’re going to have some problems.But I’ll leave you with this these thoughts.
We always have been and always will be imbalanced creatures. Total symmetry just doesn’t happen. From the moment we’re born something is off. We open the pickle jar better with a certain hand. We have a dominant hand for fine motor control. We (might) have uneven abs, ruining our high school dream of having a perfect six-pack.
Aside from taking care of your soft tissue restrictions, extreme structural imbalances, and doing a few things right in the weight room, you live and die by your imbalances. The only way to truly have balance is to become equally proficient on both sides of a traditional unilateral movement. So if you’re a pitcher, you’d have match your pitch count with your right and left hand. But you’ll never get anywhere if you did that. It doesn’t leave time to specialize and master the craft.
Now even though these are my could-be’s and should-be’s, here are some things I know for sure: Tiger Woods doesn’t swing the club left handed, Michael Jordan didn’t take game winning perimeter shots left handed, and Roger Federer doesn’t hold the racket in his left hand. I’m sure they don’t regret their imbalances. Will you?