Muscle Imbalances, Generators, Connectedness, and 3 Tips to Clean up Athleticism

It only takes one look at a lineup of athletes from different sports to realize they all come in different shapes and sizes. This reassures me of two things.

First, different body types exist. Even though somatotypes were created for psychological purposes, people do have different proportions. Not everyone follows the same rules. (This is a shout out to the Skinny-Fat Brohirrim.)

Second, the theory of muscular imbalances is a crapshoot.(This may sound odd as I just hinted to contributing to this year's Muscle Imbalances Revealed product in my post about correct “feel” for the barbell row. But allow me to explain.) In the past, I was more vehement about this. Some of the first articles ever written for this here blog were about muscular imbalances.

To this day, I still don’t give much credence to the idea that there’s an ideal ratio to be had among muscles. When athletes are as diverse as they are, it just can’t be possible in my opinion.

An opinion which is backed by some notes of interest.

DEBUNKING MUSCULAR IMBALANCES

The crossover effect, for example, is one reason why I think the body is smart enough to prevent itself from growing wildly out of proportion to the point of danger. Train one arm in isolation and the other arm gets stronger. That’s the crossover effect.

Another reason is that of general organism strength—the theory that all training recruits a certain percentage of motor units in relation to the body's entire pool, and the amount and extent of those recruited affects the organism as a whole.

Consider baseball players, specifically the amount of “unbalanced” rotational work they do in both hitting and throwing. Now, there are injuries in baseball, but not as many as you would think given the volume of “unbalanced training” their body is exposed to. They play 162 games from April until September, not counting spring training or playoffs. Most games involve maximal sprinting, maximal rotational swinging, and maximal throwing.

Fun fact: Chipper Jones—arguably one of the best switch hitters of all time—said hitting from both sides of the plate may have made him more susceptible to injury.

IT’S NOT ABOUT MUSCULAR IMBALANCES

At first glance, my methods can be confused muscular imbalance theories. But saying muscular imbalances exist assumes that there’s a hidden blueprint of the body. (Holy Grail, anyone?)

Every sport and every athlete has a different blueprint. What’s ideal for a center fielder won’t be ideal for a pitcher. What’s ideal for a goalie won’t be ideal for a gymnast.

Consider the differences between athletes that live around the same equipment: Olympic Weightlifters and Powerlifters. Both throw around heavy barbells and yet there’s just something “different” about the two groups of athletes. Upon testing, you would find a lot of strength differences between the two groups because the body adapts to survive, and each sport triggers different survival responses in the body.

I think (notice I’m using the word “think” here as nothing is really “proven”) most muscular imbalance problems are misinterpretations of two things:

  • Big muscles being generators
  • Small muscles being points of connectedness

BIG MUSCLES ARE GENERATORS

The bigger the muscle, more involved it should be in any given movement.

Crazy idea, right?

The hip houses the biggest muscles. As you get further away, the muscles get smaller and smaller.

The big muscles are generators. The golf swing, the baseball swing, the vertical jump, the sprint, and a host of other movements rely primarily on the big muscles of the hip.

This makes it seem like a muscle’s importance declines if it’s further from the center of the body. But this assumption ignores something I like to call “points of connectedness.”

Generators are only useful if they can be connected to something to give power to. So their usefulness depends on this connection.

In something like the vertical jump, the hips are the generator. The foot and ankle complex is the point of connectedness. If this connection isn’t up to par, not all generator power will be realized.

This may be easier to understand with an Olympic Weightlifting analogy. They artificially “enhance” their point of connectedness to the ground with weightlifting shoes, making for more efficient force transfer. They also enhance their point of connectedness to the bar with the hook grip.

When you look at the construction of the body, it goes like this:

  • Generator  (Hips, torso, shoulders)
  • Link (elbows, knee)
  • Point of connectedness (ankle/foot, hand/wrist)

In both the upper and lower body, the links (elbows and knees) function similarly. They don’t do much other than flex and extend. (The knee does rotate some and have a bit more freedom.) But they link the generator and point of connection.

If either the generator or point of connectedness is askew, the link will also be askew. The classic example for this is elbow problems.

CHIN-UPS AND ELBOW TENDONITIS

Elbow tendonitis is common amidst those that do a lot of straight bar work, specifically chin-ups and curls.

The fix is nearly always to opt for a neutral grip because the supinated grip ruins the natural neutral relationship between the wrist and shoulder. The elbow didn’t do anything wrong. It was just along for the ride.

Not that I haven’t used baseball enough for examples, but you will often hear of great hitters having either fast or strong wrists and either fast or strong hips. Rarely does anyone tout about “immaculate elbows” or “kick ass knees.”

The reason I was able to conquer crepitus and years of chronic knee pain was because I abided by one equation:

Hips + Feet = Knees

(In terms of health in relation to movement.)

We used to live in a knee-centric world. It was all about quads and hammies. While some of these muscles cross the hip, they aren’t the dominant muscles of the hip.

Things have changed. I’d say that we’re currently living in a glute-centric world. When ESPN writes a gigantic story about glutes, you know something is up.

But it’s only a matter of time before we begin to focus on the foot. Truly, the only reason I’m respecting and understanding the power of the foot is because I shattered mine to bits. As of now, I’m still rehabilitating it (1.5 years after breaking it), and I’m just beginning to realize the importance of isometric strength in the calves and the importance of dorsiflexion potential.

A lot of tricksters float across the ground, subtly bouncing in between moves. I want to say that the saying having “pep in your step” is code for “diesel isometric strength in the forefoot.”

My right foot is a lot more “locked up” than it used to be. My toes overlap and come to more of a point than compared to my left. It’s a shame that 6-8 weeks in a cast does these sorts of things. My current plan is to destroy myself with a lacrosee ball in hopes of “making space” by separating the joints in my foot.

You would be surprised at the kind of difference a wider base makes—something I realized during handstands. The narrower the fingers, the more my wrists, elbows, and shoulders got hurt. The more I splayed my fingers (to a reasonable extent), the more control I had which led to less injuries.

All things being equal, movement, balance, everything should be easier from a wider base. Most people are walking around on stilts because of the way their foot has contorted over time to fit into shoes. But I want to say the foot should fan. The more separation you have in between your big and second toe the better.

PUTTING INTO ALL TOGETHER INTO ATHLETIC MOVEMENT

As wacky as it seems, this relates to things as seemingly trivial as the barbell row. If your “feeling” the row in the wrong places, you're wiring is likely out of whack. And if you're wiring is out of whack, your foundation for athletic movement is likely out of whack too.

So if you want to play electrician, here's some of my secret sauce. Use it as a launch pad.

1. Stretch the hip flexors, but stretch them correctly. This is a given in our age, but most people don’t stretch the hip flexors right. The trailing leg should be internally rotated with the toes flexed and pressed against the ground. Cross your hands behind your head and lean to the opposite side of whichever leg is being stretched. Or you can just do the super stretch shown above.

2. Find your forefoot. You can do something like front squat (or regular) calf raises, but don’t let the heel touch the ground. Teach your lower leg how to balance the body. Alternatively, you can load up a barbell, throw it on your back, and simply walk around on your tip toes.

I can’t say this is going to turn you into the next Michael Jordan, but that isometric strength is going to help you develop a better connection between your foot and the ground.

“…if calf muscles are not the most important contributors to a high vertical jump, in any case, they are important because in the execution of vertical jump they are involved as organic part of explosive legs extension movements in the last part of push up phase.

The calf rises are not the main exercise for the vertical jump height increasing but they cannot be eliminated in the training program.

Calf rise is the training mean that assures the increasing of calf muscles strength. The preliminary increasing of maximal strength of calf muscles is needed to assure the subsequent increasing of their explosive strength, starting strength and reactive ability.

Calf muscles are strongly involved in the lending shock absorbing phase of run and bounces. The preliminary enforcement of calf muscles, before the use of jumping exercises, it’s needed also to avoid legs injuries (calf muscles strain).

–  YuriVerkhoshansky

3. Get your hips firing. 

Getting the hips to fire was undoubtedly one of the most significant moments of my training career. And that's if you want to consider a year's worth of hard work a “moment.” It's taken me from knee pain to knee health. Squat woes to squat triumphs. Hell, it even fixed my barbell row. (Remember, rewiring stems deep and infests more than one specific movement pattern. There's also a general aspect to it.)

Crazily enough, it also broke my foot because I was flying through the roof during a tricking session. My moves were so high that I was seriously missing the ground on my landings, to the point of them just looking ugly because of how surprised I was. My body wasn't going where I was used to it going because I had extra airtime.

Lo and behold, body parts ended up in wrong places, and I ended up with a cast around my leg. So let's not forget increased the ability of the hips to increase vertical jumping power.

But before I get into how to fix the hips, I want you to digest everything else first, as the the overall scheme of motor programming and patterning can get rather complex.

+++++

Check back on Tuesday for more goodies. And be sure to ask your questions in the interim. The comment boxes are below. It's always a jammin' place down there, so join the party.

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mat Herold July 27, 2012, 3:26 pm

    Great read Anthony and I agree wholeheartedly about the nature of the sport and what qualities are needed for success/developed by performing the sport. I work with a lot of soccer players and their hip and ankle/foot on the dominant leg is going to be doing some different stuff than the stabilizing leg. I dont think that we just accept it, as it will cause issues in running, jumping, landing, etc., but some small differences will exist. I guarantee Lionel Messi’s right leg has tremendous ability to absorb forces and stabilize versus his right leg and some adductor/anterior hip tightness in his left left amongst other things. Cant wait for part 2!

    • Anthony July 27, 2012, 6:00 pm

      Yeah, Mat, I agree. Every athlete will have their own box of issues that need taken care of.

  • Mat Herold July 27, 2012, 3:28 pm

    *versus his left leg which is his kicking foot

  • Jeannie Landis July 27, 2012, 3:36 pm

    I love being able to see your thought process around your training experiences. I’m curious to know how you confirm/measure that the muscles you’re intentionally training are firing efficiently to prevent injuries and enhance performance?

    Thanks Anthony.

    • Anthony July 27, 2012, 6:02 pm

      Great question, Jeannie. It’s part feel and part health. In other words, how does the exercise “feel” to you — where do you feel it, and are you able to perform it without pain? The next part may help with this more. Be sure to check back Tuesday, as the details of this get kind of muddled when talking high speed movement.

  • Mat July 27, 2012, 8:50 pm

    Anthony,
    Just curious about your experience treating external tibial torsion? Related to femoral medial rotation, knee valgus, pronation, hallux valgus, etc. Athletes’ heels kick out when they run…you know the deal. Thanks!

    • Anthony July 28, 2012, 11:44 am

      Reintroduce proper weight distribution, jam the principle of the tripod into their brain, get their toes to point to the sky on these drills, then go into teaching where weight is propelled off the foot. Move onto sprints slowly. Start with something like jogs into buildups.

      Isometric drills work nice here to reinforce position.

      Have my book, by chance?

  • Karl July 28, 2012, 4:00 am

    Good article man. I want to slap myself in the forehead every time I see guys in the gym performing barbell squats with air jordans! Or doing deadlifting wearing reebok zigs – lol. You can’t generate maximum hip thrust when you are losing power out the soles of your shoes!

    • Anthony July 28, 2012, 11:45 am

      Yeah, honestly, I don’t know how people do it. Doing anything in cushy shoes in the weight room is bonkers.

  • Gmoney July 28, 2012, 1:00 pm

    Anthony – it’s apparent that you put enormous effort into creating interesting and informative posts. You also take the time to respond to comments which is unusual. I find the comments and your responses to be very useful. I, for one, really appreciate all of the work you do. I have given up on the recycled, highly processed drivel on Men’s Health, etc. Its a mystery to me why these sites don’t recruit you. They certainly need fresh talent/perspective.

    • Anthony July 29, 2012, 10:35 am

      Gmoney, I appreciate the reply.

      As for being recruited, I do publish my stuff here and there. Not as often as I probably should though. But truthfully, my stuff is better on this blog because it isn’t heavily edited and it’s more “me.” I do enjoy writing for those places from time to time though.

  • Mat July 29, 2012, 2:30 am

    Ill check it out, thanks for the advice. I think big toe function and its ability to adduct is a crucial and often overlooked element.

    • Anthony July 29, 2012, 10:37 am

      Yeah, it’s more so just letting your toes “probe” after being cooped up all their life in shoes.

  • Randy July 29, 2012, 2:33 am

    Hi Anthony,
    I am always amazed at how in tune and focused you are regarding the smallest details of training. You truly have a gift. You are unique in that you never take anybody’s word for anything in the fitness world. I have often thought this same thing about muscle imbalance, and how my body type, 6’2″ skinny fat was not designed for certain types of movements, hence, why I am better at some exercises than other body types and vice versa.
    It is interesting how your comments make sense and yet two other blogs I follow and respect, Eric Cressey and Elliot Hulse both have products designed to identify and correct muscle imbalances or muscle viruses (as Elliot has coined them).
    Comes down to all things in moderation, read, learn, digest, experiment and use what works and drop what doesn’t.
    bottom line: we are all different and you are your own best coach if you only listen.

    Randy
    p.s. I never soaked in Epsom salts for my calf strain, (seemed like a pain in the *ss) but I have been doing contrast hot pad/ice rubs along with progressive strengthening/stretching and it is feeling about 90% in less than two weeks.

    • Anthony July 29, 2012, 10:40 am

      Randy –

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad you’re hearing your calf strain is doing well. As for muscle imbalance products, I think there should be a “general” sense of functioning about the body, and that’s what those products likely deal with. Muscle imbalances is just the cool buzzword that gets peoples ears pointed.

  • Sam July 30, 2012, 9:40 am

    I really enjoyed this article. I’ve always thought those suspiciously precise strength ratio recommendations were bunk. Thanks for confirming it. I’m still quite the noob to fitness-related matters though so I don’t really get two minor things: 1) how do you internally rotate the leg in that hip flexor stretch? Is there a video somewhere that demonstrates form? 2) Do you have more info on chin-ups and elbow problems? Thanks!

    • Anthony July 30, 2012, 6:33 pm

      Sam, thanks for the reply. But I wouldn’t say I “confirmed” much of anything outside of being able to ramble on this here blog. 🙂

      As for the stretch – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhPsfl9AY6U

      As for the chin-ups, not readily on me. Sorry bout that.

  • Drew July 31, 2012, 11:36 pm

    Small point of contention….are you still allowed to call yourself skinny fat??? Haha it seems like once you conquer what genes have thrown your way, you can no longer call yourself skinny fat. Now you’re just someone who was skinny fat.

    • Anthony August 2, 2012, 9:01 pm

      I usually try to preface it as “formerly,” but I guess I sometimes forget. But I should also mention that it’s not like my genetics go anywhere. They’re still here, and if I ever stop doing what I do, I will be back to where I was.

      • Drew August 18, 2012, 11:43 pm

        Got quoted in your latest blog post! Hell yeah! I feel like a Level 5 blog commenter nerd now!

        • Anthony August 21, 2012, 3:07 pm

          Hah, your comments are much appreciated here, Drew. Keep it up!

  • Sue August 1, 2012, 4:59 pm

    Thanks Anthony! This is excellent and a great reminder of how important the tripod is. You provide such interesting informative reading.

    • Anthony August 2, 2012, 9:03 pm

      Thanks for the reply, Sue! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Traindom August 2, 2012, 5:47 am

    Excellent article. Hips + Feet = Knees. What an awesome equation. The fact that it’s so counterintuitive makes it so appealing.

    It was very interesting that you refer to the hips as a generator and the feet as the point of connectedness. I once came across an awesome analogy that referred to grip strength which I believe applies to this as well: “Weak grip strength with strong muscles is like having a 510 HP Aston Martin Vanquish V-12 with cheap tires…much of that power will be wasted and won’t be transferred in a functional way. Man…James Bond knows how to chose cars!.” This came from Rusty Moore. It really hit me at the time. It was one of those “Whoah.” moments.

    I’ve been a little preoccupied with my upper chest activation which is kicking some serious ass. It’s been quite a trip. I’ve alternated quite a few mental cues, like four of them, lol. I’ve even taken advantage of the lighting where I do the work to see the muscles tense. Not only am I happy about the activation but the discipline I’ve developed is substantial and so transferable.

    I wanted to train consistently (which consisted of the activation, dynamic stretching, static stretching, and more) and I believed that applying the principles to my hips and feet would be too much. I thought I should take it one step at a time. When I am done with the upper chest activation, I’m going to dive into my hips and feet. I imagine it’ll get tedious, but the rewards will be well worth it. And I really don’t see myself NOT pushing towards a training goal ever. I’m in this for life, which was a cool realization for me. It’s part of my identity now.

    I’ve actually been trying to feel the hips in a host of activities, like walking and front leg lifts. I feel better using the hips in the front leg lifts than the muscles above the knee.

    It’s also funny you mention having “pep in your step.” I imagine it’s like being “light on your feet.”

    Oh I almost forgot to ask. Did getting extra airtime feel as awesome as it sounds? It sounds pretty kick-ass.

    I apologize about my comment. I’m usually more organized when it comes to structuring my thoughts, but it seems I lost a little control here. I just transcribed my thought process, haha.

    • Anthony August 2, 2012, 9:05 pm

      It sounds awesome, but it actually sucked. I felt like a newbie and lost all sense of coordination.

      And never apologize. Ever.

      🙂

      • Traindom August 3, 2012, 12:53 am

        Gee, thanks! I appreciate that you appreciate my comment as it is. ^.^.

  • andrew August 3, 2012, 3:44 pm

    thank anthony.

    i have the same overlapping toe thing happening lately on my right foot.
    ive broken the fifth metatarsal on both feet, both times it just happened while i was running along not from an awkard landing or anything like that. i tend to walk on the outside of my feet and had orthotics made by a top specialist. they did nothing but cause trouble and had to be modified four times. eventually my physiotherapist suggested i just do without them. im a poor shock absorber in that i land fairly heavy on my feet. ive really tried to strengthen calves and tibialis anterior muscles, but i dont think its helped much. also my glutes are quiet strong but i dont think im getting full value out of my feet. id be really interested to hear how you get on with lacrrosse ball, and what specifically you would recommend to improve hip to feet relationship.

    andrew

    • Anthony August 4, 2012, 8:37 pm

      For the foot, I think you’ll find value in learning how to properly utilize the forefoot — especially if you’re feeling clunky and on your heels.