The purpose of this blog post is to provide people who participate in CrossFit or other high intensity work-outs with an opportunity to self-assess their potential risk of injury and identify any asymmetries or muscle imbalances they may have developed. There have been several studies that demonstrate certain factors correlated with an increase in injuries. These include age, sex, body size, flexibility, history of injury, etc. Although we cannot change many of these risk factors, we can certainly reduce our risk of injury by correcting muscle imbalances and asymmetries when appropriate. There are simple and effective ways to self-assess ourselves, and there are exercises out there that can help to correct them.
Simple movements can tell you a great deal of information on your motor planning (the ability to carry out a skilled motor act in the correct sequence from beginning to end). For example, bend down and try to touch your toes from a standing position (fig A). Can you touch them? If not, what is it that is limiting you? It could be pain in your low back, tightness in your hamstrings, etc that you are feeling. This activity tells us mostly about the mobility of your lumbar spine (low back) and hamstrings. Therefore if you cannot touch your toes, we need to find out what is limiting you and how we can use exercise to improve it. Often times, the hamstrings are “tight” but not “short”. What I mean by this is the hamstrings may be over-active, perhaps as a result of weakness in the core or the alignment of your pelvis/spine, and give the appearance of being short even though they are not. This is commonly reffered to as lower crossed syndrome (Figure B). Contrarily the hamstrings could actually be shortened as a result of poor posture, long periods of sitting at your desk job, etc.
In Figure A there are a few exercises that may be able to help you to improve your mobility and enable you to touch your toes.
Another movement that I really like to use to help assess movement patterns is the deep squat. Many people believe that this is a primal movement and everyone should be able to do this - but that is not necessarily the case. Failure to do so may be a result of muscle imbalance.
Look at Figure C for proper squat technique. A proper deep squat includes all of the following: feet shoulder width apart and parallel, trunk parallel to the lower legs, knees behind toes, and thighs parallel to the floor.
If you cannot perform a deep squat, try the following steps.
- Put something under your heel to raise it 1-2 inches. Does it make a difference? If you are able to go down further, perhaps you have an ankle mobility restriction. Try doing an exercise to improve your ankle range of motion and try the squat again.
- Do your knees move past your ankles? Try to really move your hips/butt backwards as your trunk leans forward. The further back your hips move, the less your knees are going to move forward. If you are really struggling with this or you notice your knees are collapsing inwards, you may have weakness in your hips. Try a few basic strengthening exercises for your hips that will help control the alignment and stability of your entire lower extremity.
- Do your toes like to point outwards (duck feet)? If you are having trouble keeping your feet shoulder width apart and parallel to each other, you may have a restriction in your hip range of motion. There is more room for your hip to move within the joint when your hips are rotated outwards; therefore it is a common compensation we see in the clinic. Try performing a few basic hip range of motion and mobility exercises to see if that improves your deep squat.
If you cannot touch your toes, or it is still difficult to do so, use the link to below to down an exercise program designed by Kevin Brown, PT that may be able to help you to improve your mobility and enable you to touch your toes.
In summary, the deep squat and forward bend are two simple ways that someone who does CrossFit or trains with high intensity should use to assess the quality of their movement. It certainly helps to have a professional (i.e. physical therapist) to observe your movement patterns so that they can breakdown the movements and appropriately identify where the true range of motion restrictions or weaknesses are. It is especially important to seek professional advise if you have any aches or pains the are exacerbated with these movements. Otherwise I believe all people who participate in CrossFit should be aware of any muscle imbalances or faulty movement patterns they may have. Training/building on top of these impairments will encourage compensations and increase your risk of injury.
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