Neutralizing Your Muscular Imbalances
by: Chris Merrow
We hear it all the time: train for balance. By now, most of us know this doesn’t necessarily mean standing on a stability ball while perusing a Perform Better catalog. Balance is simply training the basic fundamental directions of the body in a sound and even manner. Neglecting this very important aspect of fitness always leads to some serious pitfalls. When working with my own clientele, I incorporate a very simple but highly effective training tool called “neutralizing.” A neutralizing exercise (or “neutralizer”) is any developmental movement which re-establishes proper bi-lateral muscular function while effectively counteracting the potentially negative impact (i.e., muscular tightness and/or uneven fatigue) of a previous exercise. Utilizing neutralizers is a great start in combating muscular dysfunction, and the end result includes increased strength, endurance, and muscular range of motion. In short: everyone can benefit from this.
At the facility I work at (ADAPT Training in Beaverton, Oregon), our primary focus is muscular efficiency – the key to increased strength, durability, and flexibility. Combining the mentality of chiropractice with the knowledge base of high-end athletic training, we teach our clientele how to discern “farm strength” from “weight-lifting strength”, with the ultimate goal being an optimal state of dynamic tension – the specific relationship between the muscles of the body in order to maintain joint neutrality (notably the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles). Now, form always follows function. What this means in the lifting world is that we need to ensure that the body is mechanically sound before training for performance. This is how we define training – the development of the “tools” of the body, whereas utilizing those “tools” defines performance – the correct manner in which to produce efficient movement. So what does this mean to you? In the grand scheme of things, everyone’s goal should be to build structural integrity of the muscular and skeletal systems, not just peripheral strength. This goes plenty ignored in favor of pure aesthetics or other weight-training by-products, and I can’t tell you how many athletes, bodybuilders, and casual gym-goers I see on a daily basis complaining of joint pain, muscular tenacity, and the like. Very often there is a basic solution. So what do you do? For starters (and for simplicity’s sake), I will outline only a handful of the very basic movements we use to neutralize imbalances. Let’s say the first exercise you’ve selected for your next workout is the dumbbell bench press. Generally, you might perform a set, rest 60 seconds, and repeat. Alternately, we would fill the “gap” your rest interval creates by inserting an appropriate neutralizer movement. It’s as simple as that. Here are three very basic but very effective neutralizers:
Neutralizer #1: Upper Body Pressing (i.e., Bench Presses, Shoulder Presses, etc.)
The Triceps Bridge is great for extending the hips and chest. Sit on the floor you’re your knees bent and the feet flat. With your hands directly under your shoulders and the fingers pointing toward your feet, squeeze the glutes and lift your hips and back off the floor as high as possible. Hold this position for 30-60 seconds. This can be a very humbling exercise for many lifters – ideally the knees, hips, and shoulders will be in a straight line in the extended position (think “human coffee table”). For most, this just isn’t going to happen!
Neutralizer #2: Upper Body Pulling (i.e., Chin-ups/Pull-ups, Rows, etc.)
We’re going to add a twist to “Adho Mukha Svanasana” and perform Downward Dog Squats to “reload” the upper body. This exercise is fantastic as it forces the posterior musculature to engage, providing active elongation of the hamstrings, glutes, and calves. From a “quadruped” position (on your hands and knees, with the hands under your shoulders and the knees under your hips), curl your toes under your feet. Straighten your legs by lifting your hips toward the sky while pressing the heels towards the floor. Keep your quads engaged and attempt to drag your chest toward your thighs. From this position, “squat” your knees toward the floor and promptly straighten the legs again. Repeat for a total of 20 repetitions Most lifters will feel this primarily within the calves – a telltale sign that the hips don’t rotate enough to allow for proper lengthening of the hamstrings. In fact, 90% of people score poorly – dismally, in fact – on the technique of this very important exercise.
Neutralizer #3: Lower Body (i.e., Squats, Lunges, etc.)
Kneeling Roller Coasters (which some may know as a variant of the “Dive-bomber” or “Hindu” push-up) will train the shoulders and hips to work properly together in unison, and are one of the best movements to counteract any potential angular deviation of the spine. From the quadruped position, straighten your arms and place the palms flat on the floor in front of you. Sit back on your heels, and then “scoop” your face toward the floor by pushing your body between your hands. Drop hips to the floor in the end position as you straighten the arms and raise your chest upward. Lift the hips up, push yourself back to start, and repeat for a total of 10-20x. Keep in mind that these exercises are just the beginning…. there are literally hundreds more in the toolbox! Trust me, one of the smartest things you can do is at least insert these into your current training plan. In the future, I will attempt to expand upon this theme by discussing “muscular coordination” (or “integration”) and how to further enhance your fitness levels.