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Estelle Underwood Headshot

Strength Training: Don't Forget Your Backside!

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Many of the clients I see in my practice have been referred by chiropractors, doctors, or physical therapists because they suffer from some type of biomechanical disorder. Oftentimes these disorders are caused by muscle imbalances, and sometimes -- not always -- these imbalances are self-inflicted. What I mean by that is clients can unknowingly cause certain disorders because they are not working what we call "opposing muscle groups."

At the risk of stereotyping, I have seen this to be more common in men who tend to be very concerned with developing pectoral muscles (chest), biceps, and abdominal "six packs." Are you seeing the pattern here? They focus more on those muscles in the front of the body and neglect the muscles on the backside. My highly respected friend and colleague Dave Johnson (Evergreen Physical Therapy, Pasadena, Calif.) calls this the "mirror workout" -- exercising only the muscles that you see in the mirror. The result? A really strong, buff-looking physique with really strong, tight muscles in front and weak, overstretched muscles in back. Eventually, this is a sure recipe for a trip to the orthopedist or physical therapist.

When working with clients I always stress the importance of working opposing muscle groups, or "antagonistic" muscles.

Many people don't realize the importance of good muscle balance for the prevention of injury. Stretching and strengthening muscles on both sides of a joint is of utmost importance for optimal function of that joint. Moreover, muscles on the front of our bodies and also dominant side muscles typically tend to be stronger because we use them more often in everyday movement. We lift things with biceps and climb stairs with quadriceps. But every muscle has an opposing muscle that performs the opposite movement -- biceps and triceps, quadriceps and hamstrings, abdominals and low-back extensors. While one muscle contracts and shortens, the opposing muscle stretches and lengthens. Though every client should be individually assessed, most often a good exercise prescription is to strengthen the weaker muscles (usually on the back side of the body) and work on improving flexibility on the stronger muscles (front side of the body). This way, imbalances can be corrected to encourage muscular and structural integrity. We are much more able to maintain neutral, stable positions when muscles are both strong and flexible.

As I network with chiropractors, I train many people with low-back problems in my practice. The Agency for Health Care Research and Quality estimates that 60 to 70 percent of adults will experience low-back pain at some point in their lives. We have more oftentimes seen that the cause of these problems is a muscular imbalance. Everyone wants to have great abdominals, so we train, train, and train some more doing crunches in myriad ways. Crunching is a movement of "spinal flexion," but what about "spinal extension" -- which is working the muscles that oppose the abdominals, the low-back muscles? This is a perfect example of the problems that can arise when doing the "mirror" workout. We strengthen the abs, but we rarely do the same for the opposing lower-back muscles by doing exercises that extend the spine and strengthen the those back muscles. Having that "six pack" is great, but they don't look so good when you're doubled over in pain or lying in bed because your low back is killing you! Have I made my point?

To sum up, take a look at your strength training routine and make sure that you are addressing all opposing muscles groups. If you're not sure, it would be worth the time and expense to get evaluated by a good trainer and to be sure that your routine is optimal in balancing out strength and flexibility of all your muscles. This will keep that great body of yours functioning for a long time to come -- something you will be always be grateful for! You only get one body in this lifetime. Why not treat it with respect? You're worth it!

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