Tag Archives: anatomy

Shoulder (T-Spine) training for runners: Completely overlooked, and absolutely necessary.

The benefits of lower-body training have always been obvious for runners. For the past few years, we’ve seen that the ill-defined and ill-understood “core” has come into its own as a legitimate focus of attention for runners who want to better their athletic situation.

The shoulders are just as important as the core—and yet almost completely neglected.

Most of us who are a little bit studied in the science of running know that arm swing is largely passive—a way for the body to contralaterally balance the movement of the legs. So why should we even worry about the shoulders?

We should care because of how they are connected to the body and how they affect the areas around them. The shoulder region is also known as the “T-Spine”—the T-shaped structure created by the backbone, the shoulder blades, and the collarbone (and of course, the hugely complex array of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that contribute to its function).

If any one of the muscles implicated in T-spine function is impaired, functionality of the entire structure goes down the drain.


Developing T-Spine functionality is important not only because the shoulders and arms are part of the body (and are needed for running well) but because in that immediate vicinity is the ribcage—and the ribcage houses the lungs and the heart, which are the main facilitators of the aerobic system (a.k.a. the distance runner’s main engine).

Bad T-spine function isn’t isolated to runners—it’s one of the biggest motor problems in the general population. In this sedentary world, our brains never had to understand how to use this complex (yet astonishingly elegant) interface between the arms and the torso.

Think about what happens when someone has bad general stability (they are “klutzy”), and their stability is challenged by walking on a balance beam or a raised log: they tense up and are unable to complete the task—or alternately, grossly underperform relative to someone with better motor control.

The same thing happens to the T-spine, particularly in a dynamic, repetitive-impact sport such as running. (Imagine, if you will, the same log or balance beam shaking repeatedly).

When faced with this kind of challenge, any impairment in function causes the T-Spine to seize up and refuse to move.The arms stop being able to swing freely. The “natural” arc that the arms would follow passively (if there was total freedom of movement) gets altered. Because the arm swing directly counterbalances the movement of the legs, either the legs move differently to match the different arm-swing, or the movement of the body stops being in sync with the forces traveling through it.

As is the case with Mr. Shutterstock here.

These are the building blocks for a running injury. (But it gets worse).

Since the shoulder blades sit on top of the ribcage (and the rest of the T-spine mechanism is literally all around it), the ability of the ribcage to expand and contract is immediately impaired. The diaphragm must work harder to make the lungs expand. Less oxygen permeates the body (with more effort), resulting is less aerobic development. In the long-term, improvement stagnates.

A mechanical problem can have far-reaching consequences: it can (indirectly) impair the body’s ability to utilize energy.

Or it can force a hopeful distance runner to think that they “aren’t made for endurance.”

The problem becomes exacerbated for broader-shouldered runners (like me) who lose upper-body mass due to the natural emphasis running places on the lower body system. These runners have comparatively more bone mass up top, which means that they need comparatively more muscle mass in order to keep that heavier structure mobile and stable.

When the T-Spine is neglected, muscle strength may drop to the point that it takes a lot more effort to keep this structure stable. Adding distance (or increasing power) may cause the weakened structure to seize up.

A seeming conflict of interest arises here: stockier runners have an increased need to lose weight to improve running economy. Keeping the muscle mass necessary to stabilize the T-Spine may mean that they won’t be as fast, at least in the short term.

The thing is, it’ll open up oceans of future potential. Usually, the main bottleneck for the development of a distance runner isn’t their weight. As Gray Cook said in a recent interview on T-Nation, “Technique is always the bottleneck of limitation.” This is true even when applied to something as basic as T-spine mobility. If the body—or a part of it—can’t move right, that athlete is never going to fulfill their potential.

T-Spine function is not the only problem plaguing runners. But how many runners may be plateauing because of this—and don’t know it?

UPDATE: While we can’t pinpoint the origin of Mr. Shutterstock’s problem from a picture—the problem may originate in the pelvis, for example—it is plainly evident that the shoulders, arms, and the entire T-Spine isn’t moving correctly.

UPDATE 10/22/15: Matt Whitehead from Oregon Exercise Therapy shared an excellent article about many of the specific postural imbalances associated with T-Spine dysfunction. He makes a great point about the “dos” and “don’ts” for correcting these kinds of problems: “[Nike athlete Mary Cain’s] coach can drill her over and over about swinging her arms straight forward and back, but it just won’t happen until her upper body posture is improved.”

Understanding our own imperfections isn’t just for self-acceptance; it may help us reach greater athletic heights.

In every sense that matters, nobody’s perfect. Not physically. Everyone’s body is slightly asymmetrical. We have to keep that in mind when we train: those asymmetries are natural, and we should take them into account. Trying to create the “perfect” body—a body that is perfectly symmetrical—will mean that our bodies are less functional, because part of our biological systems will be devoted to maintaining those artificial symmetries.

A recent article discusses this at length, from the perspective of CrossFit. It makes the point that a lot of CrossFit injuries occur because of too much symmetrical training with an asymmetrical body: since we have a dominant side (larger, more powerful, more easily trained) and a non-dominant side (smaller, less powerful, less easily trained), training both sides “equally”—say, by doing barbell squats that load both sides equally—we are actually contributing to our body’s asymmetry.

We should train our non-dominant side more than our dominant side: when we get tired during a marathon, our form will collapse first on our non-dominant side. Then our dominant side will be forced to pick up the slack. Even if our dominant side is super strong, the mechanical energy is no longer translating properly from our bodies into the ground (and vice versa), eventually leading to injury.

But there’s more to this than just training. Lateral differences in people’s bodies have important effects on how mechanical energy is translated into the ground. When we run, it’s important to push off with the foot tripod (a.k.a the entire foot, with the weight on the first and second metatarsal). However, in order for both feet to do this when we have two different-sized left and right legs, the muscles of one leg need to work differently from those of the other: muscular asymmetries must be created in order to balance out skeletal asymmetries.

A right-dominant person’s right side is typically larger than their left. In the case of their hip bones this means that the right hip will be wider and longer than the left. (Their right femur is further away from the body’s centerline than their left femur). This means that the right foot is prone to evert (rotate outwards) more than the left. Supposing that the right foot pushes off correctly (with the entire foot tripod firmly planted), the left foot is likely to naturally underpronate during the swing phase, which means that this foot is likely to push off with more weight on the outer metatarsal bones.

In order to make the pronation (and therefore the pushoff) equal between the left and the right foot, the relevant hip muscles (usually hip abductor muscles) at the left hip, leg, and lower leg must be correspondingly stronger than those on the right side.

You see this happen in a lot of elite athletes, from Buzunesh Deba’s right leg swing to Haile Gebrselassie’s right arm swing (seen best at 1:47). During the swing phase, Deba’s right leg rotates inward slightly more than her left leg (and her right hip is consistently higher than her left). Similarly, Haile’s right arm ends the upswing with his hand just above the collarbone, while his left hand ends up just below. (These asymmetries are very slight because both these athletes have a very clean gait). Possibly, these athletes’ muscles are pulling asymmetrically in order to compensate for slight asymmetries between their right and left sides. These seeming imbalances allow their legs and feet to translate the mechanical energy generated by their bodies into the ground in the most efficient way possible. Trying to “correct” these asymmetries would likely result in a reduced athletic output.

Deba’s and Gebrselassie’s bodies are quite simply done pretending that they’re symmetrical. Neurologically, muscularly, and skeletally, their bodies are quite in touch with their own imperfections.

I’m making a case for self-awareness and self-acceptance. And I’m certainly not saying that self-acceptance will magically grant you good biomechanics. But biomechanical acceptance isn’t that far removed from the physical acceptance we need when we look at our bodies in the mirror. Not really.

None of this means that “perfect” symmetry is the ideal situation. Dominance is something that happens naturally, in order for us to be able to move the body asymmetrically. Having a dominant hand is far from a drawback: it allows us to write, paint, or to throw a javelin. Neurologically speaking, dominance lets both hemispheres of the brain provide greater computing power to a single extremity, resulting in much finer movement, and much greater skill.

Furthermore, the organs of the body aren’t arranged perfectly symmetrically: the heart is slightly on the left side, and the liver is on the right, for example. Because of how the body is organized, weight is distributed in odd places. More blood reaches some parts of the body than others, and dominance means that the touch, and proprioceptive receptors of some areas of the body are getting far more stimulation than others. The body grows differently in different places, and that’s a good thing.

But some of the most important movements we can make harness the body’s symmetry: running and walking. We somehow need to reconcile the need for symmetry with the need for asymmetry. Because each of us are different in different ways, we each reconcile those needs differently.

It’s not easy to reconcile these things. When we don’t have a lot of experience moving our bodies, our neuromuscular system makes the computationally simplest assumption: that both sides of our body are identical in length, width, height, and weight. It takes the brain a lot of data mining (from a lot of training) for our mental map of our bodies to include our biomechanical quirks and musculoskeletal idiosyncracies.

Training isn’t just about self-improvement. I believe that, above all, athletic excellence is about self-knowledge. Firsthand knowledge of our bodies leads to better, safer, and more efficient training. But it can also lead to a much better athletic experience, with much greater personal satisfaction.

On the importance of the Internal Obliques.

I just read a very interesting article on the importance of the internal obliques for the walking and running gait. Here’s a tidbit:

If you don’t own your obliques, you don’t own walking. If you don’t own walking, you don’t own movement. If you don’t own movement, you don’t own your spine. It’s that simple.

When the gluteus maximus (butt) muscle isn’t working well, the internal obliques sometimes take over the task of extending the hip. This compensation pattern can devolve into a series of other musculoskeletal problems. The article makes some key observations:

  • Since the internal obliques (quadratus lumborum) control the deceleration of the spine’s rotation, they are instrumental in maintaining spine stability and avoiding injury.
  • One of the hallmarks of oblique weakness is that people stop breathing when performing simple movement patterns to maintain stability. (This makes it essential for runners to focus on oblique function; incorrect breathing patterns and/or an inability to change them may be rooted in oblique weakness).
  • Because spine rotation is essential for gait, improperly-functioning obliques will impair the production and absorption of mechanical energy.

It’s always important to remember that a particular dysfunction has repercussions all over. Oblique functioning isn’t just about spine stability or just about breathing, or just about production and absorption of energy. A dysfunction in any one system has repercussions on many levels in a dynamic system like the body.

The “hip complex:” The reference point for the center of gravity.

Most of us know that when we run (or just walk around), our weight should be on our hips. This allows us to move faster and more powerfully, and to prevent injury. It’s also often said that the hips are the “center of gravity.”

skeleton m
The “center of gravity” is represented by the red dot.

All this is completely true. But what does “center of gravity” mean, anyway?

The “center of gravity” is the point in a body around which the resultant torque (or “resultant force“) due to gravity and other sources of mechanical energy vanishes. In other words, all of the forces that are generated by the body, as well as their interactions with the earth’s gravitational field, all get canceled out at the center of gravity.

The resultant force. This isn’t a commonly used term, but it’s one whose implications we should understand if we want to become safe, effective runners.

Continue reading The “hip complex:” The reference point for the center of gravity.

The “hip complex:” The body’s differential.

The “hip complex”—the intricate arrangement of bone, muscle, nerve, and connective tissue that makes up the human hip—is one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery in nature. As runners, it behooves us to get to know it intimately, because it is the center of athletic power. When the hips don’t function correctly, the body is not capable of dealing with the majority of the resultant torque (from forces produced during walking and running). This is the source of many common running injuries.

Addressing problems with the hip allows the resultant torque to be properly channeled and allocated to the center of gravity, which, during standing, lies squarely within the hips. Therefore, most interventions into the mechanics of the hip complex have to do with maintaining and facilitating the proper flow of mechanical energy throughout the body.

In Donella Meadows’ list of “leverage points” into a system, changes to hip mechanics are characteristic of place # 10:

10: The structure of material stocks and flows.

In this case “materials” refers primarily to the forces that the body generates and interacts with.

It’s important to discuss the hip complex from a few different perspectives. The technical details of how it functions are extremely important. However, even more important is to understand why it operates as it does: If we understand the proper function that it was evolutionarily designed for, and why it is so important to maintain it in correct working order, we’ll be able to divine many of the details of its mechanical function as necessary side-effects of our journey of athletic development.

Continue reading The “hip complex:” The body’s differential.

The tales of forgotten subsystems, part I: The Fasciae

People typically think that becoming a stronger runner is all about training muscles, tendons and bones. It’s not.

It’s mainly about developing the connective tissue that holds them together.

Runners don’t dread getting injured by twisting their foot, or by becoming concussed, (even though those things do happen). Most “runner-specific” injuries are blown knees, torn ACLs, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis. All these injuries have one thing in common: they occur because the body was subjected to excess repetitive shock.

What do we typically say to this?

We say: let’s strengthen the muscles, tendons and bones (besides the usual “what did you expect? You went running”). But that advice is inaccurate, and largely useless.

That advice doesn’t take into account the existence of what is cumulatively one of the largest organs, whose main structural function besides connecting other tissues happens to be absorbing the mechanical stresses applied to the body.

Continue reading The tales of forgotten subsystems, part I: The Fasciae