Tag Archives: compensation patterns

It’s not about training more—or less. It’s about training correctly.

One of the most prevalent problems in sports is that people consistently and continually train their compensation patterns. Practitioners and athletes put so much time and energy into their training, and quite often, they’re doing it wrong.

This is where the old saying “quality over quantity” hits full force.

There’s a lot of literature out there on the dangers of persevering though pain, and on the problems with leaving compensation patterns unresolved. Often, when we continue training despite the pain, we force our bodies into suboptimal patterns of muscle use. Because avoidance of pain is an extremely powerful impulse, those habits remain ingrained long after the pain has ceased.

Similarly, when we leave compensation patterns unresolved (and strengthen them by training), we’re developing our body, but along a suboptimal vector. Instead of training all of our body parts to interact with each other, we sideline a few of those parts, and leave them undeveloped and out of the game.

This is a bigger problem than it seems: one of the key tenets of systems thinking is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. For example, let’s suppose that our imaginary athlete is compensating for weak gluteus maximus activity with an overactive quadratus lumborum (lower back muscle). Not only will their hip extension on the weak side be, well, weaker, but the overactive quadratus lumborum will likely be impinging on their ability to take full breaths.

Overuse one part, and you guarantee underusing another.

Because their breath is impinged, their aerobic system becomes resistant to training. Because their hip extension is reduced on one side, their maximum speed is much lower than it could be, and they lose their ability to exercise with maximal weight across their entire body.

Since these compensation patterns often go unnoticed, our imaginary athlete might tell another “I’m just a slow runner,” or “I’m injury-prone,” never knowing, never realizing, that their slowness (or their proneness to injury) is not due primarily because of some deficiency that is essential to their bodies, but largely because they’ve spent all of their training reinforcing existing compensation patterns.

In my opinion, the most important piece of advice that any runner—any athlete—can take is that athletic ability doesn’t have to do with lung power or muscle power, but with the synchronization between the lungs and the muscles. The body’s power isn’t simply a measure of how powerful individual systems are—it’s a measure of how well they work together.

Let’s give a quick example: throwing a baseball. Throwing a baseball isn’t about arm power. It’s about initiating the motion with one-leg hip extension against a solid object, and translating the resulting force across the torso, through the opposite arm, and into the ball. An athlete with a hugely powerful arm but weak hips (or strong hips that don’t work together with the torso and arm) won’t be able to throw nearly as well as someone who is strong and athletic but uses her body in a synchronized fashion (Mo’ne Davis comes to mind here). To put this claim in context, I doubt that miss Davis could win an arm-wrestling match with my father (who is massively strong even at 60), and yet there is no way that my dad could throw a ball half as fast as miss Davis could.

mone-davis

Back when Bruce Lee was still thrown around as an example of athletic excellence, I’d often hear people remark on the speed and power of his movements: “how is he that powerful, when he’s that skinny?” Even though Bruce lee had an extreme level of muscular power and definition, the sheer speed that he had was due to the fact that his body was extremely synchronized, and the mechanical energy generated by that muscle power could be effectively translated from one part of his body to the next.

bruce lee

All of the masters of athleticism share particular characteristics. It’s not enough to just have the genetics—that’ll merely make you good. It’s not enough to just put in the time—that’ll make you great. To be the very best, you need a special bit of knowledge, knowledge that often seems counterintuitive—how can power not be about muscle power?—and you need to apply that knowledge in training.

Take this quote from Bruce Lee:

“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”

Wait, what? Doesn’t effort mean that you’re training hard? Doesn’t effort mean that you’ll be exerting yourself more, and therefore moving faster and more powerfully? Sure—if power was about muscle power. But power is (and always was) about alignment. That’s why Lorena Ochoa’s golf swing is so powerful. That’s why well-employed Judo techniques let small women beat much larger men.

Lorena ochoa

Let’s think about this quote in biomechanical terms. In these terms, this quote serves as an inoculation against compensation patterns. Above all, compensation patterns are effortful. By seeking to do the same movement with decreasing effort, the athlete puts herself on a path where athletic development means eliminating compensation patterns, and finding the simplest, most parsimonious way to do things. This doesn’t mean using less muscles. It means using more, in order to shape the body in such a way that it allows the generated mechanical energy to travel in the straightest line possible.

Every athlete is different, and the solution to what “the straightest line possible” means will always be different for every athlete. But ultimately, that’s what training correctly really means, and that’s what separates the fast runner from the slow runner. Answering that question for ourselves is the key to athletic excellence.

Tight leg adductors: a common problem, its possible source, and some tips on how to address it.

Over on Facebook, R.B. asked me:

Recently, I’ve been unable to go running for more than 15 minutes without experiencing discomfort in my right knee (my dominant side). Even jumping causes some minor pain. It cracks a lot when I flex and extend it; so does the left side but not nearly as much as the right. From my preliminary research on the matter, I think I have “runner’s knee.” It may have to do with how hard I was training for a while (2x a day, running, weights, parkour, etc.) and then suddenly stopped the intensity for a couple of months this summer when I went to Brazil. Now that I’m jumping back into it, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the right balance. Anyway, I guess my question is–do you have any suggestions (ie. exercises, readings, whatever) so I can get back to running while minimizing the likelihood of injury? I would greatly appreciate it

Before we begin, a standard disclaimer: I am NOT a physical therapist. I happen to know a lot about the body and I’ve solved this particular problem for myself and others. R.B., I would suggest that you consult a clinician, and take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, let’s go at it:

R.B was referring to a cracking on the inside of her dominant leg. This is most likely a malfunction of one of the muscles that connect the inside of the hip to the inside of the tibia on a spot called the pes anserinus, or “goose foot.”

Note that this is happening on her dominant side.

Let’s think systemically about this: Why is this happening? What problem is the body trying to solve?

Because the dominant leg is the one that supports the most weight, the body wants to bring it further in towards the center of gravity, i.e. towards the midline of the body. Imagine that you are supporting a wooden beam on two columns, but one is strong and one is weak. You’re going to want to put the strong column closer to the center, to support more weight. That’s exactly what the body is doing here:

It’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg because the non-dominant leg is too weak.

This is an example of a systems thinking concept: Shifting the Burden.  (In this case, the burden of supporting the body in an upright position is shifted from both legs onto the dominant leg). 

In order to manage that added burden, the body overuses the adductor muscles of the dominant leg, (which pull the leg towards the midline). And because the dominant leg doesn’t come out much (because it has to stay in to support the weight of the body), the abductor muscles, which pull the leg out, get very little work.

So, what happens is that you get adductor muscles which are too tight, and abductor muscles that are too weak.

Now, there are two answers to this question, and BOTH are important. The first answer is global: the system is developing a strategy of how to perform the function that R.B. is asking of it, and it’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg in order to perform that function. These kinds of sub-optimal strategies are what my favorite biomechanics bloggers, The Gait Guys, call a “compensation pattern.” As they like to say:

What you see in someone’s gait is not their problem, but rather their strategic compensation around the problem”

Let me reiterate that R.B.’s dominant leg had tight adductors because her non-dominant leg was carrying too little of her entire weight. In other words, the problem is that her non-dominant leg—particularly, the extensors and abductors on her non-dominant leg—are probably not strong enough. (In other words, the same analysis that we did within the same leg can be tentatively extrapolated to the entire body): If a set of muscles on one leg are too tight, the opposite set of muscles on the other leg will be too weak.
 
The second answer is local: It has to do with the adductors of the dominant leg. I’m going to post a video about how to train the adductors for this kind of problem in a few days, so for now let’s talk about ways in which we can solve the likely global (systemic) problem.
 

In order to see the most likely systemic problem, we have to cut across the whole body: if the muscles on the front outside of the dominant leg (abductors) are too weak, it is likely that the muscles on the rear outside of the non-dominant leg (primarily the extensors but also probably the abductors) are also too weak. Let me be clear that these are just the most likely culprits. It’s impossible to know specifically without looking at your particular case. The job of the muscles I mentioned is to hold up the leg—the very task that the non-dominant leg wasn’t doing well the first place.

R.B., I can’t give you a specific exercise for your non-dominant leg. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can give you a general one:

The Gait guys have a cool abductor\extensor exercise that I think would be useful in your case (for your non-dominant leg). Here’s the link to the video.

What you could also do is this: during the same period (say 2-4 weeks) you are training the abductors of your dominant leg, also jump rope for a few minutes in the way I suggest. However, since you want to strengthen the extensors/abductors on your non-dominant leg, I would suggest that you emphasize jumping on your non-dominant foot. By that I mean that if you jump rope (with both feet) for a total of 6 minutes, jump 30 times on your non-dominant foot every minute.

You DON’T want your muscles to get too tired while doing this; you just want to get the non-dominant leg used to the motion of carrying your body alone.

Especiallyyou want the extensors/abductor muscles of your non-dominant leg to develop along with the abductors of your dominant leg. 

You should ensure that the relative strength of both relevant muscle groups stays constant, or you’ll create another compensation pattern.

Also the reason you want to jump rope during this period is to ensure that the strength is being incorporated into a motion pattern. It doesn’t matter how strong any of your muscle groups are if your body doesn’t know that they should be used as part of the holistic motion pattern. Getting them this motion pattern will allow you to eventually succeed on this task.

The best way to get the most bang for your buck out of this would be to jump rope after the training session for your dominant-side extensors/abductors. That way, they’ll be activated and slightly tired when you jump rope, so your body will be able to incorporate them into the motion much more easily.

Please put your questions in the comments; I’ll address them there.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: If something about running is difficult for you, or it’s difficult to get started running, there’s a comment thread going here.

“Shifting the burden” in running.

Shifting the burden is a systems thinking notion that refers to a tendency to shift responsibility for the functioning of the system onto external factors. Take crutches as an example. When we use crutches, we shift the burden of keeping us in balance away from our inner ear, the calculations of our cerebellum (located at the base of the brain), and the resulting activity of the muscles that work to keep us upright. They no longer need to bear the burden of balance. Now the burden is on the crutches.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that some people need to use crutches to move around in the world. Instead, lets focus on what would happen if a fully able-bodied person begins to use crutches: they would begin to lose the back strength necessary to balance their own bodies.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. Most of us are aware that astronauts experience bone and muscle deterioration while in space, to such an extent that it becomes vital for them to maintain a rigorous exercise routine during missions. A much less extreme example of this is when we put our arm in a cast to heal a broken bone: after two months of immobility, that arm will be much thinner and weaker than the other.

In both cases, the burden of support was shifted away from the muscles and bones, and they grew correspondingly weaker.

“Shifting the burden” is relevant to running because as a society, we have largely shifted the burden of developing speed away from the body and onto the sports drinks and shoe industry.

But that industry helps a lot of people get started! There would be many people that wouldn’t be able to run marathons if not for big-heeled running shoes and energy gels!

That’s the problem. Big-heeled running shoes is a quick-fix. Imagine how much longer it would take to go through the trouble of making a comprehensive mechanical assesment of the body, and taking the time to develop all the correct muscular systems. Just put motion-control shoes on someone, and you can get them running now!

Let me share a little nugget of wisdom from The Fifth Discipline, one of the most important works of Systems Thinking. Peter Senge writes:

“An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problems to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy solutions which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.”

Fixing the body’s biomechanics and making sure everything is in tip-top shape and ready to run a 5k or a marathon is both obscure and costly to confront (in time, energy, and vision, if not money). Once the underlying problem of shifting the burden (say, to running shoes with a big heel) has grown bad enough, we experience a breakdown in the system’s capabilities: injury.

“Shifting the burden” occurs all over, and not just in physical systems: people shift the burden of interacting socially away from their abilities and from managing their anxiety onto alcohol, for example. You add a little bit of alcohol, and the tongue loosens. But begin to depend on it too much, and eventually it’ll begin to negatively affect your social interactions—making the very problem that you were trying to solve grow even worse.

This discussion illustrates the reason why I use systems thinking to develop my training routines. As long as the thing that we’re trying to develop is some kind of system, the principle of “shifting the burden” will hold. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of system we’re talking about. If the burden of its performance gets shifted onto another system, it will become dependent on that other system.

By coming to the conversation armed with systems thinking, we can neatly sidestep the discussions of whether soft shoes are better than minimalist shoes (or whatever). If what we’re doing is an example of shifting the burden, the system is going to head towards dependency and an eventual inability to perform. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the economic system, the psychological system, or the musculoskeletal system. No matter what the doctor tells you:

“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens” – Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer.

It’s a sad story for those maximalists pushing their Hoka Ones like happy candy: soft shoes with big heels are an excellent example of shifting the burden. For example, it has been argued that heeled shoes allow the leg to strike the body ahead of the center of mass (i.e. the torso). This shifts the burden of increasing the length of the stride away from the quads and the glutes on the pushoff (rear) leg and away from the flexors on the swing (front) leg.

Because now the stride can be longer despite weaker muscles, running will now incurring massive stress damage to the body. (For a longer discussion on this point, see this post.

We don’t have wait for the debate between minimalists and maximalists to settle in order to decide whether shoes with a big heel-toe drop is good for us or not. That’s not the point. All we have to ask is: are we shifting the burden of [blank] away from [blank]?

In future posts, I’ll write extensively about many of the ways in which we shift the burden, and how to shift it back to our biomechanics and physiology. For now, we can begin that general process by thinking about a quote from Bruce Lee:

“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

This isn’t just a cute tidbit of wisdom. As I’ve discussed before, the ways in which we think about things affect our biomechanics. The reason Bruce Lee’s speed and power was unequaled was probably because of the unequaled discipline and creativity with which he maintained an evolving understanding of such philosophical statements.

Like Bruce Lee, find those systems we shift the burden towards. Through trial and error, lets hack away at them.