Functioning optimally in our day to day lives without physical pain is a goal shared by millions. Some want to be able to get up from a chair without being bent over for the first 10 steps, while others want to hike a 14’er and have no knee pain on the downhill aspect.
Why do we have physical pain?
We can have pain because we do too much of something and we can have pain because we do too little of something. Finding that middle ground is of utmost importance. I call this middle ground: muscular balance with optimal positional alignment.
Muscular balance concept
For example muscular balance is achieved when the muscles on the front side of your body have basically the same power and flexibility as the muscles on the back side of your body. Now it is more complicated than that because we are a three dimensional being. So the same concept applies in the sagittal plane, the frontal plane and the transverse plane. That is a lot of muscles that need to be balanced to live pain free, but not impossible.
Many health care professionals and trainers recommend balancing the power and flexibility of the abdominals compared to the back extensor muscles through exercise. It is suggested that if you do 30 crunches for your abdominals you should do 30 supermans for your back extensors: so you create balance. Hopefully you are beginning to see some minor problems with something so simplistic.
What if an individual who slump sits at a desk for 8 hours follows that example. Will 30 trunk flexion exercises to strengthen the abdominals and 30 trunk extension exercises to strengthen the back extensors make up for all of the slumping (pelvis backwardly rotated creating an excessively rounded curve in the lower back) one does for 480 minutes. I think not. The slumper’s alignment is biased toward not using abdominal power (poor length tension ratio) compared to the back extensor power. Clearly something like 60 reps of the abdominals to 20 reps of the back extensors is more appropriate given the excessive time sitting.
The result of training 480 minutes per day to slump sit is that certain muscles of your body grow stronger while other muscles weaken even if you did the previously mentioned exercises 30 reps each. What is even more depressing it that if you train 480 minutes to weaken and lengthen your abdominals as well as strengthen and shorten your back extensors, the result is that when you stand up, your pelvis is forwardly tipped creating an excessive lordotic curve in the lower back region along with a protruding abdomen which can over time cause sciatica, herniated discs and muscle spasms. Take a look around the office. Watch how your fellow workers sit and how they look when they stand up. There will be variations on the theme, but the observation will be fairly accurate. So if you sit 8 hours per day the theoretical perfect balance would be to do 320 minutes of abdominal strengthening exercises and 160 minutes of back extensor exercises. I don’t have that kind of time. I would rather work on achieving muscular balance in the activity I do the most. So if I sit for 8 hours, I want to be therapeutically training the muscles to be balanced: then do a few corrective exercises to even myself out. This is finding the optimal position for my spine and pelvis.
Optimal Positional Alignment
How does one begin to achieve optimal muscular balance in a world where most of our time is not doing exercise? Think about optimizing your pelvis and spinal positions in the activities you do the most during the day. The best thing would be to visit a good physical therapist like myself so you can be trained to use the correct muscles in a balanced way in all three planes of motion while doing those activities. But until you make that appointment, think about drawing your belly button to your back bone more often to engage those abdominals. Your back extensors will take care of themselves. And most of all, avoid squeezing your shoulder blades down and back. That position empowers your neck to hold you up for 8 hours and creates that burning, nasty spot right at the top of your shoulder blades.