In our last article, we showed that increase in muscle size is only a small part of the increase in strength we see as a result of strength training. We showed that the neuromuscular system is the most significant factor behind our ability to get stronger over the long term. Much of this was focused around the improved efficiency of our brain and the ability to more effectively recruit the muscles of our body to produce force. The prevailing notion was that strength training effectively allows us to overcome the inherent limits that our body places on itself in order to stay alive.
What we are going to talk about today is an extension of what we spoke about in the last article. This is our own unique take on what ‘strength’ actually means, based on the thousands of people that come to see us saying that they need to get ‘stronger’.
To introduce this topic, we must first briefly touch on why our body limits itself in the first place. The primary goal of our entire biological system is to stay alive. In evolutionary terms, the system that was the most efficient at utilising resources would survive the longest. High amounts of muscular strength requires energy to be exerted. More strength = more energy. On top of this, more force has the potential to mechanically disrupt our body (when the stimulus is just right it causes an adaptation), which requires energy to recover from. In a scare energy environment (which is what we evolved from), strength and the excess energy it uses is a luxury. So in essence strength training is prooving to our system that we can handle large amounts of force and need to be able to do so regularly. In response to these large amounts of force, our body will allocate resources to allow us to become better at handling them [see part 2 & 3 for more on the specifics of this].
All of the limitations that limit our strength are designed for our survival. However, these limitations can also have negative consequences, as the environment we now live in, is far different from the one we evolved from.
Maladaptation: An acquired trait that is more harmful than helpful.
These negative consequences are what we call maladaptations. They arise as a result of the adaptive capacity of our body responding to our modern environment and the stimuli (or lack of stimuli) that it faces. The way this typically plays out is our body taking resources away from our strength producing capacity in order to conserve energy (if it doesn’t have to use it, why waste precious energy on it). This comes in the forms of things such as muscular atrophy (a decrease in muscle mass), lowered cortical resources to our muscles (brain not able to talk to our muscles as well), muscle fibre type shifts and a decrease in overall neural efficiency (all of the factors spoken about in part 1.1).
All of these maladaptations can eventually lead to some pretty serious dysfunctions, as they represent a decreased ability for our body to move. These maladaptations are where a large amount of pain and injury that we work with originate from.
To give a better idea of how these maladaptations affect strength, we like to use the model of the movement hierarchy. It effectively maps out the fundamental movement capabilities required from our body to optimally produce strength.
The Pre-requisites of Strength
Mobility is one of the most poorly understood topics in modern fitness. I have written at length about this on this blog and in our free mobility course. The video below goes into why mobility is so poorly understood, explaining it within the context of our mobility program at MTP. In essence, the mobility we have (or don’t have) is all controlled by our brain. Our muscles don’t get any shorter or longer when we train. They simply become either more mechanically strong (i.e. able to withstand more force), or have greater innervation from our brain. Any changes in mobility or flexibility that we experience is as a result of our brain’s perception of control.
Step 1: Passive Mobility
There are, however, deficits in our mobility that can be experienced at the connective tissue level. This is where passive mobility comes into the picture. Passive mobility is the fundamental base of our mobility. For various reasons (mainly lack of movement), our joints can become restricted in response to aberrant (abnormal) loading over time. As force is the language through which our cells communicate, this loading can cause our tissue to adapt in ways that lead to restriction. This is because, at the most basic level, our tissue is simply a series of cells that adapt to the demands placed upon it with no ‘clear distinction’ between tissue types. The most common ways to improve passive mobility involve the therapeutic use of low-level isometric contractions to stimulate adaptation in the tissue areas that is truly restricted. This form of structural passive restriction is less common than what is known as a functional restriction (most people will not have true passive restriction e.g. hip impingement).
Step 2: Active Mobility
Functional restrictions are essentially restrictions that are neurological and can be improved by 10-20 degrees with a single bout of manual therapy or active mobility techniques. These are most commonly what people think of as a lack of flexibility and mainly come down to our body feeling a lack of ‘control’ over our joints. This is a form of neurological restriction that our brain places on our body. It is also what is being worked on with active mobility work, representing the second step in the mobility component of the movement hierarchy.
Essentially a lack of active mobility is the brain not allowing us to access what we have. This can be improved by building strength and exploring our full mobility through various training modalities (including strength training) over time. It’s incredibly important to determine which type of mobility restriction is present, as both passive and active mobility will require very different interventions in order to address them effectively.
Stability [Co-ordination & balance]
Stability is another component that is seldom thought of when it comes to building strength. The fundamental problem that arises when it comes to stability is that most people assume they are good to get stuck straight into things when it comes to training. The common pattern of thought it “I’m not in pain so I can do whatever I want”. This is problematic, as much of our daily life doesn’t expose us to stresses that are faced in the gym. This is arguably the most common cause of injury. Years of sedentary living can cause maladaptations that result in an overall lack of control of our body, as well as decreased capacity to handle load in our tissue. When we suddenly begin to expose ourself to training stressors such as weights and sporting movements, our body which has maladapted to a sedentary lifestyle will be put under strain that it hasn’t experienced in a long time. The longer we have gone without regularly exposing ourselves to stress, the more maladapted our body will have become. We call this deconditioning.
Stability: The ability to maintain control of joint movement or position by coordinating actions of surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system.
Where stability comes into play is essentially regarding our bodies lack of control as a result of maladaptation. As soon as we lose the capacity to recruit certain tissue from a neurological standpoint (i.e. lose strength adaptations spoke about in part 1.1), our stability will begin to become affected. Our lack of strength (i.e. neurological recruitment of muscle fibres to produce force) in certain areas of our body will cause compensations to arise. These compensations will affect our bodies overall coordinative patterns, as it attempts to solve the degrees of freedom problem in order to produce the desired outcome. If recruitment of our muscles is performed by our body in a fashion that is less than ideal, this can open the door for poor loading strategies that result in injury and pain (i.e. joints that aren’t designed to take load are taking more than they ideally would). This pattern of less than ideal recruitment strategies is especially common due to our body having certain muscles that tend to be recruited more readily than others (NOTE: tonic and phasic muscle theory is simply an accurate narrative that helps explain movement compensations). The remedy to these compensations is to regularly practice movements recruiting muscles the right way. That’s why such a large component of proper training is ensuring that all movements are performed perfectly.
One of the most popular ways to explain how stability plays out in the context of performance is explained by The Joint by Joint Approach. Essentially it shows how compensations at one joint, either from mobility or stability, will lead to problems at another joint down the chain. This helps to showcase why both mobility and stability are so crucial to allowing for optimal strength. Without full mobility or stability, we will experience disruptions to the kinetic chain that transmits force throughout our body. As we discussed above, force is the language of our cells, so with a disruption in this kinetic chain we will be sending messages to our cells that result in maladaptations to occur (i.e. injuries such as tears and overuse syndromes).
This is largely the same thing as the neural adaptations spoken about in part 1.1. Strength training effectively doubles up as motor control training in the early stages. When we start training for the first time, switch to a new exercise or come back from an extended period without training, we are mainly training our motor control. Experiencing significant adaptations to our muscle fibres takes around 5 weeks of consistency. This is why in the first 4 weeks of strength training to adaptations experienced are mainly neural.
To have adequate motor control, we need the right amount of mobility throughout each joint that is involved in the activity we require the motor control for. More complex activities will require more mobility (e.g. walking requires a small amount of mobility, whereas an activity such as rock climbing will require huge amounts of mobility). You can see us talk about why this is the case in our article on true athletic performance.
The same goes for stability. You can think of stability in this context as the most basic form of motor control required for normal movement. Without effective recruitment strategies to provide stability of our individual structures, we will have no hope of being able to perform coordinated movements that involve the whole body working in sync (for more on the complexity of movement, read degrees of freedom problem).
When we improve our motor control, we improve all of the neural capacities spoken about in part 1.1, which ultimately allows us to create an effective motor program, helping us to produce a reliable movement each time we perform. This is especially important for developing strength, as the main aim of strength training is to provide stimulus to targeted tissue in order to create an adaptive response within that tissue (both neurological and morphological). By having a repeatable motor pattern, our body is able to avoid injury and we ensure that our body is able to receive the stimulus in the same way. When performing the fundamental movement patterns that general strength training prescribes we develop a set of motor programs that help us perform most movements that our body faces throughout daily living (and many activities). These motor programs are incredibly universal and provide us with the effective base of motor control that we need to solve the degrees of freedom problem and produce force optimally (i.e. our body is now co-ordinated enough the be strong). By performing intelligent strength training with these movement patterns we help to create resiliency within our tissues, by forcing adaptation to the forces our body experiences in this training.
Why Do These ‘Pre-Requisites’ Matter?
Essentially we need to undo the damage that our modern lives cause us. Whether it’s a complete lack of passive mobility, a set of motor programs that are less than ideal, poor co-ordinative strategies, lack of cortical mapping or any combination of these things, strength (or lack of it) is about a whole lot more than simply being able to produce force in an isolated manner. Without addressing these pre-requisite factors that form the base levels of the movement hierarchy we can see that our ‘strength’ will never reach it’s fullest capacity.
This is yet another example of our body placing limits on itself in order to optimise its survival. If we haven’t effectively taken care of these aspects of the hierarchy, then our ability to get stronger over the long term will be severely limited. Not only this but if we fail to address these aspects, then we risk developing the long term maladaptation of injury or disease (See our series on Osteoarthritis as an example of this).
Yet the reason why most people don’t adhere to this concept (and subsequently why so many of them end up injured) is because their ego gets in the way. Strength is sexy. Everybody fantasises about lifting more. About overpowering someone else. It’s easy to see someone pumping iron in the gym and think that it’s easy. Yet when we do this, we disregard all of the adaptations that person has undergone prior to them being able to lift that weight they are lifting.
It’s also a very difficult to see where our mobility, stability and motor control inadequacies lie. Most of the movements we encounter in daily life don’t really challenge any of these qualities all that much. Likewise, our body is an excellent compensator. It is a learning machine that will do whatever it needs to in order to produce a desired outcome. All you need to do to see this in action, is watch people at the local sporting field. Poor technique and movement compensations abound as these people have developed movement strategies that suit their individual weak areas in order to compensate to produce the desired goal of movement required for playing their sport. Elite athletes are better at this because they have spent years perfecting optimal technique under the watchful eyes of professionals that understand the components that go into optimal performance. Applying these principles to you is exactly the same process. We need to effectively assess where your movement is at currently by performing movement tests that identify your ability to perform the fundamental movements. We need to see if there are any passive mobility restrictions and get to the bottom of where your movement compensations lie. We all have them in some way or another, yet for many they may never be a problem. All of this requires assessment under the watchful eye of a professional who understands human movement.
This is the thing that separates MTP Health. We use movement as our tool, respecting the body as a whole, instead of a series of individual parts. This is opposed to most conventional models of treatment that simply provide treatment for the isolated site of the problem and don’t respect over body’s overall function. When we do respect this, we are able to provide solutions to suit any long term goal and offer empowerment for the long term. In the context of strength, that means more strength, more easily.
It’s important to note that just because we might be lacking in some of these fundamental areas before strength on the movement hierarchy, doesn’t mean that we need to stop strength training altogether. All that we need to do is effectively identify our areas where we are deficient in terms of the movement hierarchy, then pick strength movements that don’t require these areas in order to be performed (e.g. switching to a neutral grip dumbell bench instead of a barbell bench press because of limitations to internal rotation at the shoulder). We can absolutely work to improve our overall strength while working concurrently to improve the base components of the movement hierarchy. The key is that we do both at the same time, so we can gradually work on our weak areas, while addressing limitations in order to become stronger overall.
It’s impossible to discount how our body actually creates movement when it comes to strength. This is why the neurological component is arguably the biggest factor that goes into our development of strength. What most people think of as isolated injuries are usually the result of lacking in one or more areas below strength on the movement hierarchy. By respecting these aspects of the movement hierarchy we can not only significantly improve our ability to get stronger, but also help maximise our chances of avoiding injury for the long term.
- When it comes to movement, it always pays to dig deeper.
- Mobility is the ability of our joints to move through a controlled range.
- Stability is the ability of our body to control individual joints during movements.
- Motor control is the ability of our body to move as a coordinated unit to produce an outcome.
- We have certain muscles that will tend towards overactivity due to our developmental neurology.
- Strength is as much about movement, as it is force.
- Our body adapts to our environment. Some of these adaptations can be harmful.
- We will all experience some form of compensation in our movement, this is the nature of being an adaptive organism. If we are able to perform the fundamental human movements well and build our resilience in these patterns over time, we will be less likely to experience movement compensations for most movements.
- The person who is trying to get themselves out of pain will find the movement hierarchy incredibly useful, as it will identify why the pain may have came about in the first place.
- The person who is trying to improve how they go about their rehab will be able to set themselves up to avoid injury for the long term when looking at the movement hierarchy and addressing their weak components.
- The advanced strength trainee will be able to hit on their weak links and identify any potential red flags.
- Movement assessment should be a staple in the assessment of human health, as movement underpins everything that makes humans healthy.
To see how all of this plays out in practice, we strongly recommend you contact us directly to book an appointment OR check out our playlists on YouTube (HERE). Our channel has tonnes of great resources to help you with the common limitations you may be experiencing within the movement hierarchy.
- The Joint By Joint Approach – The fundamental theory behind modern functional training. It is an incredibly useful model to help apply the movement hierarchy to your own training and rehab
- This Is True Athletic Performance: Why The Best Athlete Is Never The Strongest In The Gym – We talk about why the fundamental components of mobility are so important to skilled performance and highlight the complexity of human movement a little more.
- The Science Behind How Practice Literally Makes Perfect – This highlights our capacity to essentially adapt to anything through the power of neuroplasticity.
- The fundamental human movements – This is a list of the fundamental movement archetypes that all general resistance training is based on. It is incredibly useful to understand how simple human movement can be.
- Tonic & Phasic Muscles – This article explains why some muscles may tend towards overactivity, applying it in the context of performance. The origins of this theory came from rehabilitation and this is where we most like to apply it. We should note that this theory has since been put under scrutiny in terms of scientific accuracy, however, it still represents a very useful narrative to explain the common patterns in movement that we see within our clinic.
- MTP Health YoutTube Channel – Our personal playlist of movement demonstrations & practical tips, aimed at addressing common limitations you might be experiencing within the movement hierarchy.