The modern lifestyle certainly doesn’t help our battle with bad movement mechanics; sitting at a desk, hands on a keyboard, sitting on the couch, sitting in the car, sitting at the dinner table, sitting in cafe, sitting, sitting sitting!  So much of our lives are spent in a seated position. Basically from the moment we start primary school and are made to sit at our desk for class we begin the slow battle against a return to the foetal position. 

The very nature of being bipedal creatures and having our hands free to grasp and touch means that just about everything happens in front of us. As a result, our natural tendency as humans is to flex to move forward, i.e. to get shorter in the front and longer in the back. 

A very very smart man in the Czech Republic, Vladmir Janda (along with the development of  brilliant observational and manual movement based assessment and treatment techniques), describes two separate types of muscles based on their neural and developmental foundation; tonic and phasic muscles. In general terms (there are some exceptions) the tonic muscles are all those that work to make us flex (curl up) and the phasic are those that work to make us extend (open up). He also describes the tendencies of these two types of muscle groups: tonic (flexor) muscles tend to shortness and tightness and phasic muscles (extensors) tend to inhibition and weakness. 

So considering our modern lifestyle and excessive time seated, coupled with our innate tendency to flex, it’s no wonder an estimated 80% of people experience an episode of back pain in their lifetime. More disturbing though, is that of the people who experience an episode of back pain approximately 8% will go on to develop chronic (long term) symptoms. 

It is well accepted that in the pursuit of athletic performance speed and power development are king, and the key to speed and power is improved extension strength and power in the posterior chain. The problem for the average athlete is that our tendency, as described by Janda, to a flexed position and tone in the muscles that make us curl up, results in the tendency for inhibition of those that extend us. Why is this such a problem? Well, if you sit for the majority of your day in a curled up, flexed hip position at work, then get into your car or bus for some pre-workout sitting, and then walk into the gym to stand under the squat rack with tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings, tight pectorals, and weak inhibited glutes and mid-lower traps, how well do you think you are going to squat? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you will probably suck. At least your form will. Chances are you will be seriously quad dominant, slide forward into your knees and toes once you get anywhere near below parallel, and then over extend the crap hell out of your low back to try and stop the bar from crushing you. 

So whats the solution to this problem? Get smart. Become a thinker in the gym and plan your pre-workout preparation a little. 

The best way to start is to split your warm up into two parts;

1. Targeted movement prep: This includes promoting the correct activation and joint position you want for the bigger movements. For instance, if you are about to squat: hitting some crab walks or hip bridges. If you are going to press: some band pull aparts or some wall slides.

2. Global movement prep: This is your more traditional warm up. Work up through a full range of motion and get the heart rate up. 

Too often coaches and trainers jump straight into part 2 – global movement prep. Yeah you get warm, but you just reinforce all the bad positions we are battling against, because you or your athletes just default to their dominant areas. 

Once you have split your warm up into 2 parts hit your mobility and activation exercises with some focus. Below is a table of some well known muscles/muscle groups (and roughly where they are located) that fall into the tonic and phasic categories. 

Every time you complete part 1 of your ‘smart warm up’ (movement prep) try and include at least 1 activation exercise for a phasic muscle/s and 1 mobility exercise for a tonic muscle/s. 

Phasic:
prone to weakness 

Glutes max, med and min. (your backside, all of it) 

Vastus Medialis/ lateralis (inner and outer sides of front of thigh)

Serratus Anterior (finger like muscles that wrap around your sides from under your shoulder blade)

Rhomboids (between shoulder blades)

Mid-Lower Trapezius (roughly – between shoulder blades)

Triceps (back of your upper arm)

Wrist extensors (back hand side of forearm)

Rectus abdominis (abs)

Scalenes (front sides of neck)

Deep neck flexors (inside front of neck)

Tibialis anterior (front outside of shin)

Peroneals (outside of lower leg)

Tonic:
Prone to tightness

Piriformis  (deep hip muscle runs from top of thigh to pelvis)

Hamstrings (back of thigh)

Rectus Femoris (middle of front of thigh)

Hip Adductors (inner thigh)

Tensor Fascia Late (TFL – just below and to outside of your ASIS – google it)

Hip Flexors (illiopsoas)

Pecs major and minor (chest muscles)

Biceps (front of upper arm)

Wrist flexors (palm side of forearm)

Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) 

Upper Trapezius (roughly from side of neck across top/back of shoulders)

Thoraco-lumbar paraspinals (run vertically either side of your spine through your middle/upper back)
*For the movement nerds out there, Janda classified the tonic and phasic as ‘generally flexes and generally extends’ but are based on phylogenetic age and movement tendencies i.e. repetitive and rhythmic or acting eccentrically against gravity, so not all are purely flexor or extensor muscles. 

And for what it’s worth, do yourself a favour and get up out of your chair every 15-30mins and move a little. Regular movement along with a smart warm up will not only improve your performance, it will reduce the risk of you adding to those back pain statistics! Come on people, be in the pain free 20%! 
 

References:

  • Page P, Frank CC, Lardner R. Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach, 2010. Human Kinetics, Champaign IL.
  • Carey TS, Garrett JM, Jackman AM. Beyond the good prognosis. Examination of an inception cohort of patients with chronic low back pain. Spine. 2000;25:115-120.