Biomechanics Aren’t As Important As You Think

With so many variables to consider, how can anyone claim to really know what’s supposed to happen when any given individual moves?

These days it seems like everyone’s a biomechanics expert. From gym teachers to physical therapists, to personal trainers, and even fringe clinicians like chiropractors and massage therapists think they have the end all be all answer to the way we should move. With so many experts around, I had to ask myself “is anyone right?” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent years studying movement, so I am in no way saying there isn’t something to proper movement. But, with so many variables to consider, how can anyone claim to really know what’s supposed to happen when any given individual moves? A quick breakdown of variables to consider would include 3 independent planes of motion (never used in isolation), 46 miles of nerves, 206 bones, 100-300 major muscles (out of 700), 360 joints, and seeming endless ways of combining them to move. I would need help from a statistician just to figure out how many ways there are to move, so how can anyone really know how to move perfectly?!?! Well, one thing is for sure, we can only guess and learn from the best.
Biomechanical Boogymen
All too often I have people tell me that they can’t do things because their chiropractor found something on their X-ray, their trainer said it was bad for their joints, or their massage therapist said it was giving them trigger points. When I dig a little deeper, I general find that there is nothing to substantiate the claims. Why? Because I know that some practitioners use fancy terminology to sell their services knowing that less educated folks are somewhat more likely to swallow fancy-sounding bull**** (1). And because being asymmetrical and/or abnormal is normal! Neck pain is not greatly associated with neck posture (2). Sagittal (front to back) spinal curve does not relate to spinal health or back pain (3). It is highly likely that we all have disc degeneration, a bulging disk, and/or protruding disk in our back right now, and that’s normal (4). It’s not an unequal leg length that’s causing your back pain (5). Even the best athletes in the world have asymmetrical muscle size and movement patterns, and they don’t have issues caused by them (6,7). To sum it all up, movement systems seem to have reserve capacity to allow for asymmetry and imperfections to exist without failure or symptoms (8). You’re not made out of glass and tissue paper, and pain is complicated!
The Catch
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No, you do not have free reign to ignore your exercise technique and/or posture. This is because we know there are ways to avoid hurting yourself! For instance, we know that runners with weak hamstrings are more likely to be injured (9). We know that rounding your back during a deadlift is bad. But, a lot of other technique coaching tips are sort of just semantics for the deadlift. My point is, there are things that we can do to control the likelihood of injury, but seeking perfection is fruitless because it doesn’t exist. Personally, I believe that being in tune with your body is one of the best things you can to do know what’s causing you pain or discomfort. By this, I mean you should have a general sense of what your body is doing. Have proper motor planning by figuring out the actual steps involved in a movement (i.e. map out all the steps from point A to point B). Learn to have motor control by practicing perfect technique in a mirror. Gain proprioception by having a sense of knowing where your body is in space. Enhance this skill by selectively contracting individual muscles, and balancing on one leg with your eyes closed. If you don’t know whether you’re moving well, how can you tell when you’re not? Was it really that deadlift that bothered your back, or was it from sitting in hunched-over position?
What’s most important when considering all of this, is getting strong. You can’t alter biomechanics without getting strong. It takes over 1,000 lbs. of force to deform fascia by even 1% (10). So foam rolling and massage won’t change your biomechanics. Having your back cracked or hips adjusted back into place may feel good, but it’s temporary and normal for things to go back to the way they were. That is unless you get stronger overall. It’s funny how things work out when you keep the body moving. Even if you don’t have textbook technique.
1. Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477. doi:10.1162/jocn.2008.20040
2. Grob, D., Frauenfelder, H., & Mannion, A. F. (2007). The association between cervical spine curvature and neck pain. European Spine Journal, 16(5), 669-678. doi:10.1007/s00586-006-0254-1
3. Christensen, S. T., & Hartvigsen, J. (2008). Spinal curves and health: A systematic critical review of the epidemiological literature dealing with associations between sagittal spinal curves and health. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 31(9), 690-714. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2008.10.004
4. Brinjikji, W., Luetmer, P. H., Comstock, B., Bresnahan, B. W., Chen, L. E., Deyo, R. A., . . . Jarvik, J. G. (2015). Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations. AJNR. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 36(4), 811-816. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4173
5. Grundy, P. F., & Roberts, C. J. (1984). Does unequal leg length cause back pain? A case-control study. Lancet (London, England), 2(8397), 256.
6. Hides, J., Fan, T., Stanton, W., Stanton, P., McMahon, K., & Wilson, S. (2010). Psoas and quadratus lumborum muscle asymmetry among elite australian football league players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(8), 563-567. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.048751
7. Hespanhol Junior LC, De Carvalho AC, Costa LO, Lopes AD. Lower limb alignment characteristics are not associated with running injuries in runners: Prospective cohort study. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016 Jun:1–8. PubMed #27312709.
8. Lederman, E. (2011). The fall of the postural-structural-biomechanical model in manual and physical therapies: Exemplified by lower back pain. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, 15(2), 131-138. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2011.01.011
9. Devan, M. R., Pescatello, L. S., Faghri, P., & Anderson, J. (2004). A prospective study of overuse knee injuries among female athletes with muscle imbalances and structural abnormalities. Journal of Athletic Training, 39(3), 263-267.
10. Chaudhry, H., Schleip, R., Ji, Z., Bukiet, B., Maney, M., & Findley, T. (2008). Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 108(8), 379.

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