Craig Valency, CSCS

Part 5: Biomechanics – The Big Lie

Don’t Forget Gravity!
In order to be certified, every trainer must learn the basics of biomechanics, or what muscle actions are necessary to move a joint. Unfortunately, there was a little flaw in the educational research process. When the academic eggheads got together to write the biomechanics textbooks, the human body was looked at as an inert, non-living entity, lying supine on a table. It was studied as a series of mechanical levers, not as a living, breathing person interacting vertically with gravity.

We were taught, for example, that the rectus abdominis (6 pack abs for the P90X/ Insanity crowd) flexes the spine, as when doing a sit up. That is partly true if you are lying down. But in normal human function, that is not how those muscles are used. Here’s an experiment. While sitting at your computer, flex your spine forward (bend forward). Did you feel a burning in your abs? No? That’s because the motion came from gravity. Your back muscles were the ones doing the work to decelerate and control your torso, which is why you didn’t slam your head into the keyboard!

In function, the abs work to decelerate extension of your spine. Picture, for example, a basketball player catching a quick pass high overhead, or going up to block a shot. His abdominals reflexively turn on so that he doesn’t fall backwards.

The science of biomechanical (mis)information continues all the way up the kinetic chain of the body. We were taught to train muscles for functions they don’t actually do!

Functional Biomechanics – Enter Gary Gray
Physical therapist, Gary Gray, was a pioneer in this science of “functional biomechanics.” When you get into the details of his work, it feels like your head might explode! Everything you once thought you knew gets turned upside down, and you see the world of movement through a new functional lens. Movements are analyzed from the perspective of the body’s relationship to gravity, in all three planes of motion, in real life situations.

Todd Wright, strength and conditioning coach for the University of Texas men’s basketball team, uses these concepts to train his team with vertical core exercises that translate more to the demands of playing basketball. No sit-ups or bench press for his team! He does all of his strengthening in a standing position, so the entire kinetic chain is always linked and communicating neurologically.

Traditional vs. Functional: A Side-by-Side Comparison of Abdominal and Leg Exercises:

Traditional Abdominal Training
A traditional abdominal training session usually involves lying supine on the floor and doing crunches – hundreds of crunches. Pseudo-functional training would be to do those hundreds of crunches on a stability ball. They still smell like crunches to me though. Repeated spinal flexions eventually wear out your discs, weaken your back muscles, and contribute to that lovely, hunched over “desk posture.”

Functional Abdominal Training
If you do a truly functional, movement-based workout, your core is usually turned on the whole time; so you don’t always have to isolate or “target” the abs.  I do like to do functional core work, though, especially for athletes who need to fine tune reflexive, rapid fire sequencing of core muscles for maximum power generation and deceleration. The core is where the transfer of energy and power happens from the legs through to the upper body while throwing, hitting, or running for example. A functional approach to training the abdominals should involve the entire kinetic chain in an upright position. Here are some examples:

  • Walking KB hold – Here’s a great way to integrate locomotion with core control. Simply hold a kettlebell in front of your body, arms bent at 90 degrees and walk. You can increase the difficulty by pushing the KB outward. You will have to reflexively brace your abdominals just to avoid falling forward. (20 sec x 2 sets)
  • Med ball overhead reaches – Stand about 1 foot from a wall with your back to the wall. Hold a medicine ball overhead and alternate sliding your right and left foot forward while reaching back and touching the ball to the wall (20 reps x 2 sets)
  • Med ball overhead side bends – Stand with ball overhead, bend side to side. Vary the tempo from slow, to medium to fast. To increase the difficulty, assume a split stance or do the side bends while lunging. (15 reps per side x 2 sets).
  • Step & toss med ball overhead – With ball overhead step forward and pass the ball to a partner and catch the ball overhead as well. You can also use a wall. (20 reps x 2 sets)
  • Med ball diagonal reverse chops – This can be done with the feet parallel; or it can be progressed to a split stance or a single leg stance. Bring the ball from the left hip across the body to the right shoulder. For a dynamic, reactive challenge try a quick release and catch as the ball comes up to the shoulder. (15 reps per side x 2 sets).
  • Med ball rotations – hold the ball in front of you and rotate by pivoting your hips. You can add a dynamic element by tossing with a partner or against a wall (15 reps per side x 2 sets).

Traditional Leg Training
I used to do tons of squats, though I’d never use my full range of motion. Aside from the hundreds of calf raises, I’d use the leg press machine, the leg extension machine, the leg curl machine, and even the inner/outer thigh machine (but let’s keep that one between us). Notice a pattern? Most traditional leg workouts involve bilateral leg work and a heavy reliance on machines. These exercises usually isolate individual muscles in an open chain environment (feet not in contact with the ground) and move them in ways that they do not move in real life situations. In real life, we usually don’t load our legs with lots of weight while they dangle in the air as we sit in a chair. Besides the lack of functional carryover, many of these machines create shearing forces at the joint that can contribute to knee dysfunction and pain.

Functional Leg Training
Real life movements typically require each leg to work independently. Otherwise, the legs are in a staggered stance in contact with the ground. Knowing this, it makes sense to train this way. This entails moving in multiple planes of motion and employing forces and loads that make sense to our nervous system. Functional exercises should take into account the load coming from ground reaction, the effects of gravity, and the momentum created by the movement. Here a few of my faves:

  • Step up and over – Use a box that is about 18 inches high. Hold a weight with both arms bent at 90 degrees (or hold 1 dumbbell in each hand). Face the box. Step up onto the box with your right leg. With your right foot on the box, step all the way over with your left foot. Do not touch the left foot on the box. Turn around and repeat with the left leg. On the way up, the leg that is pushing on the box is primarily working the hip extensors, (butt, hamstrings, and quads) which concentrically accelerate the body up. On the way down, it becomes more knee dominant, with the quads eccentrically decelerating the leg. This exercise translates perfectly to hiking! (20 reps x 2 sets)
  • Staggered squats – Holding a med ball in your hands, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and stagger your stance so your heel is in alignment with the toe of the other foot. Squat down while keeping the back heel down as best you can. For a variety of loading patterns, try pushing the ball forward or laterally while squatting. (15 reps each side x 2 sets)
  • Tri-plane lunges – With a light dumbbell in each hand, lunge forward; then lunge laterally; then rotate your foot out to 90 degrees and lunge to the side. Make sure to alternate legs. You can vary the ways in which your body interacts with loads by reaching your hands down or overhead with each lunge. (5 reps to each direction on each leg x 2 sets)
  • Med ball pick-up, carry, n’ walk – What’s more functional than picking up a heavy object and moving it? With both feet parallel to each other, pick up a heavy med ball. Drive the hips back, keeping your back straight. As you pick up the ball, thrust the hips forward. Walk a few steps forward. Put the ball down  (but don’t drop it!), pick it up, and start over. Can you think of anything more fun?! (12 reps x 2 sets)
  • Single leg squat & cone reach – Set up 3 cones – one in front of you and one on each side of you. Stand on the left leg and squat down. Use the right hand to reach to the left cone 10 times. Next, reach both hands to the front cone 10 times. Finally, reach the left hand to the right cone 10 times. Repeat on the right leg. Because of the arm reach the first set of 10 is more hip/ butt dominant and the last set of 10 is more knee & thigh dominant. (10 reps to each cone x 1 set per side)

Integrative Functional Training
I love all of these functional exercises. I still, however, believe that there is an appropriate place for traditional lifts and isolated corrective exercises, alongside functional training. I promote an integrative functional training approach. For example, if we only do functional, single leg, multi-plane squats, than we could be missing a big opportunity to build a base of solid strength that only comes from a traditional lift like the barbell squat or dead lift. The good news is you don’t have to choose one over the other. You just have to know what you are doing and why. You’re only allowed to “cheat” or do it “the wrong way” if you know you are doing it, and you are able to justify it.

I believe that Chuck Wolf is one of the best ambassadors of this idea of integrating functional and traditional training modalities. He teaches some of the most intelligent and thoughtful training methods, which integrate ground-based, multi-plane movements along with good old strength training and rehab standbys. For a comparison of traditional “by the book” biomechanics with functional biomechanics check out the videos on the Functional Anatomy page on his Human Motion Associates website.

Guru du Jour
There is a constant stream of new research and enlightened leaders in our field with novel approaches to functional fitness. This is exciting for trainers, but it can also be overwhelming and confusing, especially for our clients. When I look for the commonalities, the glue that holds these various philosophies together, universal truths start to become more evident. I then do what I can to integrate the very best that each has to offer. I use my experience and judgment. As I train my clients, I see what works best for their specific needs. In doing this, I hope to strike the right balance between traditional and functional training.

In Part 6, I’ll explore how the principles of functional training can be applied to rehab. Western medicine is usually consumed with treating the symptoms and forgetting about the cause. See how important it is that our therapists embrace the new paradigm of looking at each person as a whole human being, a complete kinetic chain, rather than a single body part to be treated. Part 6 will give you the ammo to make sure your physical therapist is barking up the right tree!

To read the complete series start here for part 1: From Muscles to Movements