In the second installment of the series, we began discussing small exercises that help you remedy muscular imbalances which, over time, lead to joint pain and prevent you from training. We continue in the same line, by listing other important isolations that lead us to our goal – a balanced physique for training longevity.
Knowing that shoulder issues can stem from rotator cuff imbalances and how these can be solved is a somewhat obscure knowledge – some people do know about it, but it doesn’t get half the attention it deserves. But the exercise discussed in this part of the article is esoteric. The only writings I’ve seen it in belong to Stuart McRobert, which are known for their abundance of details.
The case is actually as simple as it gets. Whenever you go to the gym, whatever exercise you do, you grip things. Your hands are closed all the time, except maybe if doing pushups on palms or leg extensions. Presses, pulls, lifts, leg movements – your hands are clenching bars, dumbbell handles and pulley attachments using more or less grip strength. You don’t, however, open your hands against resistance. Ever. This creates an imbalance between finger flexors and extensors, with the former becoming a lot stronger than the latter.
A while ago, I started experiencing pain in my right wrist. It was, on times, so excruciating that it would wake me up at night. After some examining, I found out that I was basically unable to extend my thumb fully. It would just stop half way between clenched fist and fully extended hand position (the problem wasn’t evident on my left hand). So I decided to give this simple exercise a go, and within two weeks of doing it, my wrist problems were solved and haven’t returned since.
The finger extension exercise is very simple. You take a rubber band (or a few of them), and wrap it (them) around your hand, placing them near the top of your fingers (I can’t pinpoint where exactly as this depends on your hand size / finger length, but somewhere at the origin of your nails should be fine). Then, simply extend your fingers (open your hand) as much as you can (without the band(s) slipping, of course). You’ll most likely have to experiment a bit to find out the proper finger placement and curvature to prevent the band from slipping. Adding resistance is simple as well – simply stack more bands, or use thicker ones. Not that it matters as much, though, as all the rules we mentioned while discussing the (reverse) L-fly are valid for this exercise as well – many reps, fairly slow and controlled movements, no failure training. And, like the L-fly, this is the epitome of a non-stress isolation exercise, and it even takes the “do it anywhere at any time” concept to its pinnacle – I used to put rubber bands in my jacket pocket and train during classes.
Strengthening The Front Shins
We’ll conclude the listing of important isolation exercises with a short mention of another fairly common problem that might result from muscle imbalances, and that’s the Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, better known as shin splits. Now, I’m taking a chance here to repeat once more that muscle imbalances aren’t the sole cause of problems we’ve dealt with so far – just because your shoulders hurt, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have weak external rotators, and doing finger extensions isn’t sure to help with wrist pain. Similarly, shin splits have lots of causes, and doing the exercises we’re about to show isn’t a sure cure for them – in fact, it might not work at all. It is, however, worth giving a shot, both as a mean of prevention, and afterward, if and when the problem arises, to alleviate and possibly eliminate the pain.
Muscular imbalance related to shin splits is that between the front and back muscles of the shins. The story here resembles a lot the one with the rotator cuff – in the back of your tibiae, you have the calf muscle – you’ve heard of it, have it in your routine (and place a lot of emphasize on it, as we have discussed in the first installment of the series), it’s very strong, and commonly very tight. And in the front we have an anonymous contender, whose Latin name is Tibialis anterior. And again, the case is pretty simple – you strengthen Tibialis anterior by doing an isolation exercise.
There are several ways to do this exercise, which is commonly know as Toe raises, but I opted for simples ones, which are adapted for home training, i.e., without having a specialized machine for the purpose. And we’re actually in luck here, since the best results can be obtained with nothing more than a single dumbbell. Here’s a nice video showing a way to do the exercise with a heavier load and proper range of motion. The same thing can be achieved in an even simpler way by using low pulley cable system, such as shown in this video. Naturally, you can use exercise bands instead of cables, if, of course, they can provide you with enough resistance.
Now, I admit that this exercise kind of falls out of the whole “do it anywhere, at any time” concept, but it actually can be “modified” to completely evade the need for weights and gym equipment – simply go for a long walk, and walk fairly fast, taking long strides. Imagine you’re in a rush to get somewhere, but can’t (for whatever reason) run to get there faster. This will actually do a lot for strengthening your front shins, provided that you aren’t doing it already (I am one of those people – I walk often, and I almost always walk very fast). Even so, having this “in a rush” attitude can make a difference. Maybe because this position usually has you leant more forward while walking, which enforces more dorsiflexion, especially if you’re making long(er) steps.
The Balancing Act – Strength Ratios To Strive For
We’ll conclude the series with a table of agonist/antagonist strength ratios for different joints, as they are given in a paper by Dintiman et al. in Human kinetics. The last shoulder internal/external rotation strength ratio comes from this article (PDF).
|Plantar flexion/dorsi flexion
The table is actually quite simple to read. Let’s take, for example, the “Knee” row. It basically says that if your 1 RM maximum on leg curls is 66% of your 1 RM maximum on leg extensions, your quadriceps and hamstrings will be in balance and shouldn’t give you knee problems. Naturally, you have to be careful while making these measurements, as different machines can have different counterweight systems, which could give you a false ratio. Similarly, it’s often difficult to determine the ratios since they require you to know your 1 RM. It’s highly inadvisable to try and max out an isolation exercise, so you’ll most likely have to reach for a conversion table, which again can be tricky since muscles we’re examining can have different fiber compositions. For example, doing 15 reps to failure on leg extensions indicates that you’re roughly at 65% of your 1 RM, but doing the same amount of reps on leg curls is closer to 50% of 1 RM due to fast-twitch dominance of the hamstrings.
So, with this in mind, let’s examine some exercises we had mentioned in the series. The first row of the table states that your dorsiflexion weight should be just one third of the plantar flexion weight. In other words, if you’re using 150 kg on calf raise (your weight included), and do toe raises with a 50 kg DB, your front and back shins should be perfectly balanced. Likewise, it’s fine if the weight you’re using on the reverse L-fly is fairly small, as it only has to be 66% of the weight you’d use on an internal L-fly (which can also be done quite easily, although there’s absolutely no need for doing it).
More Ways To Balance
There are several other ways of examining structural balance, most of which deal with (compound) exercises, in which the 1 RM of one of them is taken as a reference point, and it is said that one’s strength is balanced if other exercises perform and given percentages of the reference point. For example, one of these approaches uses your close-grip bench press maximum as a reference point, and then states that incline bench press max should be 83% of that value, 81% for chinups, and so on.
Now, should this pose an actual, everyday concern to you as a (bodybuilding) trainee? Only if you’re experiencing joint pain and problems. As I had stated several times so far, there is a chance (and a fair one) that this is caused by imbalances in the musculature surrounding that joint, and checking out these tables and comparing them with your own training results could help you diagnose the issue and find a way to remedy it. Otherwise, just stick to a well-designed routine and make sure to put equal work on all the major exercises, not just the ones you’re good at, and a long, fruitful training career will be ensured. 🙂