Strength is a fundamental component of a happy, pain free, resilient body. Every day as an osteopath, I will diagnose and treat painful conditions which have partly arisen from a lack or imbalance of strength in the body. Building strength can be a fundamental part of a patient’s recovery and ongoing health. But what does strength actually mean and how should we improve it?
We all have differing ideas of what strength means. It is, perhaps, most commonly associated with muscle size and tone and an ability to lift heavy objects. Traditional strength training will often focus on improving these things. This approach, however, may not be accessible or desirable for large portions of society. Yoga, Pilates and exercise classes offer other ways to develop strength, but how do we know what is right and effective for us individually?
Strength is individual; it is relative to your body and the lifestyle that you would like to lead. Strength is not only the ability to lift heavy things, it is the ability of your body to cope with the demands that you place upon it. Do you have the strength in your body to land from a jump, do you have the strength to run 5K, and do you have the strength to repetitively bend forward without aggravating your back? When considered in these terms, strength can be defined as an ability to control your movements successfully without pain and injury. So, how do we develop this type of strength?
Firstly, we need to understand muscle contraction a little better…
Traditional strength exercises such as bicep curls, clams, press ups and sit ups, for example, contract muscles by shortening them repetitively, this is called concentric contraction. This improves muscular endurance and the ability to perform more of the same activity. If you do regular press ups, you will become better at press ups. This is, indeed, an increase in strength, but does it improve your ability to successfully control movement and activity on a day to day basis? Not necessarily.
Our muscles are like slings; they catch and control our joint movements. When we step down from a curb or land from a jump, our muscles absorb the forces of motion, body weight and gravity to decelerate our body and provide control. In these situations, our muscles will lengthen while contracting. This is called eccentric contraction or ‘loading’.
During every day acts such as walking, running or bending, our muscles are constantly eccentrically loading. In order to do this repetitively and successfully, we need strength. There is concentric contraction during these activities, but only in response to an eccentric load. Once a muscle lengthens under tension, it loads like a spring with the ability to recoil into a concentric contraction. If you bend your legs, you can then jump in the air. This is commonly known as ‘load to explode’.
Very rarely in human movement do we create an isolated concentric contraction without a preceding eccentric load, yet many of our strength exercises do exactly that. This creates a problem. Your body and nervous system will often not recognise these exercises as familiar movements. If your exercises look completely different from your activities, then the body will struggle to deliver strength when it really counts, leaving you vulnerable to injury. Doing lots of back extensions to strengthen your lower back gives you no guarantee of being better at bending and lifting without pain and injury.
We must think more about training the eccentric loading phase during exercise. This is especially important for muscle groups such as the glutes and the ‘core’. Our glutes fire when we load weight through our hips, our core fires when we lengthen and extend our bodies. Are you doing these movements in your workouts? If not, then you may be overestimating the strength that you are delivering to the muscles, and the ability of your body to recruit that strength when it is really needed. The more you load the body in familiar movements, the more reactive and resilient you become. This feeds fundamental strength and control into the body.
Eccentric movements will never replace concentric exercise, especially in programs where building muscle is the key requirement. This is not realistic and not necessary, but exercises that load you in familiar movement patterns should make up a significant portion of your exercise routine.
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