Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Comes First: Compensation or Imbalance?

Question: "If muscle imbalances can be caused from improper lifting techniques, as well as poor postural habits (sitting prolonged periods, computer, reading. etc.)...then what comes first: muscle imbalances or compensatory movement patterns?"

Answer: I will say that compensatory movement patters that are fostered from a young age facilitate muscle imbalances. As technology forces us to spend less time playing outdoors on our feet; we cater to an environment that is 99.9% seated. This is begun at an early age. Times are different than they were 20 years ago. Today, kids race home to jump on a computer or play video games. Twenty years ago, kids raced home to grab a snack and run right back out the house to play a game of basketball, baseball, or a ride a bicycle.
I believe that taken the actions that we participate in everyday contribute to faulty movement patterns seen by many therapists daily. I think that faulty movement patterns are a direct result of purposeful incorrect movement in life: work, playing, exercising, etc. We learn the wrong way to exercise and we pay the price 12-16 months later with an aching shoulder or painful knees. We slouch in our chairs and sit one inch away from a computer monitor which causes us to suffer from stiff necks and aggravated cervical discs. Then, in a quest to better ourselves, we hit the gym and perform exercises that further damage our posture and muscle-joint relationships.
 Although, many of today's busiest adult gym-goers try to be proactive with the their health; they still fall short in the corrective exercise department. Note: when I mention the word "corrective", I am simply stating doing exercises that will carry more benefit than risk ratio. "Corrective" in this sense, simply means performing exercises that are opposite movements and positions that the body is predominately in most of the day. If we do the math correctly, this is your average gym goer's daily activity level in hours:

6-8 hours: supine position (lying down)
30 min.: standing/locomotive
30-45 min: seated (work commute)
30 min. standing/locomotive
8-9 hours: seated (work)
30-45 min. (home commute)
45-70 min. (gym - performing predominantly seated exercises such as stationary bike, seated equipment, or spinning classes)
1-3 hours: home in a seated position on computer, watching TV, relaxing, etc.
6-8 hours: supine (sleep)


As you can see by my breakdown (and your breakdown may be very different from mine), the body is less and less in locomotive states. With improper exercise instruction, lower energy levels and a dash of laziness--an average exerciser can actually do more harm than good in the gym in reference to their posture and joint function. I will use spinning or indoor cycling as an example.Your average spinning class attendant loves to spin because it creates an environment rich in energy, fun, and community. The classes are challenging and somewhat predictable. You are seated on a bike. How much more is there included in the class content.? For some,  this position is actually comfortable as they can "hide" their body away from fellow class attendees. However,  the class places each exerciser in a position that exacerbates poor forward posture and induces upper-crossed syndrome.

This is not an attack on spinning. I am 100% for anyone that needs to move. Nevertheless,  the type of movement is important to prevent injury and optimize function. Thus, returning to the original question. Which came first? A compensatory pattern is caused by an imbalance, but not solely by a muscular pathology. As fitness professionals, is it our job to design programs that:

1.) Work (are realistic)
2.) Are safe
3.) Optimize (produce results)
The moral of my story? Be more aware of your body more-so than a therapist. Be aware of how you lift, be aware of how you sit, walk, and sleep. Find sources that preach correct exercise strategies and programming and learn how to NOT exacerbate muscle imbalances so compensatory movement patterns can be reduced or eventually corrected.


  1. There is always good time on info on right posture & movement!

    Keep going!


  2. Hi John,

    I think people hav forgotten how to 'feel' an exercise, it can be a massive challenge to get clients to communicate with their bodies, especially after a long period of inactivity.

    I think may people underestimate the importance of having strong movement patterns and attention to technique.



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