I'm 'out of alignment' - how do I address muscular imbalances?
In any movement of the body, there is a series of co-ordinated contractions, extensions, releases and stabilisers activated withing muscles, muscle groups and skeletal structures. When working with the body you will understand that balance between opposing forces is necessary to maintain integrity and function. This stands true in movement as well with 'structures' being bones and joints, and 'integrity' meaning freedom of movement without pain and injury. With all large joints and major articulations through the body, groups of muscles attach and act on the placement of alignment.
The big movers of the body, the pectoral girdle, the pelvic girdle, ankles, knees, the shoulder and the neck - all these major alignment indicators of the body have many groups of muscles acting upon them. Like cables on a tent pole, they pull on the central line and influence where things 'sit' in the body. To use an example, the pelvic girdle acts like a pulley. With forces in the front of the leg and at the back of the leg acting upon it (simple version). If the force in the front (such as the quadraceps) are pulling downward in the front the pelvic will tilt towards the greater force in this case resulting in an anterior tilt. If the forces in the back (hamstrings) are stronger, the pelvis will tilt posteriorly. This simplistic example reveals the balance that is required between the anterior and posterior chains. The pulley system of the body that influences and determines where our larger structures 'sit' in our alignment exists in many areas. Simply put the balance between the soft tissues (muscles/tendons etc) gives us the best possible 'platform' from which to begin when talking about alignment.
Noting the anterior and posterior chains means that you have to be conscious of both sides of the equation when addressing motion and movement with training. If we don't ensure that BOTH sides of the equation are in balance then we will have issues with overdominant muscles. So no matter how much stretching and maintenance you do, if you aren't being active on BOTH anterior and posterior, you cannot really achieve a productive alignment. The pelvis is possibly the most simplistic example, but the understanding rings true for all major joint spaces.
The shoulder is a particularly complex one with lots of various muscles acting on the space and in a very complex arrangement of superficial and deep soft tissues. This is where looking at the 'imagery' of a joint can really help. Stripping away the visual of the muscles and noting how a joint space sits on its own, or how it 'should' sit is a good way of addressing ideal balance. For example, the arm hangs from the shoulder socket - like a lightbulb handing from a light shade. The ribs act like an umbrella, expanding in three dimensional directions such as a bellows. There are lots of 'image' based ways of looking at the body and the skeleton and trying to then address the basics of anterior and posterior activation to ensure the best alignment. If the pectorals aren't balanced by the back muscles, then you aren't going to be able to achieve a good alignment and posture.
So what is the Anterior/Posterior Chain?
Simply put the anterior chain are the muscles at the front of the body and the posterior lie at the back. These 'chains' of muscles are concerned with the co-ordinated muscular contractions that enable movement. For example running forward involves the anterior quadriceps and hip flexors. The posterior chain are also involved in the motion and these include the hip extensors (gluteals) and the hamstrings as well as the calves. The co-ordinated and equally balanced contractions and release of these broad groups of muscle chains enable a body to function in movement.
In training terms it's about striking a balance with the 'chains' of muscles to target athletic performance. Ensuring that each chain is at its maximum capacity be it via individual muscles being activated, or in fact, better co-ordination of muscles together. Classic example, if your hamstring is firing before your gluteals in hip extension, your posterior chain is not going to be as effective. (more on this later) It is necessary for chains to follow not only strength, but co-ordination in movement to enable proficient power/strength.
Making sure that the influences that act on a unit or big piece are as evenly places as possible. If you are active and strong only in one plane of movement, then maintaining the balance is going to be difficult. It can be as simple as a swimming exercise. If you just do freestyle, you'll only be strong in certain parts of the shoulder. You should always included backstroke in the swimming regime so you get the posterior focus happening. Applying this to a general training structure is important. If you only are powerful one direction, you'll never achieve balance.
So to return to our point of the pulley system - if the posterior chain isn't matching the anterior chain, this basic imbalance leaves the skeleton at a disadvantage as bones are pushed into a poor postural alignment. This can be very true over time when and if you are performing a habitual movement that leads to incorrect technique. This can lead to all manner of chronic, slow onset conditions such as tennis elbow, lower back pain, headaches and then can even be more detrimental leading to acute conditions such as disc bulges, hamstring tears and frozen shoulder. A case in point recently of a very fit and powerful athlete developing a debilitating spinal condition from a very small and subtle habit of her chin being too far forward. These subtle shifts can have big impacts when you are involved in actions that require power and loading be it lifting weights or sprinting up a stairwell.
Ensuring these chains are activating correctly and have the correct correlations of tension and force is a basic premise of how we work at Sydney Bodywork. Identifying movement patterns is equally as important as getting relief from adhesions in muscles. It's all in the assessment and in how you approach movement. If you identify patterns, your results are higher. Ensure your body is in the right position and you'll continue to jump and leap and power through your movements without compromised function.