Have you ever observed newly planted trees?
If you have, it’s likely you’ve observed that people sometimes stake-up new saplings. Staking usually involves two to three wooden stakes being driven into the ground around the base of the tree, along with strings, which are attached from the stakes to the young tree trunk in such a way that it is stabilized until the roots mature.
That sapling is representative of the daily state of the many joints in our bodies. Each of our joints is stabilized by a group of muscles (along with tendons and ligaments) that are constantly pulling the joint in different directions and collectively providing stability.
Imagine again, if you will, the young sapling being supported by the stakes and string. If one string has significantly more tension than the other strings, the tree will be constantly experiencing more of a pull in that direction and is destined to grow up crooked. It’s important, therefore, to ensure the tension on the strings is balanced to give the tree the best chance for growing straight.
In similar fashion, if our joints are experiencing unbalanced pulling between the muscles that act on them, they will eventually become misaligned. This may create poor posture, sub-par joint mobility and pain.
Take your shoulder joints, for example. The ball-and-socket nature of them makes them some of the most complex joints in the body (the hips are the same). The major muscles that act on them include the anterior, lateral and posterior deltoids, the pectoralis major (the chest muscles), the latissimus dorsi and the group of muscles referred to as the rotator cuff.
Many people like to perform exercises such as chest press and shoulder press, and this is fine. However, when these “push” exercises are performed in absence of “pull” exercises -- such as chin-ups and bent-over rows -- muscles like the anterior deltoids and pectoralis major begin to pull the shoulder joint more toward the front of the body, and the shoulder joint becomes less stable.
This is likely a reason that we hear of so many rotator cuff injuries nowadays. By making sure that you include exercises for the opposite muscle groups, you help to pull the shoulder joints back where they need to be.
Let’s consider the knee joints as well. Knee problems are extremely common -- and are often due to a similar muscular imbalance. Most leg exercises, such as squats and lunges, tend to emphasize the quadriceps muscle group (front of the thighs) and leave lacking the hamstring muscle group (back of the thighs).
Both the quadriceps and the hamstrings pull on the knee, and while the quadriceps should indeed be stronger, failing to incorporate exercises and movements that emphasize the hamstrings -- such as straight-leg deadlifts -- could leave the knee joint more vulnerable to injury.
We all have particular muscles that we would like to tone or strengthen. For some, it could be triceps, while for others it could be chest or biceps. Whatever it is, when deciding on a strength-training plan, remember the analogy of the staked, newly planted tree.
Anytime you train one muscle group, you must train the opposite muscle group as well to ensure the health of your joints.
Shawn McClendon is an ACE certified personal trainer and owner of the health/fitness blog www.YourHealthAtTheCrossroads.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.