There is an old saying among strength and conditioning coaches that you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe with any accuracy.
What it means is this: If your body is unstable, you can’t express your strength and power to their potential in any movement consistently without injuring yourself. A strong and lean body looks good, but a rock-solid mid-section, hips and shoulders are absolutely essential for overall fitness and sporting performance, and drastically reduce your chances of getting hurt.
We tend to think of movements as originating from the limbs (periphery) instead of the core. Research shows that the core fires 30-100 milliseconds before the arms and legs respond neurologically to any form of movement, regardless of the direction or speed of motion. No movement is really isolated to the limbs. All functional movements—for example, walking, running, sitting, standing, getting up from a seated or prone position, pulling, pushing and lifting—are heavily dependent on the stabilizing muscles of your core, hips and shoulders.
The human body moves in such a manner that while some muscles act as mobilizers and aid in movement, others act as stabilizers to keep the joints from wobbling or swaying unnecessarily in order to make the movement fluid and efficient while keeping the body balanced. The three primary areas where the human body needs stability are the core, the shoulders and the hips. The deep stabilizers in these regions are sometimes referred to as the “pillar” of the human frame. If you think of the body as a wheel, the pillar is the hub and the limbs are the spokes. Unless the hub is strong and stable, it is impossible to rotate the wheel powerfully and generate momentum in the spokes.
Stability can be divided broadly into two categories. Static stability, also known as postural stability, is the ability to remain in one position for a period of time without losing good structural alignment or posture. And dynamic stability is the ability to keep all the working joints in optimal alignment during any given movement, such that the efficiency of the movement is perfect, there is no undue stress on any part of the body, and the body is not off-balance.
The deep muscles along the spine multifidus, the muscles of the pelvic floor, the deepest abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis) and the large breathing muscle (diaphragm) are known as the inner unit muscles and provide a protective shield for your spinal cord and internal organs. Their primary job with regard to movement is to stiffen the spine, rib cage and pelvic girdle so the head, arms and legs have a stable working foundation. If the inner unit does not fire effectively, it will not be possible to stabilize yourself and you will expose yourself to injury, particularly in the lower back, where there is a lot of load on the spine. In other words, lack of inner-unit functionality makes you the unstable canoe, and moving your arms and legs powerfully equates to firing the cannon, which is not a clever idea unless you like capsizing.
Anyone who has ever thrown or hit a ball with a club, bat or racket would have heard of the rotator cuff muscles, which are the prime stabilizers of the shoulder joint. These muscles are as important in everyday life as they are in sports.
The shoulder joint and the muscles around it are capable of generating some serious speed and power. It is estimated that the arm of a baseball chucker is capable of producing speeds of 7,000 degrees per second. One complete revolution of the arm is 360 degrees; so you can imagine the kind of speed we are trying to cope with here! But since none of us are cut out for such activities, let us look at the relevance of shoulder stability in our daily lives.
In one of my previous columns, I had written about how our shoulders are locked in an imaginary chamber (“Free your shoulders”, 20 August). It’s our natural instinct to drop the shoulders forward, especially after long periods of sitting, leading to a poor posture. But if you were to look at a skeleton, you’d notice just the opposite—that the shoulder blades stay back and down.
Most of us don’t realize how hunched over we are from sitting at computers and travelling in cars. Next time you’re people-watching at a mall or an airport, pay attention to just how many of them have hunched, shuffling postures. Compare that to the erect posture of the security forces deployed at the airport, who have been standing around for much longer than any passenger. This stooped posture makes you significantly more likely to encounter rotator cuff and back problems.
Tight and immobile hips are the root cause of many lower-extremity injuries. For ankle, knee and heel injuries, we typically look at the site of the pain, but most of these injuries are a direct result of an unstable and weak hip joint.
If the hips are not versatile and dynamic, your body cannot recruit the muscles around the pelvic area. As a result it compensates by distributing excess force to the knees, feet and ankles, thereby injuring these areas.
On either side of the pelvis is a hip “capsule”, where the femur attaches to the pelvis. This, along with more than 40 muscles in and around the capsule, creates the “hip cuff”. This should allow you to rotate your knees in or all the way out, as well as lift your leg up or back or sideways. For example, most people do the squat exercise wrong, activating the movement through the quadriceps (front of the thighs) rather than the hip muscles. As a result, the knees slide forward more than they should, the glutes don’t get involved, and there is undue pressure on the knees and lower back. Our goal is to become more glute-dominant.
Watch children to see how well they squat and stand up. Many of us have lost this movement from sitting too much and being inactive. Always initiate your squats by pushing your butt back and sinking down on them while you bend your knees. Think about sitting back on an imaginary chair, keeping your chest elevated, your shoulders pulled back and down and your abs tight. Feel your glutes and the other muscles of your hip capsule stretch as you lower your body. Squeeze your glutes to stand back up. If you do this consistently over a period of time, your muscles will learn automatically how to fire in the correct way, and will do so every time you are going up steps, squatting to pick up something, or simply standing up from a seated position.
Three exercises that will strengthen and stabilize your body
Kneeling on a swiss ball
Kneeling on a Swiss ball is my favourite exercise for developing proprioceptive reflexes (the sense of balance and coordination of the body). Place your hands on a Swiss ball and slowly rock forward until you are balancing on the ball with your hands and knees. From there, let go with your hands and raise up on to your knees. Use your shins as they create a larger base of support than just your knees. Practise kneeling on the ball for as long as possible without coming off the ball. You should be able to kneel till you can stay 2-3 minutes on the ball for a single set.
Begin in a half-kneeling position, maintaining an extension in the spine to optimally engage the torso in the spiral movement. Holding a rope or a towel tightly over your head, perform a chopping motion across the body towards the rear leg and return slowly to the starting position. Inhale while extending your torso and exhale on flexion. Perform 10 slow and deliberate movements before repeating on the other side. You could work up to two-three sets.
This is a full-body strength builder but, more relevant to this article, it develops the shoullder cuff muscles in totality, working both the deltoids and the scapula. Hold a kettlebell firmly, and start in a semi-squat position with the kettlebell hanging between your legs. Explode up from the hips, and swing your arm up at the same time so your arm goes straight up in one movement. Do a set of 10 without a break, then change arms.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
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