Movement is Medicine | A Guide To Moving Better | UMZU
In this guide, we will discuss how our body moves in space, how we can move better, and why it may be beneficial for us to do so.
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Table of Contents:
Why Move Better:
How many people do you run into today that have a “bad shoulder”, “bum knee”, or a “weak back”? While these proclamations may all be true, they are only the end of the story if you decide to let them be. And even if you are not in pain moving better can translate to improved balance, coordination and bodily awareness (proprioception). Meaning better performance on the field, more muscle gained in the gym, and more laps done in the pool.
Science of Motion Simplified:
To understand how to move our body better, we must understand how our body moves in the first place. Which brings us to our anatomy…
To preface this subject, I would like to note that if you have ever taken an anatomy class that about 90% of the curriculum consists of memorizing the made-up names that we designated to identify bones, muscles, joints, etc.. While this naming system is very beneficial allowing us to communicate with consistency and specificity about a given bone, muscle, etc., the names are not as important for our purpose as long as we can understand the bigger picture. For this reason, I will try to minimize the amount of “vocabulary” you have to know for this section.
First, let’s start with our skeletal system aka our bones. Bones make up our structural support system like the frame of the house. They are the structure responsible for holding up and protecting our soft tissue (organs) and allowing us to resist the forces of gravity (not shrinking).
Joints are the points where two bones “connect” and movement occurs. How these bones connect will dictate what movement is capable from that joint or its “range of motion”. There are four prominent types of joints in the body:
- Ball & Socket Joints - The hip & shoulder joint
- Imagine holding the end of a baseball bat and moving it around in a circle. This is basically how your ball & socket joint’s move. The upper arm or upper leg bone attaches to the socket of the shoulder blade or pelvis respectively. In our bat analogy, the bigger the end of the bat is (to a degree), the better it fits in our hand and the more stable it will be. But the better it fits in our hand (the bigger the bat relative to our hand) we will sacrifice a little bit of range of motion. Imagine a bat with a golf ball compared to a softball: the golf ball will allow for a lot more range of motion, but will be much less stable than the softball. For this reason, the shoulder joint is more mobile, but less stable, than the hip joint.
- Hinge Joints - The elbow, knee & ankle
- Hinge joints are like a door on its side or the draw-bridges in front of castles, in that they only operate on one plane. For this reason, hinge joints are highly stable.
- Pivot Joints - The Neck & forearm
- Pivot joints are similar to hinge joints in that they only operate on one plane, but pivot joints are responsible for rotating. Think of it like a revolving door that stops at 180 degrees. This allows you to rotate your neck side to side and your hand to rotate side to side.
- Ellipsoidal Joints - The wrist
- Ellipsoidal joints are kind of like a ball and socket joint except that instead of a ball and socket, it is like an oval and socket. This allows for a small range of motion, but across multiple planes.
*If you find any of these analogies hard to understand, I encourage you to actually play around and move these joints through their full range of motion to see what they are capable of. Also here is a phenomenal video that really explains these concepts well: https://youtu.be/0cYal_hitz4
Next, we have the muscular system. Muscles are the actual contractile tissue of the body, with contractile meaning that they are able to expand and shorten, unlike bones, which have a fixed length. Muscles attach at two different bones together and are responsible for bringing the bones closer together or pushing the bones further apart. Basically every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle responsible for doing the opposite task. For example, the bicep is responsible for “flexing” the arm (bringing your hand towards your shoulder) and the tricep is responsible for extending the arm (pushing your hand away from the shoulder).
Muscles are attached to bones at either end via tendons, not to be confused with joints. Tendons are made up of “tough” collagen protein that act almost as a spring in its ability to absorb and release energy or the “force” transmitted through the muscle.
Ligaments attach across these joints in order to stabilize the bones through movement. Ligaments are also made of up the same collagen structure as tendons.
Last, but not least, we have cartilage. Cartilage is a soft tissue structure that acts almost as a cushion between joints, allowing the joint to move more smoothly and pain-free. Over time, the cartilage between our joints can degrade due to unnecessary stress being placed on the joint, leading to bone rubbing against each other. I like the analogy that Coach Joe Bennett (@thehypertrophycoach) gives to illustrate this point. By itself, a door on a hinge will swing freely for years on end with little to no resistance. But what happens if we hang an extra 100 pounds on one side of the door? Over time, these hinges will wear down. First they may start squeaking, and eventually the door will require more force to open. At some point you may need to lift the door up in order for it to open at all. The same thing occurs with our joints when we force them to move in directions that they are not designed to move in, over time it will cause wear and tear on our cartilage.
How To Move Better
It really comes down to two things, tolerance, and alignment.
Tolerance is our body’s (joints, bones, muscles, ect.) ability to withstand or handle load (weight). We can increase our tolerance over time by continually increasing the load placed on our body.
So how do we increase the load placed on our body?
Again, we have two options. We can physically gain weight (which most people probably don’t want to do) or we can perform resistance training. If you have read any of my previous articles, you will know that I am a HUGE advocate for resistance training. Why? Because resistance training is one of, if not the most efficient methods for producing lasting physical adaptations in your body. Here are a few to name:
- Increased bone density
- Increased muscle size (hypertrophy)
- Increased strength
- Increased muscular endurance
- Improved neuromuscular coordination (“muscle memory”)
- Improved tendon health
How To Produce Adaptations
It basically comes down to introducing new stimuli onto our body by progressively increasing the load. Think about it this way… if you want to improve your mile time the best way to do so is probably by frequently running a mile as fast as you can. Walking an extra mile daily is unlikely to improve your mile time. If you want to increase your tolerance, you need to increase the weight your body is capable of handling.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it”
I recently watched a video by Christopher Duffin (@madscientistduffin) in which he discussed the mechanism by which our body is able to increase its bone density. While the mechanism itself is not that important for our purposes, what he discusses in the video illustrates a few great points. Thanks to gravity we always have some level of force being placed on our body, aka our weight, to which our body needs to “resist”, so we do not shrink. When astronauts leave Earth, there is very little if any gravity, meaning very little force is being placed on their body and their body adapts, losing bone density rather rapidly. Bone density has also been shown to decrease as we age. But I would not completely attribute this loss of bone density to age alone and would also associate it with many of the other things that often coincide with aging like weight loss, less physical activity, and no longer lifting heavy loads. In the video, Duffin also reviewed his most recent body scan that determined his bone density. At his height (5’9”), Duffin is in line with about .0003% of the population in terms of bone-density, meaning he has a bone density greater than 99.9997% of the population at his height. While you could attribute this to him being a genetic freak (which very well could be true), it would be ignorant not to at least consider the fact that he has been strength training for the last 30 years. If you do not give your body a reason to hold onto its bone density, muscle… eventually it will deem it unnecessary and you will lose it.
Duffin also brought up another interesting point in which Dr. Stewart Mcgill recommends refraining from pushing “very heavy” loads during your first three years of strength training until your bones have been properly built up to do so. I cannot help to relate this to the big controversy of whether or not kids/teens should be allowed to lift weights when I was growing up. Maybe the question should not be whether or not kids should lift weights but rather, are they (as in anyone of any age) ready to lift heavy weights.
We will define Alignment as how the forces produced during an exercise are transmitted through our body. For example, in any free weight (barbells or dumbbells) or bodyweight exercises the only resistance present in the exercise is the force of gravity, which only works straight up and down. Using cables or machines (depending on their setup) can change where the resistance is coming from. If you have ever looked at any anatomical models, (pictured left ) you may have realized that most models of the human body do not have their arms going straight up and down, rather pointed slightly out to the side. You can also look in the mirror and see the same thing, just stand up with your palms facing forward and look in the mirror and you will see your elbows naturally rotate outward a few degrees. In anatomy this is referred to as the “carrying angle”, which allows us to swing our arms while walking and running (and probably carry things) without hitting our hips. Most people have a carrying angle between 5 -15 degrees.
Why is this important?
This demonstrates two main points. First, that humans are designed to move in multiple planes, (not just up down, but side to side and even a combination of the two), which means that free weight exercises may not always align perfectly with our body. For example, doing a bicep curl in the “vertical plane” could place extra stress on our joints and cartilage because it may not be designed to do so. This form of stress is known as “shear” stress, which places more tension on our joints and cartilage instead of the target muscle, leading to wear and tear over time.
Secondly, this shows that we, as humans are all structurally different. We are all different heights, some people are all legs, others are all torso, some people have a small carrying angle, others bigger. Women have wider hips than men, men typically have broader shoulders and a smaller waist.
Again why is this important?
Because the fitness industry has led us to believe that there are certain exercises that are better than others. NEWSFLASH the squat, bench and deadlift are only the “king” exercises in powerlifting which requires you to compete in the squat, bench and deadlift. These exercises can be great if they fit your structure, but a lot of times, for a lot of people, they do not fit their structure, yet we continue to force ourselves to do these exercises for absolutely NO REASON! It is so common to hear of lifters of all skill levels complaining of joint pain, maybe it is time to stop accepting this as “the norm” and begin to implement exercises that better fit our body. Which brings us to physics…
Tension is the name of the game when it comes to resistance training. Tension is like the “pull force”. For example, whoever wins in a game tug of war wins by pulling the hardest by creating the most tension on the rope. Or if you have ever played with a rubber band you will understand that you can pull it apart increasing the amount of tension or let it lay relaxed. Next, we have torque, which is like the “rotating force”, torque is a bit more confusing, so I will do my best to try and paint a picture around it.
After you go grocery shopping and are carrying your bags from your car, do you hold the bags close to your body or with your arms out as high to your side as possible. Unless you are a psychopath (or a meathead:), you probably hold them closer to your body because it is way less difficult to hold them there. This is because there is much less tension placed on your body when the bags are at your side than when up in the air. This increase in tension is known as torque. Basically, the further away an object is from your body the more resistance it will require to lift it. Following the same idea, if your arms are longer than someone else’s, it will be more difficult/take more force for you to lift an object of the same weight. It is for these same reasons that using a larger wrench will make it easier to screw or unscrew a bolt or why the push-up is hardest at the bottom and easiest at the top. Torque is a type of vector quantity, meaning it has direction and magnitude (size, weight, etc.).
Muscle Physiology Simplified:
Every muscle in the body has an insertion and origin point. The insertion is attached to the bone that the muscle actually moves and the origin serves as the anchor point. When a muscle contracts (shortens), it brings its insertion point towards its origin. Think of a bicep curl, as you flex your bicep (arm) your hand gets closer to your shoulder. When you flex your tricep the opposite occurs, your hand gets further away from your shoulder. The same principle applies to every muscle in our body, as one muscle shortens its opposite must lengthen. Due to the mechanism by which our muscles contract, our muscles are stronger in certain positions relative to others. Muscles are always weakest in their fully shortened position, which happens to also be the position that elicits the strongest contraction (feels the most intense). Muscles in general are much stronger in their lengthened or stretched position (as in the position you would go to stretch your muscles). Muscles are the strongest in their mid-range, basically the range between being fully lengthened and fully shortened.
Pictured is a diagram of our muscle cells to illustrate this point. As our muscles shorten/contract, our muscle cells physically get closer together and as our muscles relax/lengthen, the muscle cells are physically pulled apart. The “shortened” position occurs when your muscle cells are as close together as possible and the lengthened position occurs when they are as far apart as possible.
Putting the Pieces Together:
I know that was a lot of concepts and information, so here’s my attempt to reconcile this all together.
The best way to move better is to choose efficient movements which will allow you to apply a large amount of tension to the target muscle, minimize the shear stress placed on the joint, and allow you to progressively overload the movement over time. Efficient movements are also going to take your target muscle through a large range of motion, align well with the target muscle group, and have a resistance profile that matches your muscles strength profile, meaning that the exercise is hardest when your muscle is the strongest and so on…
So how do we determine what movements are efficient?
Look at your anatomy and look at the line of resistance. Remember, the force free weights puts on your body will always be straight up & down because of gravity. But if we use cables or machines, the line of resistance will change depending on how we are positioned in relation to the cables. Whatever muscle is directly opposing the resistance is going to be the primary muscle worked in the exercise. Now look at the target muscle and follow the fibers.
*Note- This is when anatomy really comes into play, it is very difficult to communicate, understand and remember where each muscle groups’ fibers run without knowing its name. This is not something we need to learn overnight, but as progress in the gym, it is important that our knowledge of the body progresses with it.
All muscle fibers run in one direction from their insertion point to their origin point(s) and will contract (shorten) in this direction.
We can bias a specific muscle group or part of a muscle group by following the path its fibers follow. For example let’s examine the row. When performing the row, the closer we keep our elbow to our side, our lats will be doing the majority of the work because most of the tension is placed on the lats. But as we move our elbow out to the side, the majority of the tension will shift to the rear delts around 45 degrees and to the traps and rhomboids around 60+ degrees. It is a tension-continuum that determines what muscle will be biased (put in the best position to work) based on how we move. The same principle applies to muscles like our chest and delts, in which we can bias them by moving in line with our fibers.
Now go to the mirror and find when the insertion and origin points are furthest apart (fully lengthened muscle) and when they are closest together (fully shortened muscle) and there ya go! This can be a bit confusing for some muscle groups because certain muscle groups are “bi-articular”, meaning they “articulate” or move multiple joints. An easy way to picture this is by looking at your bicep. The insertion of your biceps is at your forearm and it actually has two origins, one on your humerus (upper-arm bone) and one on the front of your shoulder. Now with your arm at your side, bring your hand toward your shoulder like in a bicep curl. With your hand as close to your shoulder as possible, notice how you can still move your hand up towards your face or down closer to your chest because the bicep flexes both the elbow and the shoulder to a lesser degree. For this reason, the fully lengthened position of your bicep will be with your shoulder and hand behind you and the fully shortened position will be with your shoulder and hand as close to your face as possible. Your triceps will be the exact opposite of your biceps and this will also apply to our quads and hamstrings.
Lastly, we want to address how the resistance profile of an exercise/movement aligns with the strength profile of our target muscle group. For free weight and cable exercises, torque will always be greatest when the load/weight is at 90 degrees relative to our joints, meaning the exercise will be the most difficult at this point. This works out great for exercises the bench press or bicep curl because when the torque is greatest our muscles are in their mid-range position, which as we now know is their strongest position to contract. But if torque is maximized when our muscles are in their shortened position, like in dumbbell rows or any kind of dumbbell deltoid (front, rear or side delt) raise, this will result in an inverse resistance profile because the exercise is the most difficult when our muscle is the weakest. This is when cables and machines become so advantageous. Cables allow us to change our position relative to the load, so we change the resistance profile or when the exercise is the most difficult. Machines are a bit more complicated because they use a custom designed pulley system, which we abbreviate as a “cam”, that changes where the most resistance occurs in the exercise. In an ideal world, basically every machine would have a perfect cam, so that the resistance profile perfectly matches our strength profile, but sadly, due to what I would attribute to a lack of knowledge within biomechanics, this is not the case, so it becomes pretty complicated pretty quick. A good rule of thumb for finding where an exercise has the most resistance is by considering what point during the movement is the most difficult. For more information on biomechanics, I highly recommend checking out N1 education, N1 training and Coach Kassem (founder of N1) for a wealth of information on the subject.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across on movement & resistance training. I really hope you found this article interesting and useful as a guide to moving better and pain-free. If you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good