Structural Balance Assessments: Identifying & Preventing Injuries

Sports Injuries

sports injury preventionHave you ever been in the gym and put a little too much weight on the bar and felt that fearful “twinge”?

That tweaky feeling of “Oh no, I may have over done it?”

Then, boom it’s too late.

You did something and you’re injured.

Trust us, we’ve been there or we wouldn’t be writing this article. Even with the best intentions and best form…injuries happen.

Regardless of the reason, getting injured sucks! It sucks because it can keep you out of the game for who knows how long; it sucks because your progress and performance gains have come to an abrupt stop; it sucks because there is no telling how long you will be out of commission or when you will be able to return to play. The road to rehabilitating an injury can be a long and arduous one.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an effective way to remain injury free and improve performance in the weight-room and on the field/court? If only there was a way to identify your weak links and where you are the most likely to be injured?

If only there was a way to prevent many sports related injuries? After all, it is easier to prevent an injury than to rehabilitate one and no one should ever become injured due to a poorly designed training program.

So What Can I Do To Prevent Injury?

One of the best things you can do is know where you are vulnerable and weak. For example, if you aren’t as flexible as you used to be and you know that your hamstrings are a bit on the tight side, recognize and be aware of this when you are working out.

How Can I Identify My Weak Links?

The short answer is a structural balance assessment. We find these assessments to be extremely efficient and here’s two reasons why:
– It helps identifying potential injuries before they become an issue
-Prevents “wear and tear” brought on by repetitive movements inherent in many sports

These assessments have been successfully used at every level of competition, from youth to Olympic, to keep athletes performing their best and injury free.

What is the Science Behind Structural Balance Assessments?

The concept of structural balance is that a muscle’s ability to develop force is a function of the strength of the opposing muscle group and its stabilizers. Many training and sports-related injuries are often the result of muscular imbalances – strength discrepancies between opposing and synergist muscle groups or even between limbs. These structural imbalances are often caused by a combination of the repetitive motions involved in many sports and/or a lack of exercise variety in training.

A Structural Balance Analogy:

Another way to understand structural balance to imagine you are building a house. In construction, the term “footing” describes the concrete support that the foundation is built upon. The footing also spreads the weight of the structure evenly over a wider area. The walls of the house are then built on the foundation. However, if the footing is poorly developed it compromises the stability of the foundation, which in turn, compromises the structural integrity of the entire house.

Each of the body’s joints are similar to the above analogy in that the joint is the house and the muscles and tendons controlling that joint are the foundation and footing. Viewed as a whole, if the stability of one joint is compromised it will affect the structural integrity of the entire body.

This is the proverbial “only as strong as the weakest link” axiom.

A joint is controlled by two primary sets of opposing muscle groups; one set of muscles flexes the joint and the other extends it. Synergistic muscles help the respective primary muscle perform its action. While one primary muscle group and its synergists are moving the joint, the opposing muscle group and it synergists are stabilizing it from the opposite side.

There is an optimal balance of strength between these muscle groups that control a joint, but if the muscles on one side of the joint are disproportionately stronger than the muscles on the opposing side it creates joint instability, which increases the risk of injury to that joint.

The take away point here is balance is important and vital to injury prevention.

Figure 1: Notice the difference between normal and imbalanced strength and its impact on a joint.

muscle imbalances

When the central nervous system senses joint instability, it reduces the ability to continue strengthening the muscles that are already too strong. This an effective safety mechanism the body utilizes to protect itself from injury.

However, this safety mechanism can be “overridden” by attempting to force the already too strong muscles to get even stronger — many injuries occur under these conditions. If you place more strain on the weakest link than it can tolerate, the chain breaks.

While unpredictable accidents will still occur, a thorough structural balance assessment can:

  • Identify muscle weaknesses that leave a joint vulnerable to injury and compromise performance;
  • Faulty movement patterns that cause misalignment of the body, which results in distorted movement;
  • Muscle tightness that can result in strained or torn muscles, and;
  • Provide the blueprint from which your initial training program is developed.

 

A structural balance assessment also provides a starting point for your training. Your initial training program is developed based on the results of your assessment and aimed at correcting your weaknesses, faulty movement patterns, and tight muscles through a progression of corrective and remedial exercises. This approach expedites your results and helps ensure continuous progress.

A thorough structural assessment should be the first step of anyone’s training program whether you are a competitive athlete from any level of competition, an avid CrossFitter, or someone who wants to look better and improve your health.

 


Upper Body Structural Balance Assessment

Predictor Lifts – movements that mimic motions commonly performed in sports
The upper body structural balance assessment is centered on two primary lifts that identify the strength relationships of the extensors and flexors of the upper body. The two primary lifts for the upper body are known as predictor lifts and indicate how well an athlete will perform in that sport. An improvement in these lifts corresponds with an improvement in performance. These lifts are different for each sport and chosen based on movement patterns that closely resemble those commonly seen in that particular sport. For example, the predictor lifts for a football lineman would be different than those for a mixed martial artist, etc.

Remedial Lifts – lifts that assess shoulder strength and flexibility
This assessment also utilizes two remedial lifts that determine the strength of the muscles that provide external rotation of the humerus (three of the four rotator cuff muscles – supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor; the fourth rotator cuff muscle – the subscapularis – internally rotates the humerus) and those that stabilize the scapula (primarily the trapezius-3). Research has shown that weak scapular stabilizers increases stress to the shoulder, increases compression of the rotator cuff, and compromises overall performance of the shoulder complex.bench press exercise

Put another way, an athlete needs a stable base to effectively move their limbs. If they don’t have this solid base it will limit the amount of weight they can stabilize in primary pressing exercises. It will also only be a question of when they will develop some sort of injury, not if. These injuries can range from something like shoulder impingement to serious injuries like a torn a rotator cuff muscle.

For example, if too much time is spent on the bench press and the pectorals and the anterior deltoids (front part of the shoulder) become disproportionally stronger than the rotator cuff and muscles of the mid- and upper-back (rhomboids, trapezius-3, etc.), progress in the bench press will stop due to the muscular imbalance between the muscles that control the front and back of the shoulder and stabilize the shoulder blades. If progress is forced in this situation some sort of shoulder injury is right around the corner.

 

What is the History of Strength Ratios?

shoulder and back exercisesMany elite Olympic weightlifting programs have established strength ratios between the Olympic lifts and their assistance lifts to guide an athlete’s training. Similarly, the normative data for the upper body structural balance assessment has identified certain strength ratios between muscle groups.

The upper body structural balance strength ratios were compiled over a 30-year period by identifying how some of the best athletes in the world performed in the predictor lifts and in their sport, with the least incidences of injury.

The upper body strength ratios were developed with the Bi-Acromial (or Close-Grip) Bench Press as the central lift. What you can perform in this lift determines how much weight you should be able to use in other exercises that are applicable to achieving structural balance.

 

Figure 2 details the percentages of the one rep max used in the Bi-Acromial Bench Press an athlete should be able to perform in other lifts when structurally balanced.


Predictor LiftPercentage of Bi-Acromial Bench Press
Bi-Acromial Barbell Bench Press100%
Parallel Bar Dip (including bodyweight)117%
Bi-Acromial Incline Barbell Bench Press91%
Supinated Chin-Up87%
Barbell Press Behind the Neck66%
Scott Bench EZ-Bar Curl46%
Standing EZ-Bar Reverse Curl35%
Poliquin International Certification Program, Level 1 manual

Figure 2. Optimal upper body strength ratios


 

Lower Body Structural Balance Assessment

The lower-body structural balance assessment looks for muscular imbalances in the ankle, knee, hip, pelvis, and lower back and identifies how internal and external forces affect how the body moves. This assessment also identifies imbalances between the left and right legs as well as from the front and back of the lower body.

The first part of the lower body structural assessment observes an athlete’s dynamic flexibility, or how specific muscles move a joint through its range of motion, and exposes the weaker sets of muscles controlling the joints of the lower body.

Movement Patterns:  A Deeper Dive

The term “movement pattern” describes the order in which the brain activates certain muscles to produce movement. As mentioned previously, when the muscles controlling a joint are out of balance it negatively affects how that joint works. If movement is distorted at one joint it negatively affects the sequence and level of activation of the other muscles involved in that movement. Disruption of proper movement distributed over a series of joints leads to faulty movement patterns.

Over time, these faulty movement patterns become ingrained in the central nervous system causing the body to be increasingly misaligned. Continued movement under these conditions leads to more muscular imbalances and further aggravates existing ones, and steadily degrades joint function to the point of injury.

For example, the barbell squat is universally recognized as the “king” of exercises and its use in developing lower body strength and power is well documented in strength and conditioning research. Lower back strength is critical to the performance of the barbell squat as it is a primary stabilizer of the trunk.hamstring pull

However, if the low back is the weak link in the chain of muscles used in the squat the ability to stabilize and protect the spine is compromised. In this situation if more weight is used than what the low back can safely support, the strain is shifted to other muscles that are not “equipped” to handle the increased weight, thereby changing the sequence of muscles activated and the degree to which they are activated.

Under these conditions reinforcing this faulty movement pattern and repeatedly adding strain to muscles that are not suited to handle it overstresses them and puts them on the fast track to injury. This is especially true of the low back.

The second part of the lower body structural balance assessment focuses on passive flexibility, or how flexible (or not) a muscle is at rest. A muscle contraction can be explained based on two factors: length and tension. When a muscle is at rest it is stretched yet still partially contracted, referred to as muscle tonicity.

Muscles have an ideal level of tonicity when they’re at their optimal resting length. A muscle at optimal resting length has the greatest potential to activate the most tension-generating sites within a muscle fiber. The more tension-generating sites a muscle has available for activation, the more forcefully it can contract.

A mweightlifting formuscle that is tight, relative to its optimal resting length, has a higher degree of tonicity at rest (hypertonic). At rest, a hypertonic muscle has fewer tension-generating sites available for contraction because many of these sites are already activate, which is what is responsible for keeping the muscle in a hypertonic state. If there are fewer tension-generating sites available for activation when a muscle is at its resting length, the weaker its contraction.

A pulled muscle, or muscle strain, happens when a muscle is overstretched. When a muscle is hypertonic (and tight) at rest it is “shorter” than its optimal resting length. Under these conditions it is much easier to overstretch the muscle and develop a strain-type injury.

For example, an athlete who has exceptionally tight hamstrings is at increased risk for straining/pulling a hamstring. Many hamstring strain-type injuries occur when an athlete is sprinting and the hamstrings of the swing leg act to “brake” knee extension, while the hip is in flexion, just before the foot strikes the ground. At this point the hamstrings are at their longest length and experience the highest forces. If the hamstrings are tight they will not respond well to the rapid lengthening or high forces involved with sprinting. If this imbalance of the hamstrings is not addressed, the risk of pulling a hamstring, or in extreme cases a tear, dramatically increases.

Why Should I Do A Structural Balance Assessment?

  • Identify muscle weaknesses that leave a joint vulnerable to injury and compromise performance;
  • Faulty movement patterns that cause misalignment of the body, which results in distorted movement;
  • Muscle tightness that can result in strained or torn muscles, and;
  • Provide the blueprint from which your initial training program is developed.

Undergoing upper and lower body structural balance assessments can identify your limitations and set you up for better long-term progress. They can also catch potential injuries before they become an issue and prevent against the “wear and tear” caused by the repetitive movements common to so many sports. You should never become injured due to a poorly designed training program.

It is true, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Contact The Athletic Strength Institute to learn more.

We are now offering personal training in Kansas CityOlathe, Overland Park, Leawood and Lenexa.