Muscle Imbalances Part 2: The Long and Short of It
In the previous post, we looked at how a muscle can become overactive to compensate for a reduction in function somewhere else in the body.
The example of tight hip flexors from weak ankles was brought to the surface, and the concept of strengthening the problem to correct the symptom was discussed.
A lot of people weighed in on this concept with dismay that stretching tight muscles would not allow that muscle to lengthen!! For this post, we will look at another classic case of muscle imbalance and overactive fatigue, the hamstrings.
The 3 Hams
The three hamstring muscles cause the knee to flex and the hip to extend, and when activated on either the medial or lateral aspects, can cause tibial internal and external rotation and hip internal and external rotation. This is because it is a big two-joint muscle and plays a big role in pelvic function as well as knee integrity; it can play a huge role in the health of our backs, hips and knees.
One of the hallmarks symptoms and predisposing factors of low back pain is tight hamstrings.
We could look at this as being a chicken versus egg situation: did the tight hamstrings cause low back pain, or did the low back pain result in tight hamstrings?
If we look at a typical office worker, they tend to have a slightly kyphotic posture that gets worse over time. These desk jockeys will lose lumbar extension capability, tilting their pelvis and positioning it so that their hamstrings are effectively shortened. To provide some measure of stability to the now dysfunctional low back region so the keyboard hulks can keep their posture hovering over their computers, the hamstrings tense up and pull the back into a rigid, yet immobile structure.
What is the solution?
Stretch the tired hammies that are only trying to keep the place together?
If we stretch them now, the back will lose stability, and injury to the back will likely occur. This would be like taking structural supports away from a dam and hoping we have enough towels to clean up the mess afterwords.
With most back injuries where people are locked into a kyphotic posture, the major range of motion lost is spinal extension, and the affected muscles causing extension become stretched and weak. In this state, the hip flexor becomes the major muscle capable of causing some amount of spinal extension by pulling on the front of the vertebrae, which creates a shear force within the spine and pressurizes the discs, leading to an increased risk of injury. The hamstrings will balance this out by pulling the pelvis into a posterior tilt, which further pressurizes the discs and creates an imbalance between forces pulling the vertebrae down onto the discs versus those that pull up on the vertebrae. This will likely lead to disc issues, soft tissue trauma, and a lack of leg strength and back strength.
Since those pesky tight hammies that we have been stretching daily for the past few years just don’t seem to be getting any more flexible, the obvious question becomes, “Should we keep stretching the hell out of them?” A better solution would be to find ways to strengthen the spine through active extension so that it can build up it’s own stability, take the load off the hamstring, let them relax a little, and return to their normal activities so they can stretch out on their own.
For all the endurance athletes out there, or the stair-masters/elliptical masters who can’t get their hamstrings to loosen after spending one or three hours on a stationary piece of cardio machinery, try getting a little extension in your back, and see what happens to your hammies. They may just like it!!
It is Rick again.
Dean was one of the big contributors to MIR2. He has two great presentations on fascia. If you are a trainer, coach or therapist, I know they will help you.
To check the presentations out, CLICK HERE.
Rick Kaselj, MS