The gym isn't causing your aches and pains - Part 2
In the last piece I wrote that I am a firm believer that chronic joint pain, knees included, is not the result of the stuff we do in the gym or other physical activity. I’m part of the crowd that believes we need to completely re-frame our everyday movement patterns.
My point in bringing up my college and USA hockey background in the last piece wasn’t intended to list my qualifications in speaking to this matter or sound conceited. Rather, my point was that despite being trained consistently by people who largely considered themselves as experts in athletic training, it turns out that instead of being set on a path for a successful athletic career, I was being set on a rapid course for early retirement because no one taught me how to move. It was my first step in accepting that Sturgeon’s Law applies everywhere and that it’s damn near impossible to fight common standards. Unfortunately, bad habits and training are perpetuated in most sports, whether its weightlifting or hockey, and the reason you’re given when you question it is the standard “because that’s what everyone does”… which doesn’t help if 90%+ of the population is doing it incorrectly.
As I mentioned in the last piece, there are a number of ways we’re unconsciously taught to move incorrectly from a very young age. Gym shoes are my favorite example because most people that walk into the gym have (or have had) their favorite pair of running shoes that were custom designed for a ridiculous amount of money and are tailored to your gait. That said, I have yet to meet a person wearing those that doesn’t experience chronic back/hip/knee pain. I could go on for a few pages describing the technical details of the problems associated with wearing those types of shoes, but the example I like to give people is that they’re essentially the same as strapping pillows on both of your feet with a belt and heading out the door. You’re unstable and you’re fighting every second you’re staining to regain that stability. Sure, you do it long enough and you’ll get used to it. Just like by the end of the day you’re not consciously aware that you’re wearing a shirt anymore. That doesn’t make it healthy. Combine that with some less than ideal dietary practices and you have chronic pain and inflammation.
Someone approached me after the last article and said that the pain had gotten better since coming to the gym. Yes! That’s the point of good training because the idea at the end of the day is to let your muscles do the hard stuff (i.e. standing and squatting), not your ligaments. And that’s the point I’m going to make now and encourage you to do the other 23 hours you’re not in the gym.
There are certain cues you’re given constantly when weightlifting: knees out, screw your feet in the ground, open your hips, drive your chest up, shoulders down and back, squeeze your butt. These cues apply to basic movement. If we hadn’t been taught to slouch, we would do these things naturally. If you watch little kids run or walk or squat – or even native Australian hunters if you want an adult example -- they do all of these things naturally. The biggest three things in my opinion you can do to significantly improve posture and chronic pain are:
1) Squeeze your butt when you stand (this isn’t the same as flexing – you don’t have to be a weirdo about it). But essentially you’re learning to use your big movers in your posterior chain (hammies, butt) to support your weight and open your hips rather than relying on your anterior chain (quads) which will result in that patellar tendon tightening and knee pain. Opening your hips will also help lengthen/strengthen your psoas (primary hip flexor) which attaches down in your low back thereby reducing chronic low back pain
2) Screw your feet in the ground. You’ll tend to do this naturally when you squeeze your butt but it will activate the muscles in your knees, reinforce opening your hips, and teach you to use your muscles rather than ligaments to support your joints
3) Shoulders down and back. Don’t be a hunchback. This really helps enforce midline stability (i.e. your back and tummy muscles all working together to keep your spine erect and safe). A number of people have a pretty big discrepancy between their back squat and front squat and this is one of two big reasons for it (the other being a larger emphasis on the anterior chain). This also opens up our thoracic spine and will help with overhead mobility (think back especially to those overhead squats...)
In other words, stand in anatomical position. Turns out there is a good reason for this being the default anatomical representation – this is the natural, unadulterated by sneakers, human position. It feels super goofy at first, but I think most people come around and become ok with the funny looks you get standing like you have your shit together and can lift a few hundred pounds of steak at the grocery store in exchange for the lack of chronic pain.
Squeeze your butt, open your hips, screw your feet in, shoulders down and back. These are all day every day cues that will positively translate back into life as well every sporting endeavor from kickball to the ice cross downhill.