It is easy to get stuck in a rut when exercising. Most exercises are based on foundational movements like squatting, lunging, hinging, pushing, and pulling so sometimes it’s hard to incorporate variety into your exercise routine. Take a step back and look at your workout to see if you are missing any of these elements. There is some overlap between each element so it is easy to incorporate more than one element to your exercise routine to prevent boredom, identify weaknesses, prevent injury, and create a better workout!
The body is divided into three anatomical planes: median, frontal, and transverse. The median plane divides the body into a right and left side. Some exercises that occur in the median plane are bicep curls and seated knee extensions. The frontal plane divides the body into a front and back. Some exercises that occur in the frontal plane are lateral deltoid raises and hip abduction. The transverse plane divides the body into a top and bottom. Some exercises that occur in the transverse plane are trunk rotations and oblique twists. Many single plane exercises are isolation exercises. If single plane exercises are used exclusively in an exercise routine, over developments and muscle imbalances can occur.
Incorporating exercises that use at least two planes will force your body to use more stabilizing muscles in the hips, abdominals, back, and shoulders. Activating stabilizing muscles will help create better neuromuscular patterns and help prevent injury. Now don’t get me wrong, isolation exercises have their place in an exercise routine. Isolation exercises can really help target areas where you are looking to see results and really fatigue specific muscle groups, but adding just a couple multiplanar exercises into each lifting session can help use muscles that are hard to target with typical, single plane exercises.
Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises
The kinetic chain is a fancy term for saying that different body parts are connected by joints and when a movement occurs at one joint, other joints are affected by that movement. This happens all the time without you really thinking about it. Basically the kinetic chain means everything’s connected! When referring to exercise, there are two types of kinetic chain exercises: open kinetic chain and closed kinetic chain.
Open kinetic chain means when the extremities are free to move in space. Some examples of open chain exercises are bicep curls, seated hamstring curls, and bench press. Open kinetic chain exercises typically have more shearing forces than closed kinetic chain exercises. Shearing forces are unaligned forces that act in opposite directions. Too much shear force on the body can lead to injury or aggravate existing injuries especially in the knee and back. Let’s look at shear forces in the knee with a seated knee extension; when the knees are fully extended the tibia (shin) has the force of the weight pushing down while the femur (upper thigh) remains stationary. This opposition of forces causes a lot of shear forces going directly through the knee joint which can affect the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), and meniscus. Also think about how the spine works with a weighted back extension. The spine likes to stack vertically and remain in a neutral curvature. During the starting position of the back extension, the back may go into flexion (round). The flexion of the spine causes adjacent vertebrae to move in opposite directions. The force from the weight is pulling some vertebrae down toward the floor and the muscles in the back are trying to pull the vertebrae into extension. The discs holding the vertebrae are literally being pulled in opposite directions and can tear. Ouch.
Closed kinetic chain means the extremity is fixed in space and the body moves toward the fixed extremity. Some examples of closed kinetic chain exercises are push ups, pull ups, squats, and deadlifts. Closed kinetic chain exercises typically have more of a functional component to them than open kinetic chain exercises. Closed kinetic chain exercises have more of a functional carryover because your body has to relax and fire multiple muscles at the same time. When the muscles have to fire and relax at specific points in an exercise, this pattern is engrained in your muscles, nerves, and brain (i.e. muscle memory). Your body creates neuromuscular patterns based on the demands placed on the body. An example of a positive neuromuscular pattern is when a person starts strength training for the first time.
The body adapts to the added weight with increased motor neuron recruitment. Increased motor neuron recruitment means that more groups of muscle fibers within a larger muscle group are being activated by the brain and nerves. The increased motor neuron recruitment causes increased efficiency when using a muscle. This is why a person will see what seem to be very quick strength gains when first starting strength training. The lifter is not gaining lots of muscle extremely quickly; their nerves are getting more efficient at recruiting more muscle fibers.
One example of a negative neuromuscular pattern would be sitting at a desk for many hours during the day. When your body sits typing at a computer all day the pectorals (chest muscles) and upper trapezius are constantly in a shortened state while the scapular stabilizers like the lower trapezius , rhomboids, rotator cuff, and serratus anterior are inactive. This pattern causes a person to have the same type of posture even when the person is not sitting at a desk on the computer. This can lead to neck and shoulder pain. Not good! When we can engrain positive neuromuscular patterns with closed kinetic chain exercises and functional movements then injuries can be prevented and sports performance can improve.
Functional movement patterns also have more carryover into activities of daily living. It is a terrible scenario when a person can move massive amounts of weight in the gym but then sustains an injury while trying to lift a heavy box or move a piece of furniture. If closed kinetic chain exercises are done properly, the body will reinforce good neuromuscular patterns that will help prevent injuries.
Barbells, machines, and benches provide stability for our body which can be good in certain circumstances but when done exclusively you are missing out on activating stabilizing muscles that are needed to ward off injuries. A unilateral exercise is an exercise where only one extremity is working at a time. Unilateral exercises help recruit more stabilizer muscles in the hips, abdominals, and shoulders. An example of a unilateral exercise would be a single leg squat. Only one leg is working on squatting while the other is relaxing.
Conversely, a bilateral exercise is when two extremities are doing the same movement at the same time. An example of a bilateral exercise would be a barbell bench press. Both arms are pushing the barbell at the same time. Have you ever noticed how you can do more weight while performing a bilateral exercise? Let’s say you can do a 250 pound back squat for 12 reps. You should be able to do a single leg back squat with 125 pounds for 12 reps right? Probably not. When performing a unilateral exercise more stabilizing muscles are recruited to maintain balance and control so the total amount of weight will not be exactly half of the comparable bilateral exercise.
Let’s look at a standing single arm overhead dumbbell press where the right arm is pressing and the left hand is not holding any weight. While the right arm is pushing upward the left side of the body has to engage more than the right side to stay upright and not bend to the right. The left side of the oblique, transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, multifidus, and erector spinae are just a few muscles that help with the standing single arm overhead dumbbell press. Additionally, the muscles in the right shoulder must stabilize and engage to ensure that the arm moves directly upward during the pressing movement.
Also, are your right and left side contributing equally while doing a bilateral exercise? For a barbell bench press, your dominant arm may be pushing a larger percentage of the weight than your non-dominant arm. Let’s say your dominant arm is pushing 53% of the weight and your non-dominant arm is pushing 47% of the weight. The 5% difference may not seem like much but this can lead to bigger problems. If left arm is not as strong as the right arm then the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, thoracic spine, and even the lumbar spine and hips can be thrown out of balance. Remember everything’s connected! Unilateral exercises will identify any strength differentials. Bringing out a weakness is not a bad thing at all. Exposing a weakness only helps you get stronger because now you know what needs more attention.
I hope these suggestions help improve your workout routine. Adding any of these elements will help you become more aware of any weak spots in your body, will help you become more resilient to injury, and create better neuromuscular patterns in your body. Incorporating these elements can be as easy as adding or changing one exercise to your routine. You can simply add single leg squats as the second exercise in a superset near the end of your workout or add a rotational twist to a cable row. The possibilities are endless. When done with proper form, using these elements will pay big dividends in the long run!
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