As discussed in part one of this series about stretching, flexibility is important for getting in shape and directly and indirectly affects your results. Tight muscles can make you weak and decrease performance. They can also create compensations in the body and lead to injuries. In the last article I also went over some different types of stretching that can be used to overcome some of these issues. Since knowing how to stretch doesn’t do much good if you aren’t sure what muscles need stretching, in this part I will go over some of the common deviations I see and how you can detect them.
The first test I normally do with a new client is the overhead squat test. Basically to perform this I have a client raise their arms overhead and I tell them to squat. I don’t give too many instructions to them other than that because I want to see how their body moves naturally. If you want to do this test yourself, you can use a mirror, video camera or have someone watch you.
When I do this I am looking at the movement in all of the joints. The major ones that I am monitoring are the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. These 4 joints are where the most common compensations occur.
The first thing that I look at is the ankles. When most people do an overhead squat, the most common deviation comes from the lack of flexibility in the ankle joint. The indicator of tightness in the ankles that I look for is the feet turning out or the heels coming off the ground. When I see this I know that the calf muscles are very tight and need to be stretched out. Most new clients that I test have not worked out in a while and their feet turn out almost immediately.
Tight calves are pretty common and while it might not sound like something to worry about it can lead to the knee and the hip developing incorrect movement patterns. These can lead to tight hamstrings, lower back pain, knee pain and bunch of other problems.
When I look at the knees there are 3 main problems that I see. The first is the knees going out, the second are the knees going in and the third is both knees going over the toes. Having the knees move incorrectly will also effect the nearby joints like the ankles and the hips.
By far the most common knee issue I see are the knees shooting out. This is a common occurrence because this normally goes hand in hand with the ankles rotating out. This is usually an indicator that the abductors (the muscles which move the leg out) and the IT Band (short for Iliotibial band, which is the connective tissue on the outside of the leg) are tight.
When the knees cave in, this usually means the opposite. Tight adductor muscles (the muscles that move the leg in) are usually the culprit for this. I see this problem a lot less, but this one can be more serious because of the vulnerable position that it puts the knees in. This leads to an increased risk of non-contact knee injuries.
The knees going over the toes when squatting puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on the knees and can cause knee pain. This one is pretty obvious to see when looking from the side. A lot of times people will lose their balance when their knees go over their toes and are trying to squat. The tight muscles here are normally the calf muscles because this is normally associated with the heels also coming off the ground.
For the hips, you don’t want them to shift to one side or the other when squatting. This indicates that one leg is stronger than the other and the body is compensating for the weak leg. This normally happens as a result of an injury and the proper rehab not being done. I usually expect this before I even see it though because a new client tells me about their injury history beforehand.
The more common issue with the hips is an excessive forward lean. In a normal squat there is a forward lean to some extend, but when I see a person’s upper body go almost parallel to the ground…it’s not a good thing. The tight muscle here is the hip flexor, which is a common issue for people that sit a lot since the muscle is in a shortened position for a long time. This is another deviation that can lead to lower back pain.
Another common area that people are tight in is the shoulder area. The shoulders, traps, and neck store a lot of tension for people. This leads to a neck pain and can cause headaches if it is serious enough. I can usually see this just from the way a person stands. Protracted (forward) shoulders are another common issue for people who work at a desk all day. If the shoulders are forward the traps (trapezius muscles that lift the shoulder) are flexed all the time. This means they are tight and need to be corrected. If a person’s arms raise while they are doing an overhead squat, this is an indicator of this, but you don’t even need a test for this since you can see it right away.
The other thing to look at in the shoulder joint is the arms falling forward as you go down into the squat. This compensation indicates that the lats (latisimus dorsi or back muscles) are tight. I don’t see this as often as some of the other tight muscles but this can also be a serious problem. One of the functions of this muscle is to internally rotate the arm. If this muscle is overactive the arm will remain in that position and can lead to shoulder and neck pain.
So now you should be able to assess yourself (or at least have a basic knowledge of what to look for) and be able to understand which muscles need stretching. Hopefully you can start doing the stretches and being able to correct any muscular deviations you might have.