Muscle Balance

by Patti Singer
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You may not even know how unbalanced you actually are.

Just because you don’t totter on your skates anymore doesn’t mean that you’re balanced. Making sure that certain muscles don’t overwhelm others is key to muscle balance, which can reduce your risk of injury.

Studies of Canadian female players have shown that the overall rate of injury is lower than that for males—7.5 injuries for women to 12.2 for men per 1,000 player exposures (practices and games), according to Dr. Patricia Kolowich, division head of Sports Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. But 30% of injuries to females were lower extremity sprains and strains. Of those injuries, 40% were caused by contact, which leaves more than half of the injuries caused by other means.

Muscle imbalance could be a culprit. This can occur as a part of everyday life, such as tight chest muscles and overstretched upper back muscles from a round-shouldered, slumping posture at the computer. Among hockey players, a common imbalance occurs among the many muscles of the hip, pelvis and spine.

“Strengthening the core and lower extremities can protect against injuries such as groin pulls,” Dr. Kolowich says.

She points out that a common imbalance is in the bigger, usually stronger buttocks muscles vs. the muscles of the groin, which need more work to keep up. This can cause a problem because these are the muscles of your stride, and having one set overpower the other can lead to a strain.

Another potential trouble spot is the back vs. the abs. The hockey stance promotes more work from back muscles, which means you need to pay attention to the deeper abdominal muscles, not just the surface abs that give the six-pack look. Concentrate on sport-specific movements and consider using an exercise ball to target core muscles.

While you’re recruiting those neglected muscles, keep in mind that the cure for an imbalance isn’t always to make the underachieving muscles stronger. Sometimes it means getting muscles that are too bossy to back off.

“A lot of programs focus on strengthening, but it’s oversimplifying to say you need to strengthen,” says Dan Elia, a licensed physical therapist in Rochester, N.Y. He says that athletes should concentrate on getting their muscles to share the load and work in concert.

A good example is the hip flexors, the muscles that help hold you in the hockey stance. Elia says that desk jobs and other aspects of sedentary lifestyles overwork the hip flexors. Think of the position you’re in now while you read this article. Chances are you’re sitting, which tightens your hips. After sitting for a while, what do you want to do? Loosen up your buttocks and stretch your lower back.

One way to release the tension in the hip flexors is to lie on your back with knees bent, tilt your pelvis back toward the floor and draw your belly button toward your spine. Then slowly extend one leg, keeping your heel along the floor—and your back in a pelvic tilt. You’ll likely feel this in your buttocks.

While there has been research on whether the female anatomy plays a role in injuries such as ACL tears, there isn’t a lot of research for other susceptible areas. However, Elia says that  women who’ve been pregnant may need to target their core more to restore a balance with their hip muscles.

Any exercises offered in a fitness column can only be suggestions, and they may work for some people. It’s also impossible to describe all types of muscle imbalances. If you think that any nagging injuries are caused by an imbalance, or if you have other musculoskeletal problems, consult with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer who can assess your condition and suggest exercises specific to your needs.

A How To Guide - Photos by: Annette Lein


To begin to stabilize your core, lie on your back with your head in a comfortable position. Rock your pelvis backward so that the small of you back is against the floor. You may feel as though you want to hold your breath to keep this position, but breathe normally. If you want, put one hand on your belly so you can feel it expand with each breath.


Then, draw your belly button toward your spine. It’s a similar feeling to when you’re trying to zip up jeans after they’ve come out of dryer. The muscles on the pelvic floor feel as though they are being pulled up.

 


Once you are comfortable with the pelvic tilt and drawing in your belly button, try to steadily and smoothly extend one leg, keeping your heel close to the floor. Don’t extend it as though you are jamming on the brake pedal of your car. If you feel your back arch, stop and try again. Remember to breathe. It may help to visualize the motion before you start. Extend your leg but don’t lock your knee. Then slowly bring your leg back in, again maintaining the pelvic tilt. Start with three to five repetitions with each leg.


To feel the difference between your normal posture and stabilizing your core with a pelvic tilt, lie on your back the way you normally would. Try not to tilt your head too far back. If you can slide your hand under the small of your back, your pelvis is rotated forward and you haven’t stabilized your midsection.

 


 Patti holds a master’s degree in health education. She covers the health beat for a daily newspaper and teaches a college course about health issues. She is a certified personal trainer and owner of Fit Right In (www.fitrightin.com), which caters to people older than 50 and to new exercisers. She’s still on the ice as a recreational player and most recently as a referee. Contact her at results@fitrightin.com.


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