Why even fit people need foundational training

There is this idea that once we’re fit, we no longer need to worry about foundational exercise. We’ve worked hard and we’ve reached the point where even intense exercise feels familiar. We’re comfortable with wind sprints, push-ups and burpees or being in the front row of a rigorous hot yoga class.

Once high intensity has become our comfort zone, it’s only natural to seek out the next challenge. While this is a positive thing, more intensity means greater load on our joints and more room for error in movement. For example, walking places a load of two to five times our bodyweight on our knees. Jumping increases that load to 24 times our bodyweight. This is why it’s not surprising that many fit people experience joint pain and injury. It’s also why even the fittest people will benefit from training their stabilizers.

If you aren’t familiar with stability training, it targets the deeper, smaller muscles of our body that are also known as stabilizers. Examples include the transverse abdominis and the deep lateral rotators. Unlike our larger, global muscles, which turn on and off quickly to move us, our stabilizers hold a consistent, low tone and are constantly making small adjustments to our joint positions so we stay in good alignment.

Ideally, our stabilizers work without our conscious control. However, stagnant postures like sitting, poor exercise form and injury can cause the stabilizers to turn off and the larger muscles to take over. When this happens, we get poor alignment, excessive muscle tension and a greater potential for injury.

Since our stabilizers work differently than our larger, global muscles, they are difficult to target through traditional gym exercises or yoga postures than favor large range of motion. Instead, stability training requires small, slow, precise movement with low load, which if done correctly, will feel like a subtle activation that is different from the strong contractions experienced while training large muscle groups.

This is why it’s possible to be fit and still have some joint instability or movement patterning issues. Oftentimes, we’re strong in our large muscle groups, but unable to correctly engage the stabilizers. This means we have the strength to complete exercises that favor power or dynamic motion. However, without good stabilization, we are unable to keep our joints in their ideal position throughout these exercises.

If we do this for a short while we won’t feel the consequences. However, if we move this way for long enough, it starts to look like a game of Jenga. We’re reaching higher levels of fitness, but we lack the foundation to hold our parts together under higher loads and if we push too hard, we risk taking down the entire tower.

The good news is that even if this is the case, it’s very fixable and doesn’t mean you have to stop your favored forms of exercise. You just have to set aside some time to learn a little bit about your own mechanics and incorporate a few stability exercises into your program. I find these exercises often work nicely as a warm-up and are gentle enough that they can also be done on a designated recovery day.

If you are unsure of where to start, many mind-body modalities will have some element of stability training. Many Pilates instructors who have done comprehensive training programs or taken advanced courses on working with injuries and special populations will have this knowledge. Practitioners who are trained in post-rehabilitative exercise may also have insight and if you are coming back from an injury, many physical therapists will be able to give you some stability techniques to do at home.

If you are used to going fast, working this way may feel slow, or even remedial at first. However, by improving the muscular timing and in turn stability, you are setting the foundation for better results, better performance, less pain and increased longevity.

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