Regular readers know that I am studying to be a Restorative Exercise Specialist through Katy Bowman’s Restorative Exercise Institute. Not surprisingly, I incorporate much of what I learn into the classes that I teach.

Both through my RES studies and the work I’ve done independently, I’ve become fascinated by the compensation patterns that the body adopts.

When given a task, our bodies are going to do what it takes to accomplish that task with the tools that it has, regardless of whether the strength and mobility that are necessary to complete the task exist. When we lack the strength and mobility, our brains simply recruit other body parts to accomplish the task. Our brain learns these new movement patterns and starts to rely on them.

But these newly recruited body parts aren’t designed for the wear and tear we are now giving them, so they get tired. And they hurt. Meanwhile, the body parts we were supposed to be using start to atrophy because they’re not being used the way they were meant to be used either.

I’ll give a concrete example that I see every time I teach.

I’ll cue the class to “bend forward at the hips.” I have them maintain contact with their upper thighs so that the movement is supported. Invariably, if given no other cues, most of the class will flex their lumbar spine instead of flexing their hip joints. (This causes the S-curved spine to fall into a C-curve shape.)

Why do they do this? First of all, it’s culturally ingrained. Walk into any yoga class and you see forward fold after forward fold relying mainly on lumbar flexion and very little on hip flexion. (There are some fantastic folks in the yoga community working hard to marry their tradition with biomechanics, though. Notably, the work of Matthew Remski and his WAWADIA Project brings to light the risk of injury with traditional forward folds here.) But we see it in everyday life, too, don’t we? That’s because we are a sedentary, postively-heeled shoe-wearing culture and, as a result, the backs of our legs have shortened. Without biologically-appropriate length in our calves and hamstrings, we compensate. We use our backs.

But our lumbar spine wasn’t designed to work this way. In this post on how to modify the forward bend, Katy Bowman explains the whys and hows:

Any downward motion beyond this point is all lumbar flexion — aka where the lumbar discs are most susceptible to damage.  And as you come back up, it will be the spinal extensors that must pick up the weight of the torso. Which seems balanced (hey, if I’m flexing, shouldn’t I extend?) but isn’t. Spinal extensors do not have the leverage to continuously (and repetitively)  hold the weight of your torso.

Add, as many people in my class do, hand weights, and you have a recipe for disaster for that lumbar spine. (I mean, is there anyone among us who doesn’t know someone with lower back pain?)

This is one example of many I could provide. I can visually observe many of the compensation patterns my clients adopt. The beauty of Katy Bowman’s work is that through alignment cues, we can eliminate many of the most common patterns people have adopted.

But there are many compensation patterns that I cannot spot in a group exercise setting because of the limitations of class size and time. There are still others that I am simply not trained to spot.

That places the onus of ferreting these things out on the client. And I strongly encourage my clients who are experiencing either chronic pain or acute injury to take that journey of discovering their compensations. At the end of this post, I have provided some resources and tools you can explore to do the same for yourself.

Next up, I’ll discuss ways that I unveil compensations in class and the feedback I’ve gotten from clients.

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Resources

Neurokinetic Therapy: “Treat the cause of dysfunction, not the symptoms. NeuroKinetic Therapy™ corrective movement system addresses the cause of pain – dysfunctional movement patterns stored in the brain.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work remotely with an NKT practitioner, Perry Nickleston of Stop Chasing Pain, and in just one Skype session, he was able to pinpoint a major compensation pattern upon which I was relying and gave me homework to help remedy it. To find an NKT practitioner near you, visit this page.

Functional Movement Screening: With screening methods for both the injured and non-injured client, FMS practitioners basically watch you perform a series of movements and identify asymmetries, weaknesses and imbalances. I wish every single person who walks through my classroom doors could have an FMS screening done before beginning to work with me. FMS can stave off injuries waiting to happen and help with the design of treatment for injuries that already exist.

Katy Bowman’s Alignment Snacks: As I mentioned above, I use many of Katy’s tools to target some of the more common compensation patterns in which people engage. But you don’t have to come to my class. You can find an RES practitioner near you by clicking here, or you can download her fantastic Alignment Snacks and move in the privacy of your own home. They are $5 apiece and last around 30 to 40 minutes each. I am hooked on them!

(I am an Alignment Snack affiliate, so if you buy through that program, I will receive some compensation.)

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