If I don’t leave a workout drenched in sweat or wake up the next morning wincing, I often think, “What was the point?” But one workshop I took challenged that assumption. I was lying face down, and as the instructor counted to three, painfully slowly, I just barely lifted my fingertips off the mat, shoulder blades squeezing together. The movement was minuscule, the hold at the top brief, and yet I felt its quiet intensity shake me. Each following exercise was also slow, deliberate, and small. At no point was I sweating or out of breath, but it challenged me more than I could have possibly anticipated. So is it really necessary to kill ourselves at the gym all the darn time? Is it even ideal? As it turns out, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding: no. But to get our workouts to the next level, there’s one thing we must do: resolve our muscle imbalances.
ACKNOWLEDGING OUR ACHILLES HEELS
Every muscle in our body works in concert with the rest, but at the risk of gross oversimplification, each muscle specifically has one partner. In order to move a joint, one muscle must tighten or contract, while the other, its agonist, must lengthen or relax. The problem is that sometimes one muscle becomes overly tight or stimulated while the other, underused, becomes weak. We all have these imbalances. They can occur naturally, like with over-stimulated quads and under-stimulated hamstrings, because we spend more time walking forward than back. But our environment and habits can also contribute to their development. Individuals whose only workout ever consists of running, for example, may wind up with tight quads and weak hamstrings (along with rounded shoulders and tight hip flexors). And someone who wants washboard abs may overtrain their outer core muscles with crunches while neglecting the inner stabilization muscles. Most of us hardly notice these muscle imbalances, because the over-stimulated muscles start to compensate for the under-stimulated ones. But they can be a real source of trouble. When one muscle takes over the responsibility of another muscle, or we lack symmetry in strength from one side of the body to the other, we put ourselves at great risk of chronic back pain, plantar fasciitis, shoulder impingement, shin splints, and jumper’s knee, to name a few. The real stickler, though, is not that we’re more prone to injury, but rather that those intensely brutal workouts we sweat through will be less effective. Range of motion is limited, muscles are incapable of producing maximum power, and overall ability to perform a given exercise is diminished. You might be just barely scratching the surface of your potential!
THE NOT-SO-SEXY SOLUTION
In a society of instant gratification, we want maximum results in minimal time. Crossfit and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are sexy. They promise to make us sexy. Lying face down on a gym floor and arching your back to a slow count of three is not sexy, so it’s easily overlooked. But if you want to take your performance to the next level, you have to log the admittedly tedious time it takes to identify and resolve your muscle imbalances. A trained professional can conduct a movement assessment to identify your individualized imbalances, and then help you develop a plan to correct them. First, you have to lengthen the overactive muscles. For most of us, these include the chest, hip flexors, and calves. Cut back on the exercises that further build up those muscles, and instead target them during your warmup and cool-down via foam rolling and traditional stretching. Next, you have to strengthen the underactive muscles. Everyone is different, but common culprits include the back, glutes, and inner core. You have to first work on your ability to stabilize these muscles, so the movements tend to be slow and very minimal. Think about planks, bridges, and floor cobras. You may not sweat during them, but they will without a doubt redefine your concept of an “intense” workout. Over time, your body will relearn to use the appropriate muscle groups for various movements, so that when you do want to HIIT it hard at the gym (or try our at-home HIIT videos!), you may surprise yourself with all of your power.