You’re still here. Good. Now you can see how all of this fits together. And, as promised, we’ll look at these same trends that exist outside of Crossfit.
A Brief History
From a 2010 article by Kim Goss, MS, for Bigger Fast Stronger:
“Nearly two decades ago, Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin came up with a concept he called structural balance, which has formed the core of the first two levels of his advanced certification program for coaches and personal trainers.
Essentially, the idea is that for optimal athletic performance, you have to address specific ratios of strength imbalances in development. If you’re trying to improve your performance in the bench press, or if your progress in this lift has stagnated, the limiting factor may not be a weakness in the chest and shoulders but in the upper back. If the opposing muscles (antagonists) are not strong enough, a message is sent to the brain to shut down the prime movers (agonists) of the exercise, which in this case would be the chest and shoulders.”
You can read the full article HERE.
That makes sense on paper, but it still might be tricky to fully conceive. Take a look at this video of Mike Robertson, one of the most elite strength and conditioning coaches in the country, working with Jo Jordan, one of the strongest powerlifters in the country. Watch Coach Robertson demonstrate how a couple structural balance isolation exercises can lead to huge gains in Jordan’s lifting. Keep in mind that Jordan can squat over 900#, bench press over 600#, and deadlift over 700#.
How much more could he lift if he were BALANCED?
Organizing the Data
This sounds like it probably still has some value for those participating in the Sport of Fitness. Or as it’s been termed “functional fitness.” According to Crossfit’s “Foundations” article:
“[Functional Movements] are movements that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life. Others are somewhat unique to the gym. Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground. They are both functional movements. Leg extension and leg curl both have no equivalent in nature and are in turn non-functional movements. The bulk of isolation movements are non-functional movements.”
I guess technically, if that’s what you are using as your definition of “functional,” you would have a strong case. But I would bet that Jo Jordan has a different definition of functional. Chances are, Jordan’s definition would include anything that serves a function to improve his lifting performance (which is also his livelihood).
Isolation exercises are also routinely used by athletes of all sports to manage overuse pathology developed during the season. Is this baseball pitcher going to recover from his imbalances with barbell shoulder pressing? Or do you think that will lead to an injury-prone pile of red and blue clay? (check Part 1 for that metaphor)
This becomes increasingly more important with younger athletes, considering the way many kids are spending their whole lives specializing in one sport, without the benefits of cross-training in others.
Now take a step back and look at this as a bigger picture. Performance does not have to be limited to professional or recreational athletes. Anyone suffering through chronic pain would surely welcome a performance improvement in his/her day-to-day living and movement.
Even posture has implications on a far deeper biological and psychological level than injury or even aesthetics. However, in our modern chair-bound world, forward shoulders and flexed hips have become the norm. Athletic and physical therapy populations understand the value of techniques like stretching, manual release, and self-release with a lacrosse ball. But is that enough to make permanent change?
Continuing with our shoulder example, let’s say you have “tight shoulders” – and the muscles and tissues on the front of your body are pulling your shoulders forward, while the tissues on your upper back are getting unnaturally lengthened. You ask your coach how to fix it, and he tells you to dig a lacrosse ball into your pec minor and move it around to break up adhesions. You do it, your shoulder feels better afterwards, and you go on with your workout.
Problem solved? Yeah right.
What about if you do that every day for two minutes?
You’ll probably start to notice some level improvement because releasing the tight tissues is HALF of the solution. To make permanent change, you have to reduce stiffness of the tight side and create stiffness on the loose side. This means tightening up your scapular retractors like the rhomboids and middle traps. Imagine everything getting pulled back like a face lift for your thoracic spine.
This requires isolation exercises to target those specific muscles in a very specific range of motion. If implementing them leads to better posture and better health, are they still non-functional?
Stronger hamstrings provide greater protection and stability for the knee. Would leg curls still be classified as non-functional?
Football programs obviously understand the impact players take to their heads, and rightfully include neck strength isolation exercises to better withstand this. Still non-functional?
Keep in mind what you’re training for. And be open the fact that there may be holes somewhere in the system you’re using. Utilize what works, without getting caught up in semantics, and without subscribing to one system or methodology as “the best.”
Seek to learn more, and seek to discover the mechanisms behind what works.
In fact, don’t even take my word for it. Challenge the ideas in this article by bringing it to the attention of other coaches for their take on it.
Here’s to your health, optimized.