The butt-wink, the slouch, and the rounded back. Snooze. We’ve heard time and time again that these positions are bad. Hopefully, if you haven’t already corrected these dangerous, faulty, and weak (did I say dangerous?) patterns, you are making significant strides.
During a squat, you might be trying to work on keeping your chest up, sending your butt back, and keeping an arch in your lumbar spine, as these movements are typically lacking in a rounded back dysfunction.
Coincidentally, those same three frequently used cues are fairly accurate in describing the unsteady, overextended waddle of a toddler taking his first steps. While I don’t want you to flex your spine into a herniated disc, round your shoulders forward into anterior instability, or shorten your hamstrings by tucking your pelvis under, I most certainly don’t want you walking around like some novice ambulator. The toddler stance may save you from the potential repercussions of flexed positions, but this alternative is no lesser of two evils. An overextended posture and movement dysfunction sets you up for equally disastrous injury risk.
The Dangers of the Toddler Stance
The Toddler Stance – or overextended posture – describes an anterior pelvic tilt, an extension of the thoracolumbar (lower thoracic and lumbar) spine, and usually some hyperextension of the knees. While not ideal for adults, this posture is useful to toddlers as they learn to walk because their body has yet to develop the strength necessary to support good, efficient walking.
Instead, toddlers seek stability by locking out and hanging on ligaments and joint capsules of the knees and lumbopelvic complex. They rapidly grow out of this stage as they develop better strength and balance – right around the same time they start to execute the perfect squat we all strive to recreate. Adults, however, have a much harder time kicking the overextension habit, relying on this strategy to compensate for much more than an unsteady gait.
An Attempt to Fix Core Instability
Overextension is our solution to core instability. Through hanging on structures of the lumbopelvic complex, an athlete can create a stabile midline and go on to achieve whatever greatness he or she is destined for. Specifically, the prong-like facet joints that interface between two adjacent vertebrae lock in when you hold yourself in extension. But we all know that structures only do what your muscles allow them to do, and in this situation that means the spinal extensors along with their buddies the hip flexors are doing a lot.
The toddler stance often appears on heavy back squat day. Watch someone step under the bar, rack the weight, and descend. Those who are not rounding are likely overextending. Using those hip flexors and lumbar extensors, the overextender shoots his hips back until his previously hyperextended knees can hinge into flexion, as the spine forms the exact shape of a knock-hockey stick. Overextension gets the job done and as an added bonus is way less likely to get you called out by your coach, but like all movement dysfunctions, using your body incorrectly means that you are inherently missing out on optimal performance. Of even greater importance, incorrect stabilization strategies predispose you to injury risk.
In overextension, the amount of compression loaded onto the lumbar facet joints skyrockets, which over time with repetitive loading can lead to a stress fracture of the spine called spondylolysis. Spondylolisthes, a similar condition, involves actual displacement of a vertebra, usually after both facet joints of the same level fracture as a result of the undue strain. This sounds bad, but only because it is bad. More commonly, overextenders are likely to get that “pinchy” feeling in the front of their hips, or impingement. Just as with shoulder impingement, faulty mechanics of the hip joint creates a physical compression – in this case usually the rectus femoris, part of your quads. Additionally, with your center of gravity displaced forward by overextension, the lower extremities are forced to make adjustments to keep you upright. Pick your poison – they are all potential products of the toddler stance.
When Toddlers Go Overhead
Overextension clearly creates local mayhem at the lumbopelvic complex and can initiate chaos in the lower extremities from a top-down domino effect, but your upper half is not out of the woods when you look at what happens from the bottom up. In fact, some of the worst overextenders maintain good control over their lower half and instead, these individuals rely on the toddler stance to compensate for another dysfunction.
Athletes who have difficulty with overhead movements commonly recruit an overextended position as a secondary dysfunctional pattern. Restrictions of upper thoracic extension, loss of shoulder flexion, and scapular instability are all potential contributing factors limiting overhead capacity, inviting an overextended posture in to pick up the slack for both mobility and stability deficits.
For athletes lacking range of motion as well as control, the toddler stance allows the athlete to “balance” weights overhead – keeping the weight directly in line with the base of support (the feet). As an added bonus for athletes lacking overhead mobility, overextension creates a false range of motion at the shoulder that is useful when trying to hold, push, or catch heavy weights overhead. The problem with balancing weights overhead is that you are doing just that – balancing – instead of owning that weight and maintaining control.
Sloucher by Day, Badass by Night
Lastly, and most ironically, many overextenders are also slouchers. Yes, these special folks use two contradictory strategies to achieve one common goal – stability. By day, these guys are probably your average desk-jockeys, slumped over a computer, hanging on their overstretched spine. By night, they transform into badass metal-moving mo-fos, overextending and locking out their spine to press an excessive weight overhead. This is a recipe for disaster. Compressing structures and using muscles incorrectly is exactly how you wear and tear your way to surgical repair.
Slouching – the most recognizable of the bad postures – is certainly not the only bad position, and definitely not the only dysfunction that comes with risks. For some of you, the toddler stance dilemma is like that of the chicken and the egg. Was your shoulder dysfunction the gateway drug into overextension? Or did your overextension lead you to believe that your arms were fully overhead when really they had ten degrees to go? For those of you battling the “butt wink” and avoiding a rounded back like the plague, perhaps a misunderstanding of where the middle is led you to inadvertently create a new dysfunction.
Regardless of how you found yourself in overextension, do yourself a favor. Find neutral. Unload your spine. Decompress your hip flexors. One thing is for sure – the only people who should be walking around in overextension are nine-month pregnant women, curve-embellishing tweens, and actual toddlers.
We all have our weaknesses. You know, those things you skip out on or (not-so) silently protest when you see them programmed into your workout. Come early and stay late to tackle your goat? Maybe tomorrow. Only you can make excuses for why you haven’t nailed the double under or conquered a strict pull up. But I can give you some reasons as to why – despite your best efforts – you are not getting stronger.
For those of you who leave the mind-body connection to the Zen masters of the world, now is your chance to understand why you, too, need to be one with your body. Body awareness, or proprioception, is your body’s position sense and the key to successful movement. Close your eyes. Is your left knee bent or straight? How do you know? You just know, right? No. Proprioception is how.
Someone once asked me, how could a person be “good” if they don’t know what “good” looks like? At the time, this advice was intended to motivate me to lead my staff by example, but I later realized this person was 100% right. I’m sure this was great general boss-employee advice, but I’ve found that this is also some of the best advice for movement. If you don’t know what good looks like – or better yet feels like – you don’t have a working model to help guide your behavior.
“Pinch your shoulders back,” “Pull your ribs down,” and, “Reach your tailbone back,” are a few examples of cues that are usually met with blank stares. Pinching shoulder blades often turns into a shrug, pulling ribs down looks like a crunch taking the shoulders along for the ride, and people trying to reach their tailbones back look like they are auditioning for Soul Train. Even some of my best athletes have no idea what “good” looks like and they certainly have no clue as to what “good” feels like. So, if you don’t know what to feel, how can you activate and strengthen those muscles? This is reason number one you aren’t getting stronger.
You might be starting to pick up on the fact that I’m a huge physical therapy nerd, but long before I was geeking out about anatomy and movement, I was a different kind of nerd. I was in the band. In the seventh grade, I was selected to play the clarinet in an all-county orchestra comprised of other nerds, just like me. All of us talented (awkward) individuals were given sheet music ahead of time so we could learn the song. When we assembled as a group, we divided into sections (winds, horns, strings, etc.) and began to practice. Gradually, we started to integrate all of the parts into a whole, but not without help.
The most important member of the orchestra was not a single musician, but instead was the conductor. With his baton, he signaled how fast or slow to play, when to get louder or softer, and when to cue in a solo performance. Eventually we memorized our parts and relied less on the conductor’s guidance, but at any given moment with one wave of his baton he could make us speed up and get loud, or slow down and get soft. He was the regulator. Without him, the horns section might have played at the wrong time, or a violinist might have forgotten her solo. The conductor coordinated our individual strengths into a strong, successful performance.
Here’s what I’m getting at: every time we move, the body performs an intricate masterpiece. Individual muscles team up to create a kinetic chain, and then these groups of muscles work with other groups of muscles to do something as simple as turning off a light switch. Seems complicated, but lucky for us, just like the orchestra we have a guy standing up front waving his baton. That’s the cerebellum. The cerebellum is in constant communication with muscles like a circuit, moderating movements using proprioception. When we learn new movements, the cerebellum gets involved – a lot. As movement patterns become more established, our muscles rely less on higher-level intervention and more on memory. Muscle memory. Good patterns or bad patterns, these will be the strategies you body remembers – and uses.
During your waking hours, you have two choices: reinforce good habits or reinforce bad habits. What you do fifteen hours a day always trumps what you do fifteen minutes a day, so pay attention to what you do outside of training just as much as what you do during a session. It is never too late to teach your muscles how to work together to produce better, more efficient movement patterns. Using poor habits is the second reason you aren’t getting stronger – you are using the wrong muscles at the wrong times to execute a movement. Otherwise known as cheating.
If I told you to pick any three movements to perform, odds are pretty good you would choose three movements you are good at. Maybe a few overachievers would throw a weakness into the mix because “you know you need to work on it.” But let’s assume you are like the rest of us. You give me your three best movements because those are your strengths and the actions you feel most confident performing. This is human nature. Tiger Woods didn’t turn down the NBA to work on his golf game. He played to his strengths. We all do it. Your body does it, too.
Pinching shoulder back turns into a shrug. This example can be explained by poor body awareness (reason number one), incorrect movement patterns (reason number two) or our third reason, inhibited muscles. You’ve got upper traps that could shrug a refrigerator, but your middle traps are mediocre at best. When I ask you to pinch your shoulder blades back, how could you not shrug?
Just like you gravitate toward your strengths, your body defaults to the muscles and movement patterns it feels most confident with. With upper traps dominating this movement pattern, no matter how hard you try you can’t pinch your shoulders back without shrugging. In this scenario, your upper traps are overriding, or inhibiting, your middle traps and often times these compensations are not obvious. When you use the wrong muscles to get a job done – even unintentionally – you are not going to achieve your full potential.
Over the course of your life, you’ve learned how to move in an astonishing number of ways. Not all of the ways you move are correct, in fact some of your habits are probably downright horrific. But that doesn’t stop you from moving. When you ask your body to do a job, your body doesn’t care what it looks like – it carries out an order using the resources it has available and the habits you have developed over the years. If you have poor body awareness, poor movement patterns, and the wrong muscles are inhibiting the right ones during your performance, if you haven’t already hit a plateau in strength, then there’s a good chance one is coming your way. And usually, injury is not too far behind.