Updated: Oct 5, 2020
As first blog attempts go, and as I sit woefully looking this title, I realise….potentially…I possibly could have chosen a slightly smaller topic to kick things off with. Alas, we’re here now, stuff it.
Allow me a brief second to set the tone before we continue however. The following isn’t an attempt at replicating some Government sponsored meta-analysis, nor is it a submission for a Nobel Prize in Science, it’s a Blog, a pretty awesome Blog mind you, with pearls of wisdom across a mountain of info. This is broken into three sections so perhaps dedicate yourself to one at a time, at least until I find time to break them down into separate pages!
The following looks to take on a fairly huge topic and attempt to produce a streamlined yet novel perspective, as well as provide evidence based value to the health and wellbeing community.
Specifically, it looks at movement and identifying which ranges of motion underpin our basic quality of life, whilst furthermore showing you which specific Ranges of Motion (ROM) have the most impact in allowing us to perform key performance activities identified by their ability to take us through the full range of each of the three planes of motion that we can move through.
In doing this I hope to provide a simplified list of activities or exercises, that if worked towards would cover 90% of everything else we would expect to find across the land and sea, simply by virtue of the high Ranges of Motion involved. Think of them as go to 'talisman movements' that insure you for all other exercises without directly training them.
So on to the subject of ‘Movement’ itself, and what it means to us….
As you sit here reading this I’ll assume two things, 1)….you’re not dead. Therefore to a greater or lesser extent movement plays an important role in your quality of life, and 2)….you’re either someone who is active and wanting to be as dynamic and capable as possible, or you are sedentary person who counts breaths as exercise and slowly crystallising into a solid mass from the deepest joints outwards.
Either way, movement is vitally important to us, but how much do we actually ‘need’?……
’ALL OF IT GOD DAMN YOU!!!’….I hear…’we need all of the movement!’….well yes great, if that’s your answer you are correct well done, case closed, we need ‘all of movement’….but….what does that even mean?
Think about it, even if that is the case, that we need ‘all of it’, this doesn’t actually mean much to each of us practically speaking, for a start what does ‘all of it’ even look like to the average Joe reading this looking to improve or at least know they are mitigating physical ailments down the line?….and how would they know how to accurately gauge such a ‘definition’?….we’re no better off or clearer on targets to work to, or any form of logical plan to even work with. It’s just…well…’all of it’.
The scope of the question is clearly massive, for starters it depends on what the actual movement in question is of course. For instance simply type in, let’s say, ‘squat’ and ’range of motion’ and google will give you around seventy eight thousand peer reviewed answers on this one exercise, or how about some clarity towards the ‘range of motion needed for health’?…..two million results. So what I’m probably not going to do is provide a spreadsheet.
What I have done, however, is broken the answer into three categories, each representing movement and joint Range of Motion (ROM) under clearly defined, separate ‘levels’ of use to us. They are:
Safe and Functional:
What do we need to serve the body as it was designed to move, to simply cover daily functions and existence, avoiding unnecessary pains or mitigating accidents throughout a lifetime.
Active and Dynamic:
What is the quickest RoMs we can pursue to reflect an ability to be ‘not only active’ but dynamic enough to step into 90% of movement demands across the land and sea.
What do we need when we push the boundaries of movement. Do biomechanics and joint tension demands change the training landscape of such a pursuit.
As a quick side note, I recognise the potentially 'icier waters' to be found via such a title, people are of course all different, along with this I also recognise the importance of ‘context’ when it comes to the word ‘need’, certainly the value of even the finest bit of basic rotation returned to the limbs of an individual unlucky enough to be seriously injured in a road accident holds far, far more importance and ‘need’ than that of an Elite Athlete preparing for entry to the Olympics for instance.
Our need for movement is, of course, contextual. What isn’t contextual is how the body is designed to move ‘optimally’ if everything is formed and present as natural selection and evolution produced, and by that we can make slightly more ‘prescriptive’ statements when it comes to what the body ‘needs’, especially if it is to accomplish basic standards of quality of life or successfully performing complex movement tasks.
SAFE AND FUNCTIONAL
What do we need to simply cover a the functional demands of a normal daily existence avoiding unnecessary pains and mitigating accidents and injury throughout a lifetime.
To Move or not to Move, the source….
Let’s kick it off in agreement that in order to have the luxury of movement at all, we rely on the things which permit and facilitates the basic yet critical function of walking, aka….Arms and Legs. Or do we?…actually, no, not exactly. In ‘The Spinal Engine’ author Serge Gracovetsky outlines our arms and legs more as advantageous, evolutionary extensions of the true source of motion….the Spine (Gracovetsky, 1989).
In a nutshell, Gracovetsky outlines the secondary role our limbs play in walking, noting that they’re in fact not crucial for us to ambulate forward, simply very useful. This is evident in individuals who are without limbs yet walk, to great effect, on the small underside bones of the Pelvis. It is in fact the crucial evolutionary leap from marine based Spines that bent from side to side (as seen in certain marine life) towards a Spine that has the ability to rotate and bend simultaneously (Figure A) that even made what we now know as upright ‘bipedal’ walking a possibily.
The ability to flex and extend between each vertebrae is crucial for spinal rotation, which in turn allows for our pelvis to shift forwards and backwards as the source of walking, this is because of joint mechanics. The shape of the boney facets which make up the Spine articulate in a way whereby to unlock any further motion they must first hold a certain ability to go forward and back upon each other, much the same way a keys unique edges allows sufficient forward progress before it can rotate and ‘unlock’. This is repeated at 48 locations in-between each and every vertebrae of our Spine.
How much do we need?
Enough to differentiate the segments of the spine, without this we commonly bend only at our lower backs or ’TL Junction’ (Thoraco-Lumbar Junction). Or if you like, we want picture A not picture B during the cat and cradle exercises demonstrated below.
The Spine demonstrates how movement in one specific direction often relies on symbiotic, ‘coupled motion’ elsewhere within the kinetic chain for it to be truly successful. Do we require this kind of relationship elsewhere to ensure safe and functional existences? Indeed we do, which walks us nicely to our ‘Gait Cycle’.
Gait (Walking)…..or 'the act of repeatedly falling under control'.
Gait Cycle refers to the process of walking. You’re possibly thinking ‘Walking?…..it’s hardly worth looking at!?'…and in some ways you might be right, but you’d be amazed at the complexity of something seemingly
so simple, and how much can be missing from so little.
Motion needed at the Hips and Pelvis
One of the primary things we’re going to need for Gait to be executed as evolutions design intended, is for our pelvis to operate as two separate structures, each supporting different extreme ends of rotational motion from the Spine & and Torso above as well as the linear motion of the legs below, all at the same time.
In very simplified terms, the Pelvis needs to stay stable whilst supporting weight shift from one leg to another as we walk. We do this through our ability to correctly engage upper and lower body muscles which supports the Pelvis’ ability to alternate ‘back and in’ on one side, as well as simultaneously ‘forward and out’ on the other (Fig B).
This process then has to fluidly repeat back towards the other side, back and forth etc etc. This is ‘Reciprocal Motion’, when we lose this capability we will pull that stability or mobility from elsewhere.
More technically speaking, we’re moving from a neutral state, into internal rotation, adduction and extension to support our stance leg as it steps all the way back, and then transition through to to externally rotation, abduction and flexion on our swinging leg at the opposite end of the swing phase as we step forward.
There are significant implications of not having this movement across the pelvis, most notably here however are the implications towards what you wish to do with your legs. Essentially the position of the capsule either allows or restricts free movement of the femur by impingement, were this is present we will see restriction in the legs ability to move in certain directions as well as knock on effects up and down the kinetic chain (Fig C).
How much do we need?
There needs to be enough connection and engagement of target muscle tissues connected to the Hip and Pelvis so that we can demonstrate an ability to shift seamlessly from one state of posture to another, basically shifting from our left side to our right side as we walk. The Pelvis Restoration Institute, amongst others in history, has particularly done a great deal of incredible work to provide us the lens by which to envisage dysfunction within these patterns.
Are you missing it? (some symptom examples that *may* indicate absence)
Low Back Pain (LBP)
Iliosacral Joint (ISJ) Pain
Reduced Hip ROMs
Forward Head Posture (FHP)
Patella Femoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS)
Weak Core Control despite 'training core’
Motion needed at the Rib Cage and Thoracic Spine
As this happens at the Pelvis and Hip, we need a mirror reflection going on above across the Torso and Spine, where-by as the leg swings the opposite side of your Torso needs to be drawing the ribcage across, or if you like ‘in and down’. Whilst at the same time the other weight bearing leg should marry up to an opposite action of ‘up and out’. Spinal Flexion (the ability to bend forward) is of particular importance here, as is the ability to fully inhale and exhale using the correct breathing mechanics whilst maintaining flexibility to expand at the rear compartments of our lungs.
Motion at the neck
Whilst all this happens the neck needs the correct amount of movement it experience to act as a sort of ‘gyroscopic stabiliser’ for the head and eyes, keeping our vision balanced and our awareness depth and space in check.
How much do we need?
We need enough Respiration and Spinal control to demonstrate breath work that uses the appropriate primary muscles as well as adequate reciprocal motion of the ribcage during inhalation and exhalation. These are underpinned by a Spines ability to bend forward as well as backwards whilst also being able to fully rotate from side to side.
Are you missing it? (some symptom examples that *may* indicate absence)
Reduced Shoulder Rotation
Joint Laxity & Gross Instability (chronic - long term)
Zero arm swing and lack of trunk rotation during Gait
Sway Back Posture
Motion at the Ankle and Big Toe
The ankles are a huge component of our daily lives, contributing over half of the entire energy source for walking as we go (Novacheck, 1998). Here we see another example of ‘symbiotic, coupled motion’, where by for us to be able to propel forward effectively we must have a certain amount of pronation and supination present, with pronation being key for starting the gait cycle.
Pronation effectively unlocks the ankle by allowing it to roll from heel to mid-foot during heel strike, it allows transfer of vertical forces (80% of Body Weight) down through heel bone (calcaneus) into forward propulsion, and attenuates four separate - potentially destructive - forces that go across the ankle and foot.
The 1/3rd, 2/3rds Ankle Quick Fire Test
Figure D Shows a quick eyeball assessment for pronation supination, this can also be done straightening your leg out in front of you as you sit and seeing how much of the heel bone you can see either at either sides of the left and right ankle bones.
Big Toe Extension - the biggest Piggy must be the biggest Yogi
Walking is, essentially, controlled falling over and over again, or as Bill Bryson puts it ‘living in permanent defiance of gravity’. We spend as much as 90% of the time balancing on one foot (Bryson, 2019).
One area of particular importance for the recovery of this fall, however, is that of the Great Toe. In order for us to walk our body has to be able to effectively pass over (fall over) a hinge point connected to the ground, this hinge is found at the joint connecting you to your big toe. This joint must bend enough to allow your body weight to roll over it in order to accommodate the myriad of alternating rotating motions going on above it, this hinge is known as ‘Toe Extension’.
How much do we need?
On a day-to-day inactive basis, research shows values ranging from 50º to 90º, with an average placing us at 75º toe extension required.
Test yourself now. Reach Down and pull up your Big Toe to half way between vertical and flat, can you actively hold it there?
Fig. E - Figure E shows the likely Bio-mechanical effects of losing sufficient amounts of Big Toe Extension during Gait. Where Bodyweight cannot pass over this hinge point our motor pattern must adapt by early internal rotation at the Hip, forcing dangerous values pressure at the knee and even greater pressure at the 1st metatarsal joint. Thanks to guest appearances from the best Pistons in the game, Barnie's Legs.
Are you missing it? (some symptom examples that *may* indicate absence)
Medial (inside) Knee Pain - MCL Strain
Medial Ankle Pain - Deltoid Ligament Strain
Walk with a ‘hip hike’ to replicate ground clearance
A quick shout out towards Fascia and the foot….ESPECIALLY at the foot
Fascia has a number of interesting properties - I.e it speaks to the Brain quicker than nerve signals (Bordeni & Simonelli, 2018) and is speculated (fascinatingly if you think about limb replacement transplants) to be connected to memory (Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, 2014, 18, 259-265) - but one of huge relevance to the Foot is its massive amounts of sensory feedback to the Brain.
The pictures below shows the sheer amount of Fascia that Evolution has delicately wrapped around our little hoofs. It plays a central role in something called the ‘windlass mechanism’ which in a nutshell is something that relies on tissue ‘tautness’ and ‘elastic recoil’ to provide us energy efficiency and vital feedback to the shape of the ground as we saunter along. This feedback is interpreted by the Brain which then starts to pulling on muscle tissue in order to keep us best balanced and able to move optimally within our given environment.
Remove Toe Extension and remove part of this tautness, recoil and environmental feedback that allows our Brain to reinforce strong movement patterns.
Across day to day living we should expect to be able to effectively lift our arm to head height or somewhere just above, whilst showing enough rotation to PEFORM reach behind our backs or hanging up a coat for instance, studies show this to be anywhere between 20º External Rotation and 63º Internal Rotation (Doğan et al., 2019).
To be clear, this is not, repeat not saying we don’t need full overhead capability, just that the everyday, inactive person on a day to day basis is likely to rarely - if ever - place their hands and arms directly over head whilst maintaining a solid mid-section, that which we would find in athletic ventures. Making this distinction, although subtle, simply allows us to recognise there’s levels to movement functionality. Working towards full rotation would clearly be very desirable just not absolutely crucial for a percentage of people who are more elderly or more sedentary. Inputting rotation regularly for joint ‘nourishment’ should be a weekly routine for everyone however, even if only a couple of days a week.
Seats and Steps - Supporting position, Over coming obstacles
If walking is the act of recovered falling over and over again then why do we still fall? More often or not it’s because we trip over an obstacle due to weakness in the hip flexors. The sorts of obstacles your Hip flexors will likely need to overcome on a daily are obviously things like steps, small ledges etc, outside of this we are pretty much sitting and standing all day every day. Unfortunately!
Simply working towards being able to lift the leg to hip height or just above would likely keep most of us safe well into the twilight years, I.e - where dangerous falls occur most!
SOME FURTHER EXAMPLES OF WHAT CAN GO WRONG IF S&F IS MISSING….
Breathing - We start using neck muscles to breath more than Diaphragms and abdominal walls. This disrupts ribcage position, which disrupts shoulder position.
Pressure Regulation - The alignment of our ribcage over the pelvis is strongly connected to the control of pressure within and across our Torso and Pelvic Floor. This disrupts process such as bracing, stability and pelvic floor integrity.
Joint Damage - Shearing and rotational forces at the lower Spine, Knees and Ankles. Impingement and capsule lining damage at the Shoulders and Hips
Tissue Dysfunction - Tissue weakness, overactivity and compensation.
Emotional Dysfunction - stuck in a heightened state of alertness and anxiety, extended body shapes are connected to ‘fight’, flexed body shapes the opposite (Ron Hruska brought this perspective to me during his ‘Respiratory Restoration’ Course)
Range of Motion - Limited
Training Goals - Capped
SAFE & FUNCTIONAL SUMMARY
If you lead a sedentary life you may get away with whatever range of motion you currently control (or don’t control) for some degree of time. However, this will - sooner or later - catch up with you.
To live in a state whereby the logic is to reduce movement to match ones current capability may provide comfort in the short term, but is the start of a downward spiral towards eventual stagnation, toxicity, pain and - ultimately - illness and incidents.
S&F doesn’t just reflect movement as we see, it reflects the movement we don’t see, the movement your nervous system senses it has at it’s disposal at the deepest level, it is the level of control you have towards how you react to your environment day in day out, both physical AND emotional, stress starts with and - quite literally - ends at the breath.
The movement we miss in Safe and Functional will be magnified or ‘re-invented’ (most likely destructively) in the movements that are more active and more dynamic.
We need to recognise the amount of time we spend ‘ankle living’, simply walking and living in a ‘seated box’ whilst at work or any where else for that matter. None of this is new, awareness of these problems isn’t new, what is new is the
line we have to start drawing and politically correct politeness we have to start dropping when it comes to our part, especially our responsibility to accept that if we don’t take charge of our own bodies then things like the NHS has to, when it could be putting time, money and efforts into things we have no control over that do us harm.
Instilling and maintaining useable range of motion at every joint is the one thing every able human being must be accountable for, as it is perhaps the number one leading variable that we can change within us that can help change the world around us.
Minimum Standards for Safe & Functional:
Optimal Breathing mechanics
Neuromuscular Awareness & Control of every joint
Reciprocal Motion between Pelvis, Hip & Ribcage
70º Big Toe Extension
Ankle Dorsi-Flexes to reach toes, ideally able to pass
90-100º Hip Flexion
Ability to actively segment the Spinal Column
ACTIVE AND DYNAMIC
With the aforementioned movement in place, the general population that simply wants to live a functional day-to-day life, one that mitigates the chances of injuries well into later life *should* stand a pretty good chance of doing so.
So where do we go from here?….clearly towards people who wish to do more.
As I wanted to explore the idea of whether we could identify a number of select ‘key movements’ or ‘key disciplines’ that singularly represent common place ROM demands every where else, the aforementioned 'Talisman Movements', it would make sense to use the three 'Planes of Motion' as our yardsticks.
That is to say that an individual mastering fewer exercises that have claim to the highest ranges of motion in their respective Planes of Motion, would provide them the potential to do 90% of everything else out there without actually ever directly training for them.
At least….that's the plan. As Mike Tyson once said however....‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’......hopefully this won’t be a horrendous knock out blow for my blogging attempts. If so, ce la vie, see you in Valhalla.
Ok let’s get the ball rolling, onto Active Dynamically insured bodies.
Logically the first place to look would be to simply extend what we already do as safe and functional human beings to their most extreme ends and what would then be demanded of us. Thus from walking, we identify our first select movement…..Sprinting.
From an evolutionary POV sprinting is to humans what 20/20 rules are to Cricket, the design originally lent itself towards long, drawn out steady-state acts of endurance, strategy and energy efficiency, but naturally we also wanted to play faster. The original design was enough to support the gruelling demands of ‘persistence hunting’, where by our ancestors would hunt their prey into a state of complete exhaustion over the course of hours or possibly even days (Lieberman, 2013). Much like the English game, however, this same design can be readily adapted to be performed with far more speed, pace and power, at least ‘speed’ as far as upright bipeds are concerned.
On paper the highest average levels of Range of Motion (ROM) are seen across the ankles as they reach for and pass over the ground during the swing and stance phases of the leg (For those that want to know....55-60º plantar flexion and 40º dorsi flexion - Struzik et al., 2016), at the shoulders as they driving back and forth (90º hyper-extension and 90º flexion) and at the Hips as they drive back and power us forward (25º extension - Struck et al., 2015).
Note: A quick look at some images of sprinters in top flight (see picture below) shows extension may well be higher than 25º, although whether this is true hip extension or more coupled extension involving the lower back is a point to keep in mind.
Outside of these we see a modest amount of toe extension and hip flexion, coming in at 42-55º and 95-113º respectively, relative to what we see us needing to simply exist day to day, i.e - walk, sit and move up stairs, these seem a bit underwhelming, so what’s going on?
A few things. Firstly, sprinters need to stay within the highest level of power output for as long as possible, this mean staying closer to the middle percentage of their range of motion (middle phase of muscle contraction) due to the fact that our power is overwhelmingly produced here, as the length tension curve explains (Fig. F). This would inherently keep ROM within certain ranges.
Next there’s the fact stride length and frequency are key components to speed, at a certain stage length becomes stable and frequency is a determining factor (Fletcher, 2009), so it’s in the interest of the runner to control range of motion and increase leg turnover frequency!
Thirdly, the fact sprinters wear running shoes which are effectively made to magnify the windlass mechanism of the foot, means the shoe is often rigid, which would give a false impression of the range in test procedures, take those shoes off and it’s pretty much certain that at least 70º would be required and present.
The reason we see such high values at the ankles, shoulders and hips is also due to a number of factors.
Firstly, our shoulders and Issac Newtons Third Law of energy conservation, obviously. During such high energy output our shoulders provide the angular conservation of energy needed to counteract the forces generated by the legs (Fletcher, 2009), an equal amount of shoulder flexion and hyper-extension is required to balance increasing levels of leg drive, indeed the greater the hand can drive back the greater the potential for a leg to drive forwards.
The ankle’s ROM comes from the huge demand to rapidly re-cycle foot position and power off the ground whilst also ‘reaching’ towards finish lines, whilst the high levels of Hip extension performed under a rigid torso is seen as a ‘vitally important’ component when it comes to differentiating top speed potential (Fletcher, 2009).
Finally spinal rotation, which in previous studies has been recorded at 13º (Schache et al., 2002) This is a modest amount and would be likely be explained by the need for Torso rotation control, however, it’s been noted that accurately recording spinal rotation has proved ‘extremely difficult’ (Schache et al., 1999).
One stand out observation that people may have when it comes to sprinting is the gross difference between the height and body type of a certain Jamaican world record holder and…well…everyone else! One of the main take away points from this that I have found is that of the role inertia plays in sprinting, or more accurately…in overcoming it.
Taller individuals will have longer arm and leg levers, therefore the legs/arm mass is moving farther away from the joint in relation to a smaller persons, a downfall is they are having to work harder to overcome inertia found at the end ranges during each stride cycle, however, the same long levers produce higher foot speeds once they get going! Where as a smaller person has smaller levers which come with bio-mechanical advantage and higher force production, I.e - their levers inherently stay within the range of motion where they can produce most force on the joint.
Due to these factors, additionally to the movement goals outlined at the end, taller athletes tend to have to work on force production, and smaller athletes on foot speed.
With this in mind, mobility training may potentially hold benefit to the aforementioned due to the levelling effects it has onto the length tension curve - I.e it doesn’t just increase end ranges but also makes them stronger in conjunction. As a projection this may mean that sprinters would not just greatly benefit from olympic lifting and plyometrics, but also focused mobility sessions specifically in order to increase power output.
Following S&F we now need additional shoulder, ankle and hip rom, although we see modest hip flexion the presence of high hip extension should be met be sufficient potential to produce strong hip flexion, enough to confidently break 90º.
The high levels of angular momentum between the shoulders and legs must be mediated by a high level of rotational control at the midsection, therefore anti-rotation should be a focus. Any loss of rotation within the spine will be a high risk factor here and stresses further the value of the basic underlying spinal mobility outlined in the S&F section.
As a goal we should work towards:
Hip Flexion - Knee can lift and hold half way between 90º and chest
Hip Extension - can fully extend hip whilst holding solid mid-section / zero lower back involvement
Shoulder Extension - as leg strength increases, shoulder extension increases. 45º minimum. 90º isn’t unrealistic)
Full Big Toe Extension - 75º
Strong Anti-Rotation at Torso
From walking we get sprinting, and from day to day sitting we get ‘Squatting’, namely that which goes low and carries load high; aka the Over Head Squat.
Over Head Squat (OHS)
One important thing to note here, is that we are looking at this without the use of lifting shoes, literally how much movement does the human body - in situ - need.
Logically speaking, we wouldn’t need to complicate it any more than simply observe that this shape requires us to drop as low as possible (maximum hip flexion) as well as get our arms near to directly above ours head (shoulder flexion and rotation).
Research on squat mechanics presents Hips that flex at (unsurprisingly) higher ranges of 120-123º (Han et al., 2014; Kim et al., 2015), a moderate 38º to higher 45º of ankle mobility (Hemmerich et al., 2006; Kim et al., 2015), and shoulders that can achieve and even exceed the full 180º overhead position (Chen et al., 2013), although whether this is pure shoulder work and not additional spinal work is up for debate.
In layman’s term this would mean you can keep your heel down and drive your knee at least directly above or past your toes (at the average 1:3 foot-to-femur length ratio), lift your knee above your belly button and hold it there comfortably for ten seconds after you let it go, as well as lift your arms above head and even behind your ears whilst not extending your lower back in compensation. Give it a go now…easy no?
Much like sprinting, the over head squat predominantly occurs throughout a very specific plane of motion, namely the one directly in-front of and behind us, known as the Sagittal plane. There are of course more planes of motion occurring, predominantly however the major joints in question are going through this one plane.
Not a problem...albeit with lifting shoes
Unlike sprinting, however, the OHS includes a heavy load directly above that is desperately trying push us forward or pull us backwards and always into the ground! The balance, control and ability to overcome these forces therefore play a hugely effect in dictating how much range of motion is required in order to create the stability needed. With this in mind lets take a look at how range of motion plays out with body breaking forces considered alongside, as this is quite a nuanced way to look at this topic - and therefore not a great deal of directly comparable peer reviewed papers for reference - I’ve gone to the trouble of utilising other cutting edge scientific methods, as you will see in the impending first category.
So without further ado, lets delve into the 4 categories highlighted as key players when it comes to this movement……
Legs and Levers.....and a Stick Dude.
Lets keep this as simple as possible, given that we are looking at one plane of motion (the ‘forward backwards sagittally one’) we can reliably discuss and visualise this question in one dimension, and nothing works more clearly, more productively or longer hours in one dimensions….than stick people. So let’s bring one in….
This is stick dude, they live in one dimension and speak in a very universal simplified language. This particular one represents our skeleton and has bone lengths proportionally accurate to the average 6’2’’ human being, but they live life at a ridiculously small 1:34 ratio. Don’t feel sorry for them, they have cracking personalities and strong ‘can do’ attitudes. They’re happy.
Now we need something to represent they effect of forces onto them whilst in an OHS, and whether or not it would cause them to be unstable and thus put unmanageable demands through certain ROMs. We need a Centre of Mass box……
Force Distribution Stable Body. Happy. Unstable Body. F**ked.
This above boxes are ‘Centre of Mass’ (COM) boxes, the white area represents the direct downward force and weight of the bar in an OHS (the load) and also where we need the majority of our body mass to be evenly distributed, with our feet acting as the ‘base’ and situated directly in the middle. Any further body parts outside of the COM should lie evenly split within the grey outside areas in order for us to be stable, and thus execute a solid, maintainable OHS. For the purpose of today we are going to keep this diagram as simple as possible, you could indeed introduce all sorts of maths and arrows, but Stick Dude can’t be arsed with it tbh.
Consideration 1: Stable in the ‘most stable’ Over Head position?….
Firstly let’s consider the most stable position for the bar in an OHS, where the load held directly above an aligned, stable torso. Even with all the will in the world and legs entering into an origami championship, this ain’t guna last. 90% of the weight is unevenly distributed and god knows what’s going on at these legs, what we do know is as far as leverage and workload goes the quads and ankles are having to work until collapse to even stand a chance of recovering this. Which they won’t.
Consideration 2: Bring in enough hip flexion to get below 90º…..
They now bring in enough hip flexion to break 90º parallel (seated), even with the
remaining supernatural levels of ankle range still left it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to rescue shoulders from popping, chest or bicep tendons tearing or spines from buckling.
Consideration 3: Make hip flexion the biggest priority….
Let’s say we give them so much hip flexion they are now at freakish bone to bone levels, so much they now get away with coming 20º back off the ankles. Their backs are feeling a hell of alot better yes, they’re far closer to a stable position yes, but the levels of strict hip flexion required here would mean they'd either need lifting shoes, or such a low level of leg muscle mass (bulk) in order to achieve it that they likely wouldn't have the corresponding strength within their legs in the first place, certainly not enough to get any meaningful weight on the bar.
Consideration 4: Taller people need both good hip and ankle ranges, with ankle range taking priority…
So we arrive here, a barefoot tall lifter with long femurs arrives in a balanced position with the bulk of their mass within the COG through strong levels of hip flexion, the load overhead in slight shoulder hyper-flexion, accompanied with very good (but not superhuman) levels of ankle ROM. High levels of Thoracic extension would also be particularly desirable for the taller lifter.
Lever lengths: What about shorter people with shorter femurs?……
Finally a comparison to a shorter person, where we’ve taken three inches off the femur. Here we see the shorter lifter can get into a more stable position than the taller lifter with comparable ROMs.
This ultimately comes down to the fact the majority of lever lengths are evenly distributed within the COM box and close to directly under the downward load, they are more ‘biomechanically advantaged’ under relatively similar ranges of motion to the taller lifter.
In other words they have the luxury of not necessarily needing the worlds best ROM and still get into a more comfortable position easier than a taller person whilst expanded less energy to do so. In contrast the shorter levers would want higher levels of force production in comparison to the taller person however.
For more information on this area, strength coach, PhD level Sports Scientist and Gluteal Connoisseur, Bret Contreras, provides a great article on Femur length and Squat mechanics.
2) The role of hip rotation and IR or ER within the OHS
Next, let’s take hip rotation into consideration. Research puts internal rotation ranging between lows of 20º (Mauntel et al., 2015) up to 30º, with external rotation between a more respectable 30-40º (Hara et al., 2014; Mauntel et al., 2015), however, if we compare that to this guy right here..…
....not 20 degrees
…..we can see that when you start shifting some serious load above your head, you’re guna be in for a pretty bad day if you don’t have ATLEAST 30º ACTIVE internal rotation in your locker, realistically high level lifting will easily see 45º realms. As I personal hypothesis it wouldn’t surprise me that lifters may well experience a higher speed in their bottom position transition up as they’ll potentially experience greater leverage from a more stable pelvic base.
As a spectator you may think there is little rotation, this will not be helped by the fact this movement is a ‘closed chain movement’, meaning the limbs are acting on a stable platform (the ground or machine platform for instance) and not freely moving, this can give the illusion that not much rotation is occurring. However, the very real picture is the rotators are in fact working maximally over an underlying wide range of motion in order to keep the joint central, because the lower limb doesn’t rotate ‘freely’ we perhaps don’t appreciate it.
3) Shoulders, rotation and equal counter forces (the IR/ER conundrum!)
To get over head we have to ER, the reason for this is that it effectively ‘unlocks’ the shoulder, or another way is it allows the boney points of the arm bone and your collective shoulder bones to not get in each others way. To get through this ‘gateway’ only requires a relative modest amount of ER, however once through it’s really a case of the closer to ‘directly above head’ you go the more ER we effectively need (Jürgel et al., 2005), and subsequently the stronger ER contractions needs to be.
Effectively the overarching aim is keeping the arm bone in the centre of the joint capsule during all stages of elevation, known as ‘centralisation’.
Now back to Newtons third law of Inertia (as alluded to in sprinting), where we have one action there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction, or more accurately in this case a shit ton of IR to our ER. Not only does this create the opposing forces to actually achieve ‘centralisation’, but it also allows the lifter to create optimal ‘torque’ on the bar by adjusting the force direction going through the joint itself. Think of a ships rigging where all ropes must be taut and adjusted as the ship (joint) moves to keep the sails under tension, only here it’s contractile tissue under tension.
So as it stands, full rotation is fairly non-negotionable in order to execute and master the OHS, but do we have options along the way when rotation is missing?…..yep, we can start by gripping wider and consider using a flexible bar/pipe or resistance band instead of a bar, this will ensure you’re not ‘fixed’ and give your movement ‘room for error’ in respect to your shoulders lack of ROM; whilst you build in rotation.
Left Pic - Less ER needed, as seen by forward facing Elbow crease. (Also aids lack of middle back extension). Right Pic - Most ER needed, as seen by inward facing Elbow crease.
4) Scapula Thoracic or Thoracic Scapula?
Shoulder blades dictate shoulder range, their ability to maintain a close, loving relationship towards your Ribcage it’s associated impact onto the thoracic region of the spine (known as ‘scapula rhythm’ for those that don’t know) largely contributes to you not feeling like someone’s spear throwing hot daggers into your shoulder when you reach for items above your head on a daily basis.
However, this relationship woks both ways. Your Thoracic Spine and Ribcage must have an underlying adequate range of motion and control in order for this scapula rhythm itself to best take effect. Think of it this way, if you want wheels on a car to last you don’t just constantly fix the wheels, you make sure they stay attached and aligned to the chassis as well!
This relationship is largely established in the safe and functional section.
Shoulder Rotation Quick Fire Test:
Stand with back and shoulders flat against the wall. Elevate bent arms to 90º with forearms and hands out in front of you and parallel to the floor to start.
Rotate as far as you can upwards and downwards towards the wall behind. Do not lose contact to the wall at shoulders or Back.