Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Essay Now & Then

A Fine Balance
Muscles need not only strength and flexibility, but a good relationship with each other

It's natural to point to an injury and think the crux is right there: the sore shoulder, the tender knee, the aching back.

But often — and increasingly as we age — problems arise from an imbalance of muscle groups. No matter how strong or flexible one muscle might seem, if opposing muscles don't have complementary fitness, we may be primed for a sudden or chronic injury.

A muscle imbalance often can be traced to several factors, says Scott Jurek, physical-therapy director at the Institute for Prevention Solutions, a health and sports-medicine clinic in Madrona. "Usually it's a combination of flexibility and strength and something called, basically, body awareness or, if you want to use a fancier word, proprioception, which is the body's ability to react to a position, stress or force." A muscle relationship that looks balanced on paper might not translate to efficient, pain-free movement in sports or daily life.

"Balanced" doesn't necessarily mean equal. One recommendation for good strength balance in the thigh muscles, which calls for the hamstrings (in the back) to lift 70 percent of the weight the quadriceps (in front) can lift, might vary according to a person's history, injuries or activities.

From the top down, here are some common imbalance problems:

Fitness news you can use
Extreme popularity
The most popular "extreme sports" last year, from a study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association of people 6 and older who participated in the sport at least once in 2000:
1. In-line skating (29 million participants)
2. Mountain biking (nearly 17 million)
3. Skateboarding (11.6 million)
4. Snowboarding (7.15 million)
5. Paintball (7.12 million)
6. Artificial wall climbing (6.1 million)
7. Trail running (5.2 million)
8. BMX bicycling (nearly 4 million)
9. Wakeboarding (3.6 million)
10. Roller hockey (3.3 million)
11. Street hockey (2.4 million)
12. Mountain/rock climbing (1.9 million)
13. Boardsailing/Windsurfing (655,000)
Faith in health
Church-based nutrition and exercise programs can move African-American women to adopt healthier habits, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins University researchers. In a partnership with 16 Baltimore churches that encouraged more than 500 participants to lose weight and choose healthier foods for a year, women who participated in on-site exercise, dietary and spiritual activities lost an average of 20 pounds, compared with 7 pounds in a self-help group. Ten percent in the first group experienced a statistically significant reduction in 11 of 13 risk factors for heart disease.
Ask Molly
Questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition? Send them to Ask Molly, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or e-mail
Neck. Tight muscles in the front of the neck can cause chronic pain in the neck, shoulder and sometimes mid-back. "It can even have a long-lasting effect on the intervertebral discs and nerve routes," Jurek says. One indicator of such inflexibility is difficulty pulling the head back so the ears are in line with the shoulders.

Chest/back. People commonly strengthen pectoral (chest) muscles with bench presses and flyes. But if they don't develop the mid-back with exercises such as rowing, muscles there can become both weak and inflexible. That's often detectable by tightness or pain between the shoulder blades when pulling the shoulders back.

Back/abdominals. "A lot of people use their back muscles to lift — which isn't good because they should be using their legs — and so they have very strong back muscles," Jurek says. "But they don't do anything for their abdominals, or they don't 'kick in' their abdominals." Sitting all day either slumped or "dumped" (arched back, pelvis forward) also contributes to the problem, which manifests in low-back tightness and pain, and sometimes excessive flexibility in the pelvis. Jurek likes crunches as well as Pilates, yoga and other systems that develop overall core strength.

Quadriceps/hamstrings. These muscles help stabilize the knee, yet the quadriceps are often flexible but weak, and the hamstrings tend to be tight. Physical therapists sometimes use electronic stimulation or other biofeedback techniques to help patients learn to contract the muscles.

Shin/calf. Tight calves and weak shins are often the cause of shin splints, though Jurek says some people are both weak and inflexible on both sides.

A visit with a physician and physical therapist might be the fastest and most effective road to identifying and addressing muscle imbalances, but many people first try to heal themselves. (This I know all too well, having once spent six months self-treating a shoulder injury, only to discover my exercises were making my muscle-imbalance problem worse.) Four books Jurek likes are "The Whartons' Stretch Book" by Jim and Phil Wharton, "Listen to Your Pain" by Ben Benjamin and Gale Borden, "Awareness Heals" by Steven Shafarman and "Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness." The latter book, by Seattle sports-medicine physician Dr. David Musnick and Bellevue physical therapist Mark Pierce, addresses common muscle imbalances throughout the body and presents exercises to counter them.

Jurek is also an ultramarathoner — he has won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run the past three years — giving him plenty of opportunity to develop injuries. "If you don't pay attention to when they come on, that's when you get into trouble because it's a long process.

"The key thing is staying active," he says. "Usually you're better off doing some form of your activity, even if it's a minimal or minuscule amount. Or you find ways of modifying your work station.

"You don't just have to live with it."

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Whitney Stensrud is a Seattle Times news artist.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Essay Now & Then home
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company