Functional Movement for Circus: beyond “corrective exercise”

As an experiment, I’m going to get straight to the point:

In my previous post, we discussed how a movement screen can be a valuable insight into how your body is moving and thus, an opportunity to begin working on getting your body to move better.

There are actually two equally important parts to this thought:

  1. Optimizing movement is about getting things moving better.
  2. Once things move better, you probably want them to continue moving better.

The essence of moving better may just boil down to training for the long run. Your body is amazing and clever and adaptable. The trick of it is that your body is generally inclined to make adaptations that are efficient, which is not always optimal. 

Let’s say, for example, that you want to do this cool active shoulder flexion drill—because we all want good end-range control for our shoulders—but you don’t really own that passive range of motion (i.e., full shoulder flexion).

If you were to do this exercise but without full shoulder flexion range of motion, then your very clever body would find a way for you to do it anyway.

The most likely compensation would involve using the extensor muscles of your back to arch your way into position.

But… knowing that you’re not supposed to arch here, what we often see happen is a concurrent effort not to arch.

But…not having full overhead range of motion, your body would still have to try to arch, since that’s the only way to get your arms to where they need to go.

So, here’s what happens, your body activates muscles in a sequence that looks something like this:

*note that your core is engaged because, well, that’s important. The trick here is that doing so resists the efforts of the spinal extensors to arch your back. Since you really, really want to get your arms overhead to do this drill, your spinal extensors oblige and crank up the effort level. This may result in decreased core engagement.

What this means is that continuing to do this drill is training your nervous system to make the following into “standard operating procedure”:

Raise arms overhead?

And every time you raise your arms overhead, you reinforce this pattern.

Every time you raise your arms overhead to do anything requiring an increased level of effort, the intensity of the stimulus reinforcing the pattern becomes stronger.

For the sake of example, say we discover that your overhead range of motion is limited. Let’s say that what we see is that you don’t appear to be getting enough scapular upward rotation.

This is where “corrective exercise” comes into play.

Optimizing Movement, step one: Move Better.

What we do specifically will vary from person to person, based on their individual presentation, but for the sake of this example, let’s say we do…

For a general reduction in sympathetic tone and to assist in repositioning the ribcage
To address tone, specifically in the posterior rotator cuff area
To specifically focus on creating more upward rotation of the scapulas during overhead reaching.

These exercises should begin to shift the overhead movement pattern in the direction of using more upward rotation of the scapula to get there.

This is good.

But it’s not everything.

A brief note on “Corrective Exercise”

We need to take a bit of an editorial detour here. On the surface of it, the benefit of doing an exercise like the serratus wall slides in our example is obvious. We know that it is generally important for the scapula to move along with the humerus when the arm is raising overhead. We also know that aerialists and hand-balancers need more scapular upward rotation than your average bear. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that aerialists and hand-balancers need an exceptional amount of scapular movement and control in order to move optimally.

And therein lies the rub: “corrective exercises” alone do not really correct anything.

Using our example, the movement fault, if you will, is that as the arm moves toward the fully overhead position, the scapula doesn’t move enough—and the body compensates by arching through the low back and creating more glenohumeral motion (and stretching out the joint capsule).

There’s no doubt that an exercise like serratus wall slides will help to improve the amount of scapular upward rotation that happens when you move your arms overhead, which is good…

As long as you are only moving your arms overhead at intensities that match that of the corrective exercise.

Let’s say that the relative intensity of effort required to perform the serratus wall slide movement is 2/10. That means that any time you need to move your arms overhead to do something at a 2/10 or lower, you’re likely to do so using a good amount of scapular upward rotation.

But, if the very next thing you do is jump into a handstand—with a relative intensity of effort of 7/10 (or higher)—then you’ll revert to the previous pattern you were using.

There are two reasons for this (and they kind of amount to the same thing):

One is that the ‘faulty’ movement pattern (with the arching and the excessive ball-in-socket movement) is highly trained. It’s likely that prior to the movement screen, you were training those handstands for some time (at an effort level of 7/10 or higher) and it is now the default movement pattern for your body when it comes to doing things that require effort of a 7 or greater out of 10.

The other reason is that your scapular upward rotators just aren’t strong enough yet. You’ve only really begun training them for 2/10 intensities. What we need is a bigger boat.

And this is where strength training comes in.

Optimizing Movement, step two: Make it stronger.

At this point, it’s important for us to keep in mind:

  1. We want to choose exercises based on the movement pattern we wish to reinforce and strengthen.
  2. While we do want to challenge a given movement pattern, we want to do so without compromising that movement pattern.

With the above in mind for our example, we would want to reinforce and strengthen shoulder flexion with good scapular upward rotation. What is nice about the serratus wall slides is that the exercise allows us to scale the range of motion according to the individual (we can limit how much they lean forward into the wall).

In the most basic of ways, in order to strengthen this pattern, we need to start with a degree of challenge that is appropriate for the individual in question. Since in our example we know that overhead range of motion is limited, we would not do any strict overhead pressing (because we know that form would end up being compromised and we would just end up reinforcing a dysfunctional movement pattern).

Instead, one of my favorite choices would be use:

We use this to connect two key concepts: maintenance of good anterior core position (control) while progressively increasing strength through an almost-overhead pressing motion. Over time, this will help the range of motion to increase.

You can also replicate the same movement using a cable machine:

Using just this exercise as an example, we could begin with a resistance that matches the individual’s current level of strength and then begin to progressively increase the resistance over time—all while training a functional sequence of muscle activation.

And, at the risk of over-simplifying, it’s really that simple.

Ok, sure: there are other movement patterns that we would want to include in the overall strength training program and there are other exercises that we would use to strengthen the shoulder in all three planes, but the underlying concept is simple:

Move well. Then make it all stronger.