In this post we’ll look at how muscle compensation impacts injury rehab outcomes and what you can do to prevent it.
Muscle compensation is how your central nervous system (CNS) programmes movement around weak or injured muscles.
There’s nobody I’ve met who’s better at this than Ian.
As is often the case, Ian is a former elite level athlete with a long list of previous injuries. Being good at compensating around his weaknesses is how he managed to continue competing for so long.
On the treatment table, Ian had a tendency to rotate his head slightly to the right whenever I tested muscles around his right hip.
Initially I thought he needed to see the direction I was pushing, which is information in itself. After I cued him to keep his head straight however, previously strong positions became weaker.
Likewise I would notice his pelvis lift millimetres off the table before certain tests. When I cued him to keep his pelvis down, he was weaker.
The truly incredible thing about this is that it’s all completely unconscious. Ian had no idea he was doing it and neither does anybody else usually until it’s pointed out.
Your CNS instantly makes the calculation that your muscular system is unable to resist force in a particular position and makes an adjustment.
Incredible but at times frustrating in equal measure.
If you appreciate that some of these minor shifts in position are barely perceptible on a treatment table, can you imagine what’s possible when you challenge multiple joints out on the gym floor?
Muscle compensation can prevent progress.
Compensation is the reason why you may have been doing squats for years and still have weak quadriceps. Or bench pressing for what seems like an eternity and have weak pectoral muscles.
Your body has found a work around that is very difficult to pick up without testing directly and even then…
Strategies to reduce compensation.
If your exercise or rehab programme is not progressing as you’d like, it’s possible that you may be compensating around your weaknesses.
My advice would be to simplify the exercises you’re currently using to include more single joint challenges where possible. The fewer joints involved, the less options you have available to compensate.
Secondly, slow down and pay attention to what you’re doing and what muscles you’re attempting to challenge. I consistently see people using speed to compensate around weakness.
If you can’t instantly stop at any point in the repetition, the chances are you’re moving too fast.
Compensation is a truly remarkable phenomena. It’s how your CNS instantly finds a work around to keep you moving when injury or overload occurs.
It may also be the reason you’re not seeing the results you deserve. Rethink how you’re applying exercise and you should see progress.