Yes it’s true, I’m about to use the C word. This word might be the biggest confounder in injury rehab and exercise outcomes.
I am of course talking about compensation. Not the stuff you get when you fall over on a wet floor, but the system your body uses to move around weak muscles.
I consider myself fortunate to witness every day, our body’s incredible ability to compensate for weakness.
I use muscle testing as an integral part of my process. This requires precision and an ability to watch for subtle changes in position as clients will alter joint positions to help weak muscles test strong.
There’s nobody I’ve met who’s better at this than Ian.
As is often the case, Ian is an elite level athlete with a long list of previous injuries. Being good at compensating around his weaknesses is how he’s managed to continue competing for so long.
On the treatment table I noticed that Ian had a tendency to rotate his head slightly to the right whenever I was about to test muscles around his right hip.
Initially I thought he just needed a visual on what I was doing, 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 in order to get stronger muscles in the line of force. When I cued him to keep his pelvis down, he was weaker.
Now 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 until it’s pointed out.
Our central nervous systems (CNS) instantly make the calculation that the muscular system is unable to resist force in a particular position and make 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?
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, but still 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 pull up slowly to a stop at either end of 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.