How do you know if you are safe to perform the movement you are doing? The truth, is that there is not a way to ever be 100% certain. But there is a skill called movement grading, that can help you be informed about how strong you presently are, and generally, what the strength requirements are of the movements you desire to perform.
When we talk about grading movement, we are not talking about the A-F grading system. Instead, think about placing movement on a gentle ramp- easiest movements at the bottom, tougher movements at the top.
When you start movement, you need to start at the bottom of that incline. Allow yourself time for all of the bioplastic tissues in your body to respond and adapt to the training you are providing for them. Your bones will become denser, your tendons and muscles broader and thicker in cross- section, your nerves will become more adept at communicating with the parts of your brain that control movement. All of these adaptations are necessary to allowing you to continue on the ramp of progress.
In so much of our adult fitness, we are pushed to begin in the middle of the ramp. Which may be OK for some, but really not for most of us. How do we know where our weak links are, unless we start at the very beginning and work our way up?
Grading movement is one of the most important ingredients for keeping all movement safe. It requires that you have
1) (as my yoga teacher Djuna Devereuax encourages) An honest awareness of the present reality in your body. Especially with respect to mobility and strength and
2) To know where your goal is. What is the top of your ramp?
I tend to grade movement on a scale using Manual Muscle Testing (MMT), a tool used by Physical Therapists and Physicians to identify strength in specific muscles, as a reference. A MMT will give information about the endogenous strength of a given muscle group.
In general, when you can move a body part well against gravity, you have a 3/5 muscle strength.
For some areas of the body, this can seem very easy. Take, for example, the quadricep muscles (knee extensors). If you sit at the edge of a table with your legs bent at the edge of the table and hanging down, and extend your leg at the knee completely through your full range of motion, we consider that a 3/5 MMT of that knee extensor.
Some areas of the body need to generate a much greater amount of force to yield a similar MMT of 3. Take now into your consideration, your plantar flexors of your ankles (we will also call these the gastroc/soleus muscles). If you stand on one leg, and can fully lift that heel up, you are at a 3/5 MMT in that muscle group.
So much harder!
Kinda confusing to piece it together in that way when you investigate such different muscle groups.
The quadriceps on the front of our body, tend to be super strong. They are the strongest and beefiest muscle in our body. They are unlike our gastroc/soleus, which tend to get under used and can be stringy, losing cross sectional area as we age.
Some examples of 3/5 MMT movements and associated muscles:
- Single leg bridge- gluteus max
- Side leg lift- gluteus medius
- Clam exercise – external rotators of hip
Since shoulders do not generally lift the arms with body weight, the upper extremity is a little more abstract to understand. I do consider the scaption, arm lift in a “V”, to be an indicator of 3/5 MMT strength between the deltoid (anterior/ middle) and supraspinatus.
Balancing Day to Day Demands with Strength Training
As we progress along this movement grading path, hopefully each of you will find a way to make sense of this information in a way that you can apply it to your day to day life. Do you have a 2/4 gastroc/soleus strength and you’re hiking 3-4 miles? What is the stability like across your supraspinatus/ deltoid force couple, and is it enough for you to perform arm balances?
In general, what we do in strength training is significantly less force than what we are exposing ourselves to on a day to day basis. This imbalance is a recipe for injury and pain.
As you progress along your strength journey, allow your day to day life, or movement goals to guide your strength training practices. Over time, you will want to gently grade up your activities so that your tendons, muscle, bone can tolerate what you are asking of your body everyday.
Another concept about movement grading to note, is that it is not movement stepping! Let the transition be slow as you progress. Again, it takes 6-8 weeks of consistent work to have true changes in your strength. Be gentle, be consistent in order to be successful.
Happy Safe Moving!
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