I first learned about Structual Balance from one of my most valued mentors @derekwoodske when he was teaching The Poliquin® International Certification Program (PICP™).
"Structural Balance is an evaluation system that looks at strength ratios between muscle groups to ensure optimal performance and injury prevention. As a coach, Structural Balance Assessments enable you to use the information to individualise the training program to achieve useful results. Each certification has its set of Structural Balance Assessments you will learn.” - Poliquin Group Education
What is Structural Balance?
The most absurd example is when we look at the typical commercial gym, where we often see many guys focusing on their “beach muscles.” Their exercise selection is often limited to the muscle they can see in the mirror - bench press and bicep curls. The overtraining of the anterior chain often leads to an imbalance that can cause frustration, pain, and injury.
This can also be seen in gymnastics when athlete focuses on pushing exercises like planche, dips, and handstand push-ups while neglecting pulling exercises like pull-ups. This is a recipe for creating a structural imbalance in strength and flexibility that will induce shoulder pain.
How Structural Balance Causes Pain and Injury?
Let's continue with talking about the shoulder because it is the most mobile joint in the body, which also means it is the most susceptible to structural balance issues. It is crucial to design a training programme that is focused on balanced shoulder healthy. After all, how can you train effectively if you are in pain or injured?
Keeping the shoulders and the shoulder blades operating optimally is the key to upper body strength success.
Anatomically, the shoulder is composed of the glenohumeral joint (shoulder) and the scapulothoracic joints (shoulder blades). Shoulder strength is the combination of the shoulder blade stability against the body and the primary movement muscles of the shoulder to produce force. The muscle surrounding the scapular are used to stabilise the shoulder blade and provide a solid foundation for the muscles around the shoulder to exert force.
You can't shoot a cannon out of a canoe. If the shoulder stability muscles are not strong enough to keep the shoulder stable while the shoulder movement muscles are trying to generate force something must give, and you may incur pain, injury, and plateau in your training.
This often occurs when inappropriate exercises have been selected, and the balance of pushing and pulling movements does not match the shoulder joint requirements. Structural balance issues can occur at any joint in the body, not just the shoulder.
Maintaining Structural Balance
Structural balance relies on a good understanding of anatomic joint motion, testing, and an experienced coaches eye. However, we will do our best to provide a simple method to make the concept clear and simple to understand.
If you push and object you should also pull and object, they will help to offset each other. In general, this will allow us to maintain a healthy balance of strength across the joint. Most general population clients have tight anterior shoulder muscles (due to desk posture and using mobile devices) and would be wise to include more pulling exercises. It's also important to recognise that pushing and pulling exercise have different planes of motion:
Vertical Pushing - handstands, overhead press, and dips
Horizontal Pushing - planche, push-ups, bench press
Vertical Pulling - pull-ups, pull downs, upright rows
Horizontal Pulling - ring rows, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, front lever and back lever
It’s no uncommon to see a structural imbalance in the muscles that move the shoulder and the muscles that stabilise the shoulder. One common telltale sign of imbalance is when the elbows are flaring outward in pressing and pulling movements. This flaring leads to a lack of control in many movements and places the shoulder in a very vulnerable position. If left unchecked shoulder pain and injury will soon follow. Increasing the strength of the stabilisation muscles is a critical part of improving shoulder health and overall strength. Again this principle applies to the other joints in the body and not just the shoulder.
A Well Designed Programme
Is your training programme structurally balanced? If we take a look at your weekly plan and count the total number of pulling exercises compared to the number of pressing exercises, how does it add up? (Hopefully, there is more pulling exercises?) If you persist with a poorly-constructed program for any period, you will end up with poor posture, muscle tightness, and injuries. Many programmes lack the proper amount of pulling exercises that are required to develop scapular retraction, posterior deltoids, and external rotations. These are the muscles that help stabilise the shoulder blades and are best worked with horizontal pulling movements.
If you are experiencing clicking, popping, or cracking in your joints, this may indicate that your structural balance is no correctly maintained. For example, if there is an imbalance between the muscles of the quadriceps you may feel knee pain. The base of the femur (thigh bone) may start rubbing or pinching against the tibia (shin bone). In this case, the meniscus begins to wear down, leading to possible tears or damage.
It is not good for muscles or joints of the body to get out of balance. Our bodies are much more intelligent that we realise, as our central nervous system (CNS) is constantly aware of proprioception and joint stability, which can cause the CNS to limit force production and compensation movement patterns. In other words, if the body detects an imbalance the could result in injury, it may restrict strength and muscular development in the surrounding area and start to cause addition overload on other muscles due to compensation.
Exercising and becoming stable is essential for developing a healthy body and improving longevity, but there is no point in getting strong if you become injured. You and your coach must take this into account when designing your training programme so that you can maximise both your joint health and your performance.