Sports Specialization And Movement Atrophy

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Playing a sport puts a tremendous amount of strain on the athlete’s body. Similarly, strength and conditioning programs impose stress on the athlete’s body. However, the purpose of an intelligently designed training program is to impose a demand on the body so that it adapts favorably. Accordingly, the duration, volume, and intensity of a strength and conditioning program should vary depending on what sports season you are in (i.e., off-season/in-season, playing one sport). Furthermore, the goal of any strength and conditioning program, at any age, should be on filling in the gaps of foundational movement. Filling gaps in basic levels of strength that your sport or sports may miss allows this to get gets accomplished.
A training program implemented correctly addresses poor movement patterns and the ability to absorb force to make the body more adaptable to stress. It builds foundational levels of strength to make the body more resilient and resistant to overuse injuries. When these foundations get established, it creates higher athletic development potential and an environment for the athlete to succeed. Left unchecked, all of these aforementioned are risk factors for developing overuse and repetitive strain injuries.
Now that we distinguished procedures to be more resilient and the risk factors for injury, the sounder question is: why do losses in foundational movement patterns occur (i.e., squatting)? When we specialize in a sport (intense training in one sport).

Let me preface that specialization alone isn’t bad. Focusing your intent on one sport and a single set of skills is an excellent pathway to mastery in a sport. For example, basketball players don’t need to know how to dribble a ball with their feet, and soccer players don’t need to learn how to dribble a ball with their hands. Furthermore, if an athlete specializes in one sport, they gain confidence in their ability to perform the sport. Confidence is paramount to being the best player on the field or court. It’s just that it can perpetuate movement dysfunctions that lay in the path of that activity. For example, if I want to be the world bench press champion, then in that pursuit I’m going to have to give up a degree of shoulder mobility, but not at the expense of being able to lift my arm overhead. It is when an athlete specializes in one sport, gets hooked into an isolated movement pattern, and movement atrophy ensues that you take an unnecessary risk with specialized training in sport.

Most understand muscle atrophy — if you don’t use muscle, you lose it. We struggle to connect atrophy with movement patterns — a loss of movement. Atrophy is prevalent in both when you are not using a particular movement that engages the muscles. For example, ankle and hip mobility in the squat with an upright torso dissipates in distance runners and weight lifters. Runners develop springy tension in their body and lose their fundamental squat pattern (i.e., full depth squat with their bodyweight) because they don’t use it. Powerlifters lose their authentic squat (i.e., like a three-year-old would squat, playing with a toy in a sandbox with no fatigue or pain) to move significant weight. So in each of these scenarios, if we don’t maintain movement, we can lose it. Thus, movement pattern atrophy is just as prevalent a problem as muscle atrophy if we are not using movement to engage muscles.

DWMA isn’t used to correct a training ailment. It is used to ensure extra strength and explosiveness developed through specialized training doesn’t hurt necessary movement capabilities by limiting volume and intensity based on technical precision. For example, many can run longer than they can jump rope despite the cardiovascular mechanism being mostly the same. The plyometric demand is less when jumping rope because when you jog, you’re landing on one-foot verses two-foot when jumping rope. The difference? Jump rope requires precision; you can slouch and jog, but you can’t slouch and jump rope because your center of mass is not aligned. If you’re not good at jump rope, you can’t do enough jump rope to “shred up your legs (ex, shin splints)” because you’re always starting and stopping. However, inefficient runners can pound the ground until they have orthopedic issues.

DWMA corrective exercise exposes an athlete to a level of technical precision that perpetuate better mobility, alignment, coordination, motor control, and attention to detail. When coaches adopt DWMA into their training, it allows the athlete to maintain movement patterns in such a way that despite specialized training in one sport, the variety of activity in another direction naturally keeps your movement balance coupled with strength and power.

Once more, mechanical efficiency means reproducing an activity with a degree of technical precision so as not to waste energy. I caution those whose whole training paradigm is “rise and grind” with no regard for movement integrity. Do that often enough, and the lack of precision with movement is going to bring the athlete up against early fatigue. The result is the athlete can not achieve metabolic efficiency, get in shape, and eventually have an orthopedic issue.

Go for technical precision, movement correction, and movement efficiency whenever possible. The goal: make your athlete as efficient as possible, so work levels become less stressful. The result: the athlete reduces their musculoskeletal risk of a setback injury as they are getting in shape.

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