Why Biomechanics Can Influence Pain and Performance

How we move has a lot to do with how we feel. Though there isn’t one “perfect” way to move, there are many ways to move that translate safety and security to our nervous system and in turn keep us out of pain.

Many therapists and trainers preach about the correct way to move. Best squat form, good posture, best way to align the body. I too used to focus hard on correcting strict alignment and ideal posture. Yet over time I’ve seen that posture, form, poor movement itself isn’t usually the determining factor in pain. After all, we see lots of people moving around the earth that don’t fit the textbook mold for posture and form during movement- but still have no pain. So then, how could it be the deciding factor?

An interesting interpretation of how our posture can influence pain is the emotional link we have to our physical bodies. Studies that outline the basic effects of our posture on our stress response showed that participants put into a “slumped” posture displayed a higher stress response in their physiology compared to those who sat in a tall, upright position 4. If a slumped posture influences our biology enough to cause stress, it makes sense then that posture could then be a factor in our pain severity.

Often in guiding someone to more efficient postures we find our way to better awareness, and that is what I’ve seen make the biggest difference for my clients.

In general, the common areas of our movement that tend to feed into the sensation of low back pain are our ability to stabilize our pelvic movement, our feet, engage our core, breathe fully from our diaphragm, and maintain upper body stability. I’ll go over all these areas in detail later on.

Our body is designed to move as one big chain of movement. This means that no one area works on its own. In riding (and in general daily movement) we must have areas that mobilize and areas that stabilize. Appropriate mobility will not happen without appropriate stability, and true stability will often be overridden by forced stiffness if aware engagement isn’t happening. As I mentioned in the previous chapter- our nervous system will always find a way to keep us safe. Ideally that’s through engaged, conscious movement, but if that isn’t present it will guard, stiffen, and protect vulnerable joints.

When the “right” things aren’t active and doing their jobs for stability we will lose mobility and often even total body awareness. A common example of this is in the hips. Many riders complain of chronic tightness in their hip flexors. The hip flexors themselves aren’t often the root issue, but are often quite tight. Under the surface of this complaint lays an inactivity in the opposing muscle group: the gluteals (aka your booty). Our glute muscles help us with hip extension and pelvic stability. For various reasons we often become disengaged in these groups. Because they have important jobs for stability, when we forgo using these muscles for their appropriate jobs the nervous system will find another way to direct stabilization and control in the pelvis and through movement. First step is to create a sense of security through tightening other muscles groups in the area. In come tight hip flexors (and often a slightly forward flexed posture), hamstrings, and the hip capsule itself.

Low back pain often becomes another complaint at this point. For one, there is a big of a tug of war going on now between the hip flexors (which insert onto the front portion of your lumbar vertebraes) and the hamstrings (which insert into your seat bones) and if extension isn’t happening from the appropriate glute muscles, the muscles in the lower spine end up making up the difference. This over time leads to stiffening into the lower spine, pain, and potential for increased nervous system reactivity here- which is where pain comes from.

There are many ways a similar cascade of muscle tightness, imbalances and symptomologies can manifest here. The pelvis is a hot spot for many complaints as it is one of the main movers for our bodies. As riders our seat is an integral part of our ride, and in finding true stability.

True Stability and Force Absorption

In order to have a functional seat as a rider we must also connect the chain into our lower leg. Many riders aren’t even aware of their foot in the stirrup or how to engage into the stirrup effectively- which can cause a disconnect in how we absorb force through the body while riding.

Force absorption does not occur when we have stiffness in our joints or large muscle groups. This means we end up with a lot of mismanaged force in our bodies when we are riding through muscle imbalances and false stability (nervous system created stiffness in place of poor stability awareness).

In functional movement, force absorption begins in our torsos and core. When this area is engaged, the seat (pelvis) no longer has to stiffen to find a sense of stability and can become more fluid. This in turn helps us to lengthen the legs, maintain fluidity through the knees and ankles. The knees and ankles are two of the most important shock absorbers for us in the stirrups. In order for them to work well the foot should be centered evenly across the stirrup with the mid foot and ball of the big toe engaged into the stirrup. Many riders ride with the weight traveling through the outsides of their feet in the stirrups, with the ankle collapsed outwards, which will limit the amount of absorption the ankle has due to limited mobility. These riders also often have rotation traveling through their leg so that their foot is angled away from the horse- yet again adding to the decrease in mobility, stability, and force absorbing capabilities the ankle joint should have.

Try this: Keeping your ankle joint rigid, walk around briefly. Notice how with a stiff ankle the shock of your body travels through the heel and likely makes lots of noise, stiffens the knee and potentially stiffens everything upwards in your body? Now try the same walk with weight impacting towards your mid foot and a fluid heel to toe movement in the ankle. Likely quieter, and feels a lot better through the knees and hips. You can try the same experiment with a hopping motion. Jumping up to land on stiff ankles vs landing through the whole foot so the ankle can become fluid.

Low back pain occurs when our biomechanics don’t allow for efficient force absorption.

Areas that must be engaged in true stability as a rider, no matter your discipline, are:

- Core (pelvic floor, abdominals (transverse abdominus, obliques), spinal stabilizers, latissimus dorsi) and Oblique Facial Chains. This will also include stability through the lumbar spine, minimizing flexion and extension and undue mechanical strain in the area.

- Scapular (shoulder) Stabilizing groups (also latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, lower and mid trapezius, rotator cuff, etc)

- Hand (while there is nothing inherently “wrong” about open handed riding, efficiency will be lost with flat hands and open hands)

- Lateral Pelvic Stabilizers (glute medius) and Lateral fascial lines

- Posterior Facial Lines (which includes many of the above engagement patterns)

- Foot in Stirrup (Gas-Pedal engagement forwards into equally weighted foot in stirrup, minimal rotation and weight balanced over midline of foot).

Areas that will be allowed mobility and fluidity through appropriate stabilization patterns:

- Pelvis and Hips- specifically into hinging and extension movement patterns (think posting trot, two point, fluid seat in sitting trot and canter)

- Elbows (they should move at angles equal to the hip via flexion and extension as a hinge joint while being kept stable close to the torso- possible via stable shoulders and torso)

- Ankles and Knees as discussed above

These patterns will be flipped without appropriate mechanics. Compensations for false stability generally equal stiffness in all the areas that should be mobile and fluid.

Back pain often is a consequence of the core and hips being reversed in where the body is finding stability. The seat and pelvis will stiffen without the lateral stabilizers working, and if the core doesn’t have true engagement the low back will be caught between taking over extension and flexion from the hips and having to stiffen itself to protect. It’s in this conflict the nervous system puts up red flags (pain, tension) and raises the alarm- which will sound louder over time until things either culminate with a larger injury or dysfunction or a resolution is reached.

This post is an excerpt from my ebook RideProof Your Back. Get your full copy here.

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