"You are only as strong as your weakest link" is one of those adages that we say – but how often do those weak links get our full attention?
Too often, our weak spots are ignored or babied. At worst, they are taxed. We might complain that our shoulders are weak, for example, then proceed to golf 18 holes or shovel the sidewalk.
Most weaknesses feel inconsequential. There is minimal pain – and thus minimal incentive to address the problem – when an injury is in remission or a weakness has not progressed into a full-fledged injury.
The key problem is that every injury – if the offending link or improper loading pattern is not addressed – potentially lowers the threshold at which injury can occur.
Typical injury cycle
You strain something. You rest the area. Ideally, you find alternative ways to be active that do not stress the damaged area, but typically you decrease overall activity, thus lowering overall fitness "capacity." Simultaneously, pain turns off the neurological connection to the muscles of the affected area. The area is now weaker and not as neurologically connected. Maybe you do physio, but you stop after the pain decreases. You return to regular activity. You probably unconsciously favour other muscles to protect the weak link, which decreases the link's strength further. You reinjure the affected area. The injury occurs with decreased provocation; a lighter weight or easier gym class is now enough to strain the – now weaker – weak link.
The main takeaway is to strengthen – don't ignore – weak links. Here are a few ways to address this in common weak spots.
To improve lower-back strength
Try core stabilization exercises such as the bird dog.
Start on your hands and knees, lower back neutral. For feedback, considered balancing a water bottle on your lower back. Straighten your right arm and left leg. As you move, imagine gently picking up blueberries with your pelvic floor or imagine you are pulling your lower abs away from a tight pair of jeans. Move slowly – as through taffy. Keep your pelvis and water bottle still. Return to the start position and switch sides.
To increase shoulder stability
Strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff, upper back and serratus anterior.
Try band isometric press and rows. Loop a resistance band around the outside of your wrists. Straighten your arms at chest height. Use the muscles around your upper back and armpits to press your wrists outward into the band so that your hands move horizontally – slightly wider than shoulder width. Your arms are still straight. Maintain the tension outward on the band as you bend your elbows and "row" your elbows backwards. Straighten your arms. Repeat 15 times.
To amp up ankle instability
Improve your balance and proprioception (the neurological ability to know where you are in space). Try standing barefoot on one foot for 30 seconds. Next level: Close your eyes or stand on a Sitfit or Bosu.
To decrease hamstring strains
Strengthen hamstrings with bridge hamstring walks.
Start on your back. Engage your bum and core to lift your hips. Lift the front of your foot. Keep your hips level side to side as you "walk" your heels forward. Once you can no longer maintain proper form, "walk" back to your starting position. Lower and repeat 10 times.
Think globally, not just locally
When analyzing your weak links, take into consideration the joints and muscles above and below the segment in question; think globally, not just locally. The weak link can be a symptom of faulty loading patterns throughout the body rather than the cause of the injury.
For example, if you are concerned about lower back or shoulder weakness, strengthen those tissues, but also mobilize your thoracic spine (upper back). If your upper back is hypomobile (inflexible) – and thus can't adequately rotate – the body will often compensate by overrotating through the lower spine or overusing the shoulder socket. Mobilizing the upper spine will help save the shoulders and lower back from overuse.
Try side-lying rotations. Start on your right side, with your head resting on your right arm, knees bent, hips stacked and left hand at your head. Keep your pelvis and knees stable and rotate your chest backward. The motion is small. Initiate from your upper spine, not your elbow. Repeat 10 times. Switch sides.
If concerned about ankle strength, think globally by strengthening your hips with squats, lunges, deadlifts and bridges.
If you consistently strain your hamstrings, strengthen your deep core; hamstrings often grip to support an unstable pelvis. Try bird dogs, planks, side planks or any exercise involving lying face up on a foam roller and using your core to stay stable as you lift your arms or legs.
Three final thoughts
The more physical stress placed on your body, the more potentially significant your weak links will become. If you are considering increasing your training, "get in front of the injury." Don't wait to become injured to go to physio – strengthen your weak links in anticipation of any increased volume or intensity.
If you are not familiar with these exercises, consider seeking technique guidance – the subtleties are easily lost.
Injuries are, at best, disheartening and mentally and physically exhausting. At worst, they are debilitating. It is unrealistic to think that you will reverse a "weak link" or faulty loading pattern by doing appropriate exercises irregularly or only when you have an "incident." Consistency in training is key. Take control of the "link" so it can't control you.
Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness