Getting started with your own self-maintenance plan. Part 3. Protecting your joints

Bracing your spine is the first part of creating optimal position, and the bracing sequence alone can be a life-saver. However, it really only affects your trunk; the bracing sequence does nothing to help create stability in your limbs. So along with the bracing sequence, we also need a way of bracing our joints. And this is done by creating torque in our shoulders and hips.


Torque is defined as a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. If you hold one arm up in front of your body, and rotate it to turn your palm up and to the right, the tension you will feel in your shoulder is torque, or torsion. And as it turns out, your wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, kness, and ankles not only flex and extend, but also all rotate as well. This means they all have capacity for generating torque for stability.


In my own experiences, torque is the most difficult concept for people to understand, and therefore to implement. But if you can specifically practice creating torque as a skill during your movements, whether in daily life or in the gym, you can quickly and easily have massive improvements in your strength, speed, range of motion, and safety. In fact, if you do not create torque in your joints, or you create rotation in the wrong direction, you will actually set yourself up to not only be weaker and less flexible, but will be setting yourself up for injury, in such ways as an ACL tear, a labrum tear and rotator cuff tear, among others. But learning how to create torque in the right direction is relatively simple, and follows a basic pattern.


Flexion= external rotation
Extension= internal rotation.


If your arm or leg is in flexion, meaning in front of your body, you create external rotation to create stability, and internal rotation to create instability.
If your arm or leg is in extension, meaning behind your body, you create internal rotation to create stability, and external rotation to create instability.
 

 As you can see in this picture, the two ligaments anchoring the two sides of the knee together in the center of it have an X shape to them. When you create external rotation in a knee, the ligaments stay tight, keeping the knee stable. However, if you internally rotate the knee, these two ligaments will unwind, adding significantly more stress to the knee.

As you can see in this picture, the two ligaments anchoring the two sides of the knee together in the center of it have an X shape to them. When you create external rotation in a knee, the ligaments stay tight, keeping the knee stable. However, if you internally rotate the knee, these two ligaments will unwind, adding significantly more stress to the knee.

These patterns are actually seen in your daily life, and have been present your entire life. How do your turn a door knob, or key for your cars ignition, or use a screwdriver to tighten a screw? You always turn your arm to the outside, creating external rotation. If you are in the front seat of a car and you want to reach behind yourself to grab something in the backseat, do turn your palm up or down to have the most flexibility? Down, which creates internal rotation in the shoulder. You can't get very far if you keep your palm up. What about a boxer, when he throws a punch from his back hip? His back leg turns inward, again, creating internal rotation, because you cannot punch very well if your back leg is turning outward.


Hopefully with these examples you can have a clear image in your head of what I mean when I refer to creating torque, or rotation, within your shoulders and hips. When you create this torque in the right direction, you are actually creating stability by tightening up the joints and engaging all the muscles surrounding the joint. This creates strength while also preserving flexibility. At the same time, it prevents the two sides of a joint from moving independently of each other, placing massive amounts of stress on your
cartilage and ligaments. Hence why ligament tears are so common when people move in certain positions.


A major point to make on the subject of torque is that you only harm the joints if they are rotated in the wrong direction under two conditions:
1. You hold that position long enough to adapt to it, and to also make a habit which will be expressed under stress, or
2. You express this position under a load.


Actually, creating internal rotation while in flexion, and vice versa, is useful for mobilizing the joint capsule and getting fluid into the joint to help improve your overall mobility. But that is a position that you only momentarily pass through, never one that you remain in for any significant amount of time.


This does not mean you have to constantly be creating tension in your hips and shoulders all the time. That would be a ridiculous demand, and would likely end up being detrimental to your health. However, you can display small amounts of torque habitually to maintain good posture in daily life. This can take the form of keeping your feet straight while you walk, turning your knees to the outside when you sit, stand and when going up and down stairs or ladders. It is also displayed as keeping your shoulders back rather than hunched forward. These same positions should also be displayed in the gym.


One major hindrance to creating torque is this: People are rarely taught to intentionally create rotation to their maximum anatomical range of motion, and so the muscles that create rotation, such as the rotator cuff muscles, and the external rotators of the hips, are quite often super stiff and painful to press into. And so mobilizing these tissues, which will come up in later blogs, is important to start with. Because you can understand movement principles to the best of your ability, but if you do not have the mobility to actually express the principles, you will never move optimally. However, movement always comes first, and many mobility problems can be remedied by simply beginning to move correctly. So here is a tip for you to begin incorporating into your daily life as a way of cultivating torque in your body as a habit: every time you step up and over something, or are walking up and down stairs, pay attention to how your back leg moves. Oftentimes, because the hip external rotators are so stiff, the leg will become externally rotated while it is in extension, which we know creates instability. So if you find that your leg is flying out to the side, rather than moving straight under your hips as it comes forward, pay attention to that, and make a conscious effort to keep your leg in. Try to bring that back knee straight up into flexion, not rounding out.

One other point to make about torque is that the way we do express joint rotation, as in the example above about walking up and down a staircase, is often what we have done habitually for years and was never aware of it. For example, there have been several studies, such as the one found here: http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/23/6/694.short, that claim women have many more ACL injuries than men, especially in sports, some claiming anywhere between 4-10 times the amount of tears. Why could this be? How are women taught to arrange their knees from the time they start walking and wearing skirts and dresses? Knees together. Often we will see this expressed with the feet slightly apart, and the knees collapse to each other, or the knees will be crossed over each other. These women are being taught to create internal rotation from a very young age, and it quickly becomes a habit. This is a huge factor for why almost every single untrained female I have ever seen play sports or exercise will jump and land with their feet wide and their knees coming together. Accumulate a few thousand reps of creating slack in the knee and stressing ACL. Remember, external rotation in flexion creates muscular stability. Creating internal rotation while in flexion reduces muscular engagement, and places the stress on the ligaments.

And a final note about torque is that you are primarily aiming to create torque in the shoulders and hips. If your legs are in flexion, you are creating torque in your hips, knees and ankles. But because of how the anatomy in the knees and ankles is arranged, you will never create internal rotation in those structures if your leg is in extension; only creating torque in the hip. Going back to the example of the boxer, or just talking about a simple lunge, the heel of the back foot should come up so that you can pivot on the ball of the foot. You should never create internal rotation in the foot (creating a collapsed arch) or in the knee (wrecking havoc on the ACL and meniscus.