The kinetic chain: prioritising movement over muscle
Updated: Jan 30
It's Saturday night and I have just seen a post on Instagram by one of the 'social media in-crowd' saying that if you think the function of the core is to resist movement then you have never watched sport and 'parrot' whatever you got told when you started coaching.
Honestly, this is the brand of wild, context lacking, sweeping statement BS that frustrates me more than any other.
In an attempt to maintain hope for the industry and faith in the humanity of the coaches that populate it, this might be accidental misinformation.
The ever growing skeptic inside me fears however that we are seeing more disinformation.
For those unsure of the difference, the former is unintentional. The latter is more sinister.
I'm not going to tag anyone in. I have no interest in arguing on the internet and even writing about it sheds more light towards the protagonists than I would like.
But I feel compelled to say something.
The problem with making generalist statements like this is two-fold. Firstly, there is a disregard for fact that the human body, and the interacting components that result in movement, is a complex system.
The second is context. There is always context and there are rarely absolutes.
To justify my point, we're going to look at a complex system in which context is the primary driver.
The Kinetic Chain
The kinetic chain references the connection of body segments that allows the transfer of force.
Think about the kinetic chain as the integration of the muscular, neural, skeletal and fascial systems. These are inter-related and inter-dependant meaning a change in one will result in a change in the other. We are therefore dealing with a complex system.
Here are some things related to the aforementioned sweeping statement you should know.
We need to talk about 'core stability', 'pillar strength', 'trunk control', 'spinal stability' or whatever else we want to call it. Whilst the nomenclature is debatable, one application in terms of kinetic chain function is as follows:
‘The ability to control the position and motion of the trunk over the pelvis and leg to allow optimum production, transfer and control of force and motion to the terminal segment in integrated kinetic chain activities.'
I'm going to lay this out logically.
Let's say the brain controls everything and its number one concern is survival.
Let's also say that the brain is constantly monitoring the internal state of the body, assessing the external environment and making decisions related to movement.
The brain is also task focused and will execute the most optimal movement pattern the body is capable of in order to achieve a desired outcome.
That could be swinging a golf club, throwing a ball or punching someone in the face. These are all good examples of how the kinetic chain transfers forces from the lower body to the shoulder and hand.
Now if we want to deliver high levels of power, that being an appropriate delivery of force and velocity. Does it not make sense that the brain would opt to do that from a structurally sound base and therefore first require a level of stability? Not all the parts need to move right. Some need to stay still.
I'll give you an example. Multifidi, transverse abdominus and the deep spinal rotators are able to control segmental motion of the spine. When spinal stability achieved, the trunk can move in sagittal, frontal and transverse planes of motion.
Efficient and varied athletic movement occurs once stability has been achieved. Try and do this without stability and you will find the brain limits performance or we compromise the system.
Therefore it makes logical sense that sometimes we might want to train that ability.
Why is it important?
Transferring forces through the chain is what allows human movement.
The more athletic the task the greater the demand on the kinetic chain.
Charles Poliquin famously said; “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”
In simple terms, Poliquin meant there is little point being able to produce a massive amount of force in isolated patterns if you can’t stabilise and transfer those forces through the rest of the kinetic chain.
Now for some context
There are so many examples I could use to illustrate my point but I'll choose one and illustrate why many would do better to give context more respect when composing social media posts.
I once trained a world record holding Paralympic champion double leg amputee sprinter who ran on prosthetics with no knee joint meaning he circumducted at the hip. He ran the 200m.
You better believe that when you're running around the bend, your hips are moving in circles and you need your arms to move front to back that the core's ability to resist movement is important.
You can't get this from just doing heavy axial loaded compound lifts.
Furthermore, sometimes this is not an appropriate exercise selection.
This is an isolated example you might say.
That's irrelevant. This is the context for this specific athlete. Other coaches will have their own specific context that have specific demands.
It would be possible to lay out numerous other examples.
We should be careful with generalisation in complex systems.
What about the shoulder?
For a shoulder to function well, it needs a strong connection to a stable pelvis.
THE SHOULDER COMPLEX WORKS AS AN INTEGRAL AND SEQUENTIAL PART OF THE WHOLE MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM AND DOES NOT FUNCTION IN ISOLATION
Up to 80% of forces in athletic tasks are generated from the lower body and core.
The scapula is the linchpin between the energy producing lower body and core, and the energy transferring arm.
So, when it comes to sport specific movements, we typically say you’re going to get 50% contribution to a functional task like throwing from your hips, 30% from your chest and 20% from your shoulder.
Generating all that force through your lower body and core, and then putting it through an unstable scapula… well, it's fair to say the shoulder is going to have a hard time.
If there are links in the chain that are sub-optimal, such as the inability to create enough stability to deliver higher power output, you'll either see a drop in performance or other links in the chain will have to work harder to pick up the slack.
If you still want to serve a ball at 100/90 miles an hour and you can’t transfer the force effectively, the shoulder is going to have to work way harder to still hit the ball as hard.
If the shoulder meets its physiological capacity… if it is the weak link, then it is liable for injury.
This post has gone in a different direction to what I intended. It's also much longer but I hope it's given you something to think about.
Here are some takeaways.
Complex systems are complex. Pay less attention to people who try to oversimplify them.
Context is King. Absolutes are the Jester.
Train the core in different ways. Let this be guided by specific and individual needs.
For high performing shoulders, include movement patterns that demand integration of the shoulder with the core and scale the intensity of those movements.
Here are a couple of exercises that focus on kinetic chain integration with the shoulder. Check out our YOUTUBE channel for more videos.
Bear crawl with high hip position
Ground-based movements like the bear crawl are brilliant additions to your training repertoire for many reasons, one of which is that they connect the shoulder and the pelvis together, creating that stability and kinetic chain integration.
Rear foot elevated split squat with overhead press
Often times we need to think about improving the connection between the shoulder and the pelvis, particularly if we we've got some tightness around the hips that's causing restrictions in our overhead range of motion. This is a great exercise to cue us back into some good positions.
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