Much like a bridge has beams and pillars that serve to keep the structure intact, the human body has similar structures which we take for granted and turn into cumbersome weak points in our training if left unchecked. This article will discuss how to spot weak points and focus on common ones such as the elbows and ankles.
Weak points in a stable cross beam structure of a bridge typically arise from stress on joints and bracings. To test or do a fatigue life assessment contractors utilize a principle called eigenfrequencies, which is a “function depending on the cross-section’s bending stiffness EI, the structural member’s length L, the mass per meter m and the type of the boundary conditions (λ).” Much like a building, the human body has functional weak points built-in and require their own form of testing.
Stress and Strain
What we typically test for are principles called stress and strain. Strain is where material, like a bone, undergoes deformation in length relative to the force placed on it. Strain occurs in humans most in tendons and ligaments but also occur in bone, however, comparatively bone cannot be strained much.
Stress, however, relates to a force applied over a unit area. Imagine pressing on someone’s back with a hand outstretched versus pressing on them with a pencil with the same amount of force. The pencil press provides more stress because a smaller area with a large force produces more damage. This principle can be applied to small areas such as the elbows and the ankles.
Notice Your Weak Points
Do you ever notice that in a range of motion during a pressing exercise it's simply painful? Maybe, during a squat, your ankle wants a vacation from supinating or pronating (rolling) or your heel manages to pop up off the floor no matter the adjustment made. Perhaps during a deadlift, you can’t move past your knees.
These sticking points expose your weaknesses. A sticking point during an exercise is a sudden drastic and “disproportionate increase in difficulty as you continue the lift.” The weak point, however, is the prime contributor to that sticking point, whether it’s a collection of muscles in one area or joints or tendons. A weak point in this sense is akin to the brace or a joint moving out of place in a bridge. It is where more reinforcement is necessary.
To provide reinforcement increasing muscle mass in the neighboring joint (mass per meter increase), compression such as wraps or sleeves (increasing stiffness) and in some cases inhibiting range of motion and slowly increasing it over time through mobility drills (length) will prove useful.
Checklists for a weak point:
- Reoccurring sticking points
- Reoccurring pain during lifts
- Truncated range of motion
- Pain on palpation
- Pain at rest (equal to or greater than 24 hours)
Elbows and Ankles
Elbows tend to be prone like (knees) to overuse injuries. It experiences forces from the bicep and triceps in high frequency during training whether it’s a workout or athletic drill. We’ve seen more advanced lifters wear sleeves or veterans wrap their arms.
This increases overall stiffness, as the olecranon process weakens at full extension during a lift or throw. Once it experiences extension beyond the activation of the triceps it’s only a matter of a UFC armbar or a heavier than usual dumbbell press (at extension) to undergo unnecessary stress and strain.
The first few times the body will enter survival mode and increase the stimulus to the forearm “grip” thus tricking the body into believing it can handle the weight, however, surrounding muscles will tend to fatigue faster thus causing an unfortunate “hazard release” of the weight. This leaves neighboring joints such as the shoulder exposed for injury as well.
It is advised to leave ego at the door and lift within your means when going heavy or “sleeving” up if stiffness is a limiting factor. However, sleeves shouldn’t be your saving grace, your muscles simply need better conditioning.
A good “litmus test” for the health of the elbows are the following exercises:
Dips: Self-Resisted Extension
- You’re looking for: the clicking after a set, this indicates rubbing of the joints
- Inability to fully extend (not due to weak or atrophied triceps)
- Aching pain – usually from sore tendons
Bicep Curl: Resisted Elbow Flexion
- You’re looking for: assistance from the wrist translated as increased wrist flexion
- Increased strain on the eccentric (lengthening) phase of the motion
Ankles tend to be prone (like shoulders and knees) to mobility, hypermobility, and hard and soft tissue injuries. It experiences load from the top down and more importantly doesn’t have as much support as the elbow. I think of a few of my clients who have fractured their tibia or tore their Achilles or have weak calves. Like the elbows there exist ankle sleeves and braces for sport and provide stiffness to the area as well.
The ankle experiences most issues, pun intended, in the Achilles tendon and lateral ligaments more specifically the anterior talofibular ligament. Most people tend to “roll” or sprain this ligament and never truly recover. During the squat or during a gait assessment, a client who over-supinates is on their way for a tear here if not corrected.
On a whole, each person has a “normal” degree of supination or pronation. The role as a gym goer is to ensure your supporting muscles aren’t contributing to weakness by looking at sticking points, stretching between sets (do not stretch cold muscles) and fixing imbalances.
A good “litmus test” for the health of the ankles are the following exercises:
- Squat – look for ankle rolling outward or inward
- Lunge – same as above
The human body has weak points that can impede our workout but can improve our physique and body mechanics if we pay attention to them. Watch your weak points like your stock portfolio or risk zero return on your investment for joint health through exercise.
Lift well, my friends!