Overuse of incorrectly used muscles and how it leads to underperformance in training and wellbeing: Overcompensation

Everybody, regardless of their experience or knowledge in health and fitness understands the obvious benefits of proper nutrition and a regular exercise regimen in their lives. People also tend to have basic ideas about stretching, warming up or how to rest injuries but if we are not addressing the specific needs of our body, we are not capitalising on our time and effort and converting them into results. If you want to exercise effectively for longevity as well as intensity you should definitely read this article and attempt to understand the body in a biomechanical sense where the weakest links will affect the entire structure.

What’s more and under-appreciated is how physical deficiencies in our bodies manifest themselves into our emotional and mental state. The most known of these examples being the fact that we feel deflated when we are hunched over as opposed to more confident when we walk with our chest and head held high. Interestingly enough, this simple alignment literally alters hormone levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and testosterone in the brain and makes others perceive you the same due to the expansive posture and body language. Another example is feelings of depression, anxiety and panic being felt by most people in the stomach or lower abdomen, this is no coincidence as the body’s second largest site of neurons (nerve cells) after the brain are found in the stomach and they are constantly communicating. Therefore, it is fruitless to keep the mind and body separate but rather treat them as an entity and address them as so.

A common trait we all share is looking for help from the outside when reality is our body is the best communicator if we pay attention to it. Despite certain muscles or joints malfunctioning the body’s durability enables it to still perform most physical tasks like jumping, running, lifting, albeit not efficiently. This is because the body uses compensation patterns when strength and mobility are not sufficient. Causes of this can be either due to the fact that a muscle/s is not able to do its job and provide movement in joints or that the joint itself is restricted and unable to move freely with the latter being a more serious issue needing professional medical advice.

Compensation patterns are not the body’s optimal way of functioning and as such will eventually break down at the weak link in the body! By learning to prevent injuries through recognition rather than reaction we can train smarter, harder and most importantly, longer!


Chronic muscle tightness despite stretching:
This is when you have tried and tried to improve your flexibility and you stretch your problem muscles extra and you still feel sore and tight. An example of this can be linked to runners who are weak and ineffective at firing their glutes when pushing theirs heels off the floor. The gluteus maximus is our strongest hip extensor which is supposed to activate when the foot is behind the body but when it doesn’t the hamstrings and lower back end up compensating for this force leading to chronic hamstring tightness or lower back pain.

Unusual pain and tenderness in the same areas during massage:
Whether receiving a massage or foam rolling by yourself at home, people will tend to notice relief in most areas and reoccurring pain in others. This is the body’s way of telling you that it is not simply overworked or sore but it is a biomechanical deficiency which needs to be fixed. This is very common in people who lift heavy weights and complain of neck pain due to impaired shoulder mobility.

Recurring injuries:
Tendonitis? Shin splints? Sprains? Whatever it is, any type of overuse injury on the same body part repeatedly indicates an underlying cause which requires corrective conditioning.


Firstly, it must be said no matter how obvious it is, THE BODY IS MEANT TO MOVE. Muscle imbalances are not selective to rigorous gym-goers or athletes but are also attributed to a sedentary lifestyle. The most common culprit in this is sitting for long periods of the day (due to work) and when you combine this with lack of exercise certain muscles become characteristically shortened or lengthened. Quite simply, if a muscle is in a shortened position for a long period of time it will become tight and its antagonist (opposing muscle) will become lengthened or overstretched. This will not remain isolated and will spread to the entire musculoskeletal system and cause further problems.

Tight Hip Flexors:
Almost everybody has suffered or will suffer from tight hip flexors whether they know it or not. The human body as mentioned is designed to move upright, not seated at a computer desk glued to a screen. When the hip flexors are intermittently shortened for hours they cause the pelvis to rotate forward and the repercussions can easily be observed in the image to the right. As shown, the lumbar (lower back) spine is excessively arched and total spine alignment is compromised due to just one set of muscles. When a muscle becomes tight its antagonist is forced to become lengthened and as a result weak and unused. Can you see how this comes back to runners? Hip extension (provided by the glutes) is opposed by hip flexion and thus tight hip flexors cause lengthening (weakness) in the glutes causing pain in the hamstrings and knee via overcompensation.

Protracted/ Rounded Shoulders:
This condition needs no introduction, also caused by a sedentary lifestyle and long hours at a desk are the lengthening of the upper back and tightening of the pectoralis muscles. This is a problem with everyone as it can be exacerbated with improper lifting technique and a poorly designed training program. We do everything towards the front. We eat, drive, type, write, you name it and we do with our shoulders hunched over. Over time what happens is that our chest becomes extremely tight and caved in as our scapula wings to the sides of our back. Shoulder retraction (pulling back of the shoulder blades) becomes non-existent the lengthened back muscles are weakened and not able to perform their function. Couple this with lots of pressing exercises such as the bench press and not enough pulling exercises and you’ve got a recipe for disaster! The anterior deltoid of the shoulder is stimulated during pressing movements and as such becomes overdeveloped as compared to the rear and worsens your posture by pulling your shoulder girdle forward. If your shoulder experiences aches or pains, grinding and popping often and limited mobility adding more pullups, chin-ups and bent over rows to balance out the pressing is necessary to strengthen the muscles responsible for shoulder retraction.


Get to root of the problem:
Diagnosis is always before prognosis, so the critical step will be to consult a health professional or physical therapist to conduct a postural assessment and locate areas that need improvement.

Static Stretching:
This is the age old ‘ hold for 30 seconds’ stretching technique. Quite straightforward, just stretch the tight muscles of the body as far as is slightly uncomfortable and make a habit of stretching for at least 5-10 minutes of the day every major muscle group.

Myofascial Release:
Myofascial release is the release of tension and knots that accumulate in the muscle due to excessive contraction and overuse. Through either massage, foam roll or using a hard ball the sheath that covers the muscle called fascia is flattened and decompressed so that blood flow is encouraged in the body. Pain and stiffness arise from tiny knots in the muscles where blood and nutrients cannot go and can limit your movement and hurt your joints. The most effective way to foam roll is to roll around the muscles (not the joints) and stop rolling and apply pressure for 30 seconds when finding a tender spot. Relax, breathe deep and let the knots flatten away.


As evident from the name, the role of these smaller muscles are to provide stability so that the primary movers can do their job. In the case of the bench press for example, the primary movers are the chest, shoulders and triceps but your glutes, abs, back and even feet work together to stop you from shaking and to isometrically stabilise your body. Delving even deeper, your rotator cuff is a group of tendons and small muscles that connect your upper arm to your scapula that consist of the Teres minor, Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus and Subscapularis. Since the shoulder is a 3D moving ball and socket joint, it needs stabilisers to provide pain free movement and gliding within its socket. Picture tiny men holding ropes and pulling your shoulder blades back while performing the bench press… If they are compromised your shoulders will be in a vulnerable position and may collapse due to the weight on the bar. So you see it is not only important to build larger muscles but to warm up your stabilisers and strengthen them to prevent injury and improper motor patterns.


At the end of the day, your one input/output to this world comes down to your brain and your brain controls everything, whether you’re aware of it or not. It is extremely important to be constantly aware of what you’re doing and be as conscious as possible at all times. The benefits of this are numerous: your life feels slower, you enjoy the moment more, you think less of the past and worry less of the future but in terms of exercise and contraction of muscles it is essential. It is not enough to go through the motions but to get the most of the exercise you need to flex and contract that muscle. You need to direct all energy and focus into it. For example, squats and deadlifts are two of the best corrective exercises to strengthen the lower back and glutes but that is only if they are engaged. Your muscles are there to bear load while the joints are only there to connect bone. This is why most joint pain is linked to an underlying muscular issue, lower back pain is caused by weak glutes so as you finish the squat or deadlift it is critical to flex and squeeze your glutes as hard as you can at the top of the movement. You need to create a groove in your brain so that it becomes automatic and this takes consistency. My favourite two examples of this are driving and texting. An advanced driver will understand that they could be driving for 10-15 minutes on autopilot while being stuck in their own thoughts but they still drive successfully to their destination. Why is this? Or how your fingers seem to know where to move while typing and after practice you don’t even need to look at the keyboard. This is muscle memory and habitual learning. You don’t need motivation to brush your teeth or shower as it has become a habit, the only way to develop a habit is to simply try hard at the start to be consistent until your body accepts it as routine. This is where posture comes in and will be explained in the next section.


When someone postures you may instantly think of static posture or standing posture. Although this is normally the first assessment your dynamic posture is usually a better indicator of any problems. Dynamic posture is your body’s movement pattern during exercise and movement. An experienced trainer will be able to observe how you move during a specific exercise and instantly recognise what muscles are not firing the way they are supposed to and in turn which are compensating. Since virtually all exercises are repetitive in nature it is important to do them with proper form and technique. Remember that is difficult to learn a new movement pattern but it is much more difficult to relearn once learning the wrong way. This is why I tell people that if your posture has been poor for years simply being aware of it for a week will not fix anything. The only way to fix posture is to strengthen muscles, to stretch tight muscles and be actively aware of your posture, especially while sitting. If you let your arms hang loose by your side and your fists are in front of your tights and not by your sides, this is normally indicative of rounded shoulders. A good rule of thumb is to walk around with your shoulders positioned by moving the UP, BACK and DOWN (not shrugged!!).

As mentioned earlier, good posture can affect the way people look at you and judge your personality before you even speak and more importantly it can even change the way you see yourself. Next time you go to a room with a lot of people, observe the ones who sit or stand in a closed off posture (legs crossed, arms crossed, hunched over) and contrast them with the people who spread out their presence as much as possible. Studies from Harvard and Oxford University have even shown that people are willing to take more risks and answer questions when adopting a strong posture and avoid contact when sitting slouched.

James Z G Buckley

Founder Fitness Factory Australia


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