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Hips Don't Lie: Fixing Your Force Couples


Do you know what you're doing when it comes to writing your own programs? Are you sure? Is your programming improving your posture? Improving your strength? Most importantly, is it keeping you healthy and allowing you to achieve your goals?

With smart training, not only should your lifts go up, but your posture should improve as well. If it's not, something's amiss. Fixing your "force couples" will give you the tools necessary to optimize your posture, training, and performance. But first, let's loosely define the term:

A couple is created by two parallel forces equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. Couples produce pure rotation around the center of resistance.

Bill Hartman and I first addressed the concept of force couples in our Push-ups, Face Pulls, and Shrugs article but the hips have an important force couple as well.


A Small Rant by the Angry Biomechanist

A few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the LA Strength and Performance Nutrition seminar on the topic of core training. In that presentation, I discussed core training and how it affects your posture, your lifting, and your athletic performance. But more importantly, it got me thinking: Why do we train the way we do? Who set the current status quo?

There's a right and wrong way for you to train your body, and it's largely based upon your postural alignment. If you're training incorrectly, you're leaving pounds on the bar and/or increasing your likelihood of injury. However, if you understand and correctly apply these concepts, you can improve your alignment, your lifting, and your athletic performance, all while injury-proofing your body.

And honestly, people, this is why I'm interested in improving posture — to move bigger weights and improve performance. Improving posture and alignment is a vehicle to keep you healthy and doing what you love to do. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't give a damn about improving posture.

Mini-rant over. Let's move on.


The Goal: Optimal Pelvic Alignment

What goes on at your pelvis seriously affects what goes on throughout the rest of your body. Do you have a huge lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt? If so, you're losing pounds on all your lower body lifts because you don't have appropriate glute involvement.

What if you have a posterior pelvic tilt? Your glutes may be working okay (although they probably aren't), but your hamstrings are short and stiff, decreasing your lumbar curve and leaving you at increased risk of lumbar herniations. Chances are you also have an exaggerated kyphosis, leaving you at risk for injuries to the upper extremity and shoulders.

So what does all this have to do with force couples? By knowing how force couples work and which ones are affecting you, we can improve the position of your hips, and therefore improve the alignment of your entire body. Better alignment equals fewer injuries and better performance.

I'm tired of people training without purpose. You don't squat because you know you should squat; you squat with a purpose. Whether that purpose is a bigger squat, bigger legs, or a more jacked physique is irrelevant. You include the squat in your program for a reason; the same should be true of your entire training program. Every mobilization, soft-tissue technique, exercise, or stretch should be included with a specific goal in mind.

If you don't have a goal when training, you do now. That goal is optimal pelvic alignment. Whether you're training to be a powerlifter, Olympic lifter, bodybuilder, fitness competitor, or to look great nekkid, this goal is applicable to everyone!

It may sound redundant, but sometimes you need to hear it a few times: optimal pelvic alignment means better posture, optimal muscle recruitment, better lifts, and better health. And to be quite honest, it goes way beyond simple training modifications. Your entire training program for the hips, core, and lower extremity should revolve around obtaining optimal pelvic alignment!


Theoretical Examples of How Force Couples Work

Hamstring strains are a huge issue in the sporting world, and I've seen them happen in sprinting, deadlifting, or even just bending over to pick up a dumbbell! If we understand force couples and proper alignment of the body, we can prevent injuries (not just hamstring strains!) and improve our lifting performance as well.

If we look at a typical flawed lower body posture (anterior pelvic tilt, excessive lordosis), we have numerous postural issues that need to be addressed:

The "symptomatic" problem is at the hamstrings, because that's where the injury is, right? Unfortunately, far too many people in the healthcare industry still subscribe to this flawed notion. I'd argue that while the hamstrings are an issue, they aren't the primary issue; the primary issue is the poor pelvic position. Let me explain a little further.

The body can assume a flawed posture for numerous reasons. These reasons include (but aren't limited to):

In the posture I outlined above (one of anterior pelvic tilt), the gluteals and abs are both weak, and the hamstrings are in a position of constant stretch. Here's an amazingly detailed picture to help you understand further:

Neutral Alignment Anterior Pelvic Tilt

The body is in anterior tilt, decreasing recruitment of the gluteals and forcing the hamstrings to take on an increased workload. So what happens? Instead of our glutes and hamstrings both working at 100% capacity, our glutes are firing at 80%, so our hamstrings naturally tend to take over and assume they need to work at 120% to make up the difference. This is an oversimplification, but hopefully you're following the logic here!

So what happens when you're in this flawed postural alignment and decide to deadlift heavy? Or go through an intense sprint workout? If you answered with "a pulled hammy," give yourself a gold star and a firm pat on the back. It may not happen every time, but if you're in a flawed alignment long enough, chances are it'll catch up to you over time.

How bad can a little anterior pelvic tilt really be? Really?

I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I've trained like this for years and never had an issue, so I don't know what happened." You've constantly reinforced bad posture and poor movement patterns, and at some point your body is going to break down. It's the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

So how do we prevent this? Is it really as simple as throwing in some glute-activation work? Can weak abs actually result (directly or indirectly) in a pulled hamstring? I don't think so, as it's not one simple factor that leads to all your injury woes. Instead, we have to examine all the factors that are working against you and address all of them. We must wage a war on many fronts if our goal is long-term health and performance.

Let's examine the primary force couples in our body, what dysfunctions and compensations they lead to, and how we can use this knowledge to produce superiorly functioning bodies.


The Anterior Force Couple

The anterior force couple consists of the hip flexors (psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris, and TFL), and the spinal erectors. From the front, the hip flexors pull the pelvis down into anterior tilt. On the back side, the spinal erectors are pulling up on the back side of the pelvis to produce anterior tilt as well.

In essence, these muscle groups are working synergistically (from the front and back of the body) to produce one movement — anterior pelvic tilt.

Neutral Alignment Anterior Pelvic Tilt

In this case, we have a tendency to become quad and low-back dominant in our lifts. Our gluteals are shut off (or at the very least not functioning optimally), opening the door to at least four types of injuries:

The ass-master does not approve of this sort of lifting!


The Posterior Force Couple

In contrast to the anterior force couple, the posterior force couple consists of the rectus abdominus, external obliques, gluteals, and hamstrings. From the front, the rectus abdominus and external obliques pull up on the pelvis. On the back side, the gluteals and hamstrings pull down on the pelvis. Again, these muscle groups are working synergistically to produce one movement — posterior pelvic tilt.

Neutral Alignment Posterior Pelvic Tilt

While most of us are in some degree of anterior tilt, there are those who are afflicted with posterior pelvic tilt. While it may not sound bad, this improper pelvic position leads to its own set of possible injuries.

No matter how you approach it, if you're skewed to one side or the other (significant anterior or posterior tilt), you're exposing yourself to injury and leaving pounds on the bar in the gym. So how do we fix it? Read on and I'll show you the way!


Force Coupling in Successful Programming

It may surprise you to know that force couples have already been used successfully in the programs of both rehabilitation patients and elite level powerlifters.

You'll recall that several years ago, Paul Chek's protocols were all the rage when it came to rehabilitating low back injuries. Paul wrote an entire article series entitled Back Strong and Beltless, which focused on improving core strength and alignment. Many were quick to bash Paul for his concepts, but was he really that far off?

Chek was very caught up in the TVA recruitment, sure, but think about it conceptually: he was trying to improve postural alignment via proper training. Instead of strengthening/training the TVA, what if we strengthened the rectus abdominus and external obliques? Different muscles, same concept.

A good majority of the athletic population is in anterior tilt. Low back injuries in sports and weight training are often related to poor gluteal function, and a lack of rectus abdominus/external oblique contribution to "bracing." Essentially, our body only has one stabilization pattern — the low back. When the glutes are shut off, not only is the low back called upon to stabilize the load, but it's often thrown into the mix as a hip and trunk extensor as well.

Paul did an excellent job of retraining the anterior and lateral stabilizers so that the low back was no longer the only way for the body to stabilize a load. The functional anatomy may not have been totally correct, but I'd imagine his results were above average.

The great Louie Simmons has also used force couples to produce elite level powerlifters. Again, assuming a large majority of the population is in anterior tilt, we know the glutes and hamstrings are going to be in a lengthened state, reducing their ability to produce optimal levels of force.

What's the basic premise behind big Lou's methodology? Get the posterior chain strong and your lifts will go up! How many lifters has this mantra worked for over the years? I'll let Lou's success speak for itself in that regard.

Anyone who wants to say improving force couples doesn't work can talk to Dave Tate and his 900 pound squat!


Taking it to the Streets

So I'm sure you're wondering at this point, "Damn, I'm in (anterior or posterior) pelvic tilt. How in the hell do I correct this?"

Let's keep it real simple here. If you're in anterior tilt you want to:

On the flip side, if you're in posterior tilt you want to:

To keep it even simpler, depending on your pelvic position, you want to train your body to do the opposite!

I'm a visual learner, so hopefully the following figure will give you a little direction with your training:

Muscles You Need
to Strengthen

Muscles You Need
to Stretch

You're in Anterior Tilt (AT)

Rectus Abdominus

External Obliques

Gluteals

Hamstrings

Psoas+

Iliacus

Rectus Femoris

TFL

Spinal Erectors*

You're in Posterior Tilt (PT)

Psoas+

Iliacus

Rectus Femoris

TFL

Spinal Erectors*

Rectus Abdominus

External Obliques

Gluteals

Hamstrings

* Use caution with dynamic stretching around the lumbar spine, especially movements into flexion. I wouldn't recommend any loaded spinal flexion movements in any training program.

+ The psoas should be evaluated prior to training; it can often be long/weak or short/stiff. I've given an example below.

To test the psoas, stand next to a wall with the upper back and buttocks flat against it. Lift one thigh to the chest and hold for as long as possible. If the knee drops below 90 degrees in less than 20 seconds, the psoas is weak and needs strengthening.


For Those In Posterior Tilt

Psoas

Quadriceps

Spinal Erectors

Strengthening Exercises for PT

Psoas Activation/Strength

Back Squats

Front Squats

Lunges

Bulgarian Squats

Static Back Extension

Traditional Back Extension

Conventional Deadlifts

From a program design perspective, you need to shift your training from a balanced quad/hip dominant program to a program that's skewed toward training the anterior force couple preferentially.

Rectus Abdominus

Gluteals

Hamstrings

Lengthening Strategies for PT

Ab Stretch*

Glute Stretching (static and dynamic)

Foam Roll Glutes

Soft Tissue Therapies (massage, ART, etc.)

Static Hamstring Stretching

Foam Roll Hamstrings

Soft Tissue Therapies (massage, ART, etc.)

* Again, be careful when stretching the lumbar spine. You can easily irritate the lumbar facets with hyperextension

Much like your strengthening exercises need to be skewed toward quad dominant exercises, your stretching, mobility, and soft-tissue work needs to be directed at the muscles which are short/stiff — the ones that produce posterior tilt.


For Those In Anterior Tilt

Rectus Abdominus

& External Oblique

Gluteals and

Hamstrings

Strengthening Exercises for AT

Dead Bug Variations

Glute-Ham Raises

Reverse Crunches

RDL's/Good Mornings

Pull-throughs

From a program design perspective, you need to shift your training from a balanced quad/hip dominant program to a program that's skewed toward training the glutes, hamstrings, rectus abdominus, and external obliques more preferentially.

Hip Flexor/Quad

Spinal Erectors

Lengthening Strategies for AT

Static Hip Flexor/Quad Stretching

Static Spinal Erector Stretches+

Foam Roll Hip Flexors/Quads

Foam Rolling Spinal Erectors+

Soft Tissue Therapies

(massage, ART, etc.)

Soft Tissue Therapies

(massage, ART, etc.)

+ I don't think either of these are necessarily bad, but they aren't appropriate for all populations.

Much like your strengthening exercises need to be skewed toward hip dominant exercises, your stretching, mobility, and soft-tissue work needs to be directed at the muscles which are short/stiff — the ones that produce anterior tilt.


Bringing it All Together

Example Workout for those in Posterior Tilt

Now that we've covered the concepts, I'll provide you with some example programming to get you started. As you're looking things over, don't just look at the list of exercises, but think about how each works toward the goal of optimizing pelvic alignment.


Foam Rolling


Static Stretching/Activation


Mobility Training (featured on the Magnificent Mobility DVD)


Strength Training Exercise Selection


Out-of-workout lengthening strategies


Example Workout for those in Anterior Tilt

Foam Rolling


Static Stretching/Activation


Mobility Training


Strength Training Exercise Selection


Out-of-workout lengthening strategies

As you can see, one of the greatest mistakes we can make as strength trainers is to assume that we're balanced to begin with. All the great training and programming info that coaches like Eric Cressey, Alwyn Cosgrove, Bill Hartman, and myself have given is essentially useless if you don't apply it properly! Until we're balanced through the hips, we need to skew our training one way or the other.

Finally, remember that if you're in one pelvic position or the other, and not working to correct it, you're negatively reinforcing poor movement patterns and posture with every thing you do! When you're balanced and training appropriately, training not only improves strength and performance but reinforces good posture as well!


Summary

This article is reason #1,358,695 why I don't like using "standardized" or "cookie-cutter" programming with my clients. One program may work great for one person; he not only feels great but gets jacked. That very same program screws the next guy up beyond belief! At some stage in the game, if you're really serious about taking your strength, physique, and health to the next level, you need to individualize your programming.

Whether your goal is to look jacked, move a ton of weight, or simply look and feel better, fixing your force couples can help you achieve all those goals. Figure out where you stand, design the appropriate program, and get to it. Your body will thank you!


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