Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Subtraction Before Addition

Everyone wants to be powerful.  As such, many people plow full speed ahead into a strength program.  They'll usually see some pretty quick gains and observe their muscles getting bigger and puffier.  Eventually though, the return on the training investment stagnates and sometimes yields negative returns with injury or burnout.  What gives? 

Before we concern ourselves with adding power, the first step is to identify any impediments to power. Here's a basic analogy: Take a car that has 200 horsepower.  Now let's say the emergency brake is on.  

If you try to drive with the emergency brake on, let's say the car "loses" 50 horsepower and now can only use 150 of that 200. To get back to 200, you can either release the emergency brake or you can add more power under the hood (ideally you would do both).  Releasing the emergency brake seems like a pretty easy way to reach 200, doesn't it?  Unfortunately, in the training context most of us want to add more horses to the engine and not be bothered with something like the emergency brake, even though the releasing of the emergency brake offers "free" power.  (Yeah....what fun is it to release the E-brake when you can make all kinds of noise and put on a show with a bigger engine?) 

It is extremely wasteful to add power without removing basic impediments, but that is exactly what people do when they fail to conduct a thorough assessment of their individualized movement needs. Likewise, the more power you add to any dysfunctional platform, whether a motor vehicle or an athletic body, the more strain you impose upon that platform. If you drive around with your emergency brake on, adding more horsepower simply gives the car a greater capacity to inflict damage upon itself.  Same thing applies with the human body...adding power to dysfunction only makes that dysfunction more powerful.  When we have powerful dysfunction, one of two things usually happens.  First, the dysfunctional yet powerful movement pattern can cause injury if the body's compensation mechanisms are unable to keep up.  Alternatively, the compensation mechanisms might kick in with extra force to match that originally dysfunctional pattern and create a newly dysfunctional movement pattern unto itself.   Ever wonder why the biggest and strongest guys are often the least functional? 

The best thing about taking the time to address the basics (like making sure the E-brake is off, or in athletics, making sure our movement fundamentals are sound), is that quality movement creates not only an additive effect with 50 horses adding 50 horsepower, but instead with a multiplicative effect.   In terms of exercise selection, we need to take a hard look at the messages we are sending our neuromuscular system with the exercises we choose.  This strategy requires a critical inquiry beyond "what muscles am I using?"   It is easy to crank out some lat pulldowns and think, "Gosh my lats are sore, but they have gotten big and puffy since I started working out, and I know that I use my lats in swimming, so that lat pulldown set must have done some good for me."  

True growth as an athlete will require a more refined approach.   We must first examine whether anything stands in the way of the lats being able to transfer energy most effectively.   Pulling power from the lats means nothing if your shoulder blades are unstable and you overuse your neck muscles to drive the movement.  We must train the supportive muscles to do their appropriate jobs when the prime mover is called upon to transfer energy. You won't fully train these supportive elements if the underlying movement pattern is flawed.  

It is critical that we respect the body's basic movement fundamentals to train each bodily region to perform in a matter consistent with the intended uses.  "Subtraction before addition" is a simple mantra to remind us how to address movement issues.  Find out what is impeding authentic movement and remove that impediment before adding something new.  Reflexively adding something new without taking the time to screen for the source of weakness can be comforting in the short term.  We feel like we're accomplishing something.  However, it takes a special discipline to screen, assess, and remove those power impediments before trying to add power.  Adhering to a system under which we screen for impediments and correct those impediments before plowing ahead with intense conditioning will unlock previously unknown potential and possibly save careers from a lifetime of injury and disappointment.  


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