4. Exercising for Alignment

This is the fourth article in a series about body alignment. Scroll down for the start of the article.

Background: I went from enjoying an active lifestyle to being unable to take a quick, short walk without significant pain and discomfort.

I wrote this series in the hopes the information might help other people avoid this fate or overcome similar problems. Don’t mistake this for professional advice – I’m in no way a qualified professional when it comes to bodies and injuries.

The culprit in my body’s misalignment is a left leg half an inch shorter than the right. Even if your legs are the same length, you might still be suffering from alignment problems and be able to benefit from what I’ve learned.

Alignment Series:

  1. Is your balance worse on one side? Could alignment be the problem? This article describes the progressive deterioration I experienced over the course of, well, decades actually, but it seemed to accelerate in the last few years. My right leg mysteriously twisted inward and I lost my balance on that side. Figuring out what was happening to me was a long, frustrating and expensive process.
  2. If your body’s alignment is a problem, how will you know? In this article I tackle several topics, like does alignment even matter? The biggest message I hope you take from that article is that when we take a reductionist view of our injuries and pain points we miss the chance to make real and positive changes to our bodies.
  3. Surprising Signs of Misalignment: Assess Yourself This article describes ways you might begin to get a sense of your own alignment.
  4. Exercising for Alignment [YOU ARE HERE] In this article I describe how I exercise to improve my alignment. Remember, I am not a strength trainer. I’m not even pretending to be one on the internet. I’ve done many, many exercises and programs to try to improve my chronic problems, prescribed by professionals. Nothing has been as effective as what I do now.
  5. 12 Random Tips, Insights and Admonitions About Alignment This is just a mash up of a bunch of things I’ve learned or have helped me during this process.

I’ve already discussed how defining my twisted leg, chronic hip pain and loss of balance as an alignment problem was an important step forward.

It guided me away from the dead end treatment plans that targeted this or that weak or tight muscle and motivated me to take a comprehensive, full body approach to solving my problem.

I’m not out of the woods – not by a long shot – but my body has changed significantly in the past 10 months, at least with regards to alignment.

A big part of my progress came from adding a 1/2 inch lift to my left shoe, but the exercise strategies I use in the gym are making a big difference as well.

Exercising for Alignment

In this article, I explain how I “exercise for alignment”. This strategy and the exercises I describe below helped me sense and begin to correct imbalances in my body that were previously invisible to me.

Disclaimer: Remember, I’m sharing this as a personal “survivor” story. I’m not a strength trainer or physiotherapist. I’m not even a full-fledged survivor, but after years of frustration, I’m finally making steady and marked progress.

Once I defined my problem as “alignment”, I knew I’d use the twin tools of Specificity and Progressive Overload to treat myself. These are 2 of the most powerful principles of sports science:

  • Specificty
  • Progressive Overload

You can use these principles to map out a plan to achieve any fitness-related goal. Do some online research if you need to learn more. Specificity is the most abused and confused of these two topics. It’s a big reason why many common drills for cross-country skiing don’t work, which is a theme of this blog, but off topic for now.

Basically, my strategy was to get myself into perfect alignment prior to exercising, add some load and increase the challenge from week to week. It’s a simple idea, but turned out to be incredibly difficult to put into practice.

Of the two principles, specificity (finding and holding good alignment during exercise) is the hardest to achieve. I think my most valuable insight was accepting that this goal is both essential and unachievable.

To exercise specifically for alignment you need to learn to think in 3-D with regards to your body, positions and movements. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you’re in good alignment, but as your thinking becomes more sophisticated, you’ll understand the many ways you can fail.

That might sound bad, but it’s actually good because it helps you detect and overcome the infinite ways your ingrained movement habits will “cheat” you out of proper alignment.

Note on working with professionals: I found a large variance in the ability of professionals to assess movement and position in three dimensions. This is not an easy skill and not everyone can do it equally well. I work with a trainer and physiotherapist I trust. It’s worth your time to look around someone with a good eye.

If you live in the Canmore-Calgary region, I recommend Hugh Simson and Jake Watson at One Wellness in Canmore.

Anchor Points

To “exercise for alignment” I use what I call “anchor points” and “frames of reference” – the more, the better. The anchors are how I address the issue of specificity, that is to say, how I’m able to get as close as possible to good alignment.

This isn’t an idea I invented. Anyone can tell you that it’s important to exercise with good alignment. My big insight – if you can call it that – is how ridiculously meticulous you have to be.

This goes way, way beyond making sure your pelvis is square to the wall of the yoga studio. Even lying flat on the floor won’t ensure you are in proper alignment, although it’s easier than standing.

The easiest way to explain the basic principles is to walk you through one of my “alignment exercises”.

Hip Thrust for Alignment

This is my set up for a hip thrust exercise which is one of the most useful exercises I’ve found for realigning my pelvis. I did this exercise for years, but it wasn’t until I started to use my anchor point approach that I began to significantly change the musculature in my lower core and legs.

(Bret Contreras is the online guru of hip thrusts. Look through his website and YouTube channel if you want to learn how to do it. I think you should hire a skilled trainer to check your form and teach you proper technique. Beware, I’ve heard that in Canada you can call yourself a trainer after taking a weekend course.)

Thanks to this exercise, every week I can feel significant changes in my pelvis and legs. I can’t prove anything, of course, but I feel like I am making reasonably rapid progress, especially compared to anything I have tried previously – and believe me, I’ve tried a lot.

I think the key to my progress is that I’m fanatical about my alignment, both at set up and during movement. I’ll outline all the features of this set up and why they matter:

1. The semi-fixed bar

The semi-fixed bar on this piece of equipment makes it one of my favourite tools for “exercising for alignment”. The bar is fixed in two dimensions. It can’t rotate or tilt, but you can slide it forward and backwards because the posts run along tracks on the base.

I enjoy the big, compound exercises like squats and deadlifts but even with diligent practice, they didn’t improve my alignment because it’s too easy for me to veer off course when using a free bar or free weights. This piece of equipment helps overcome that problem.

I realize you might have trouble finding an equivalent piece of equipment, but I urge you to look around for something similar. This was built by a company called Hoist. I emphasize: the semi-fixed nature of this set up has been super helpful to me. I wish I could find more equipment that allowed better control of my positioning like this rack.

2. The yoga block

The yoga block is also essential and much easier to come by. I hold it between my knees, at least in variations where my knees are close enough together.

The yoga block provides a 3-D frame of reference that can help you tell you when you veer off course. Keeping the block square throughout the movement is one of the key ways I’m know I’m maintaining relatively good positioning throughout the exercise. Without it, I will veer off course and not even notice.

3. The band

I use the looped band around my knees as well. It’s purpose is similar to the yoga block. I often use them together.

4. Other reference points

The box is squared with the rack and anchored with weights. I lean back against the box and use it to get a sense of my upper body positioning. I check the position of every part of my body I can think of, using the floor tiles, mirror, the floor plate, the top of the rack, the furlings on the bar etc. I use these markers to check my core alignment (ribs to pelvis), my neck and head, my shoulder blades, my gaze, my foot placement etc, etc.

Notice I don’t wear shoes for this exercise because most of the difference in my leg lengths comes from my thigh bone.

Movement

As meticulous as I am with my set up, I’m even more meticulous with the execution of the exercise.

I think of the movement as having three parts: a beginning point, an end point, and a “path” in between. Each of these qualifies as a “reference point”, but for the purposes of “exercising for alignment”, the path is the most valuable.

Every “path” is wobbly at first. With extremely slow movement, I find the weakest point on the path – that’s where I struggle the hardest to keep my movement straight.

Now the principle of progressive overload comes into play. I add just enough weight that I can maintain perfect control through the weakest part of the movement path. Once I adapt to that (usually 1-2 weeks of daily practice) I increase the difficulty using these methods, in this order:

  1. Slow the movement down even more. Usually I can find additional errors in the path that I didn’t notice first time around. This takes a lot of mental focus and control.
  2. Increase how hard and long I squeeze my muscles at the top of the lift.
  3. Increase reps.

In theory, after I’ve exhausted these options I’ll add a bit more weight, however, I still have a lot I can achieve with just the weight of the bar, or perhaps a small plate.

Other things I focus on:

  • Even weight distribution on my feet and across my back and shoulder blades.
  • Braced and aligned core – I use my fingers and thumbs to check the position of my pelvis and rib cage (fingers on hip pointers and thumbs on lower ribs).
  • Head and neck position. I try to follow a straight path with my gaze.
  • No extraneous tension or activity in areas of my body that aren’t relevant to the exercise, like my lower legs or neck and shoulders.
  • I take a lot of care at the top of the hip thrust, squeezing out whatever range of motion I can without losing the position of my lower back (no back arching). I feel this zone is really helping me build stability around my hip joints.
  • How my hips “fold” – I press my fingertips into my hip crease to get a sense of how I sit back into my hips during the exercise.

Even with so much attention to detail, I don’t kid myself that I’m aligned during this exercise. Inherently, my body’s misalignment is still at play. I can inadvertently tilt, rotate or shift my pelvis the bar. I might lose my core alignment or do something with my shoulders and head position that’s not good.

I don’t think of these factors in a negative light. I’m just aware they might be biasing my movement and are areas for potential improvement.

Variations

I do endless variations of this exercises. I figure the hip joint is a ball and socket and needs to work in an infinite number of ways. I alter:

  • Stance width – I change the angle my feet point to help keep the knee and foot aligned – be careful with this and get help if you need it. You could hurt your knees.
  • Foot placement relative to body – closer, with more knee bend, or further out.
  • Knee and foot relative positions: knees wider than feet, knee width matching feet or feet wider than knees.
  • Yoga block and band: When my knees are close and feet are wide, I use the narrow edge of the yoga block between my knees. Other times I’ll use the band, either alone, or in combination with the yoga block. When both my feet and knees are wide I won’t use either.

I try to work this exercise in an infinite number of positions. That’s taught me a lot about the muscles in my legs and lower torso. With different positions I sense different imbalances between my right and left sides.

I’ll do 10-30 reps in each position and 3-5 variations every day. From a fatigue standpoint, I could do more, but it’s hard to maintain concentration and, frankly, really boring.

Heel Drop/Toe Raise

I always pair the hip thrust with a calf drop/toe raise exercise, also done with a variety of stance widths and foot angles. I think it’s important to work on ankles and feet in conjunction with hips.

For the heel drop/toe raise exercise, I squeeze the yoga block between my upper thighs to help align my pelvis, and often use the band around my knees. I rise up and down on the balls of my feet, creating as much tension in my hips, legs and feet as possible throughout the movement.

You can’t see it, but there’s a half inch pad under the mat under my left foot that compensates for my different length legs. It allows me to exercise shoeless in a standing position and still be reasonably level through the hips. Shoeless is nice for this exercise because I can get a better sense of the strength, tightness and movement through my feet.

I’m exceedingly careful about how I use my feet in this exercise, ensuring that I roll my weight along the bottoms exactly the same on each foot. I feel odd lines of tension in my legs and feet when I do this exercise. I often cramp. When that happens I relax, reset and try again.

The joints in my ankles and feet crack like crazy. I have done a lot of mobility work on my ankles and feet, so that may be a contributing factor.

What else?

Of course there are other things beyond these exercises I do in the gym. My regime evolves as I progress and feel the changes in my body.

The specifics are not important. The underlying principles are what matter. It’s the attention to detail, the use of simple movements and the many, many reference points I create that provides the control and framework I need.

I’ve tried many of the traditional exercises for strengthening the hips, but until I started this approach I couldn’t get any sense of the imbalances in my body.

45 muscles attach to the pelvis. If your pelvis is torqued out of alignment, which ones wont be imbalanced? I’d bet money that EVERY muscle pair in your body is imbalanced.

That’s why it’s such a waste of time to “target” weak muscles. Target weak positions and weak movements and the muscles will take care of themselves.

By exercising with this degree of precision, I’ve uncovered shocking imbalances throughout my body that I had no idea existed and couldn’t feel with any other type of exercise.

I feel this approach is helping me make steady and significant progress in realigning my body, although I do wonder if I’ll even be pain free and able to enjoy an active lifestyle again. I won’t lie, it’s easy to feel depressed.

I try to get to the gym every day and exercise like this. It is mind-numbingly boring, but effective. My right leg is gradually untwisting and no longer goes into “panic mode” every time I weight it. I can’t express what a relief it is to feel it untwist and begin to be able to carry weight on that side.

If I hadn’t been backed into a corner, I doubt I would have the tenacity and determination this approach demands, but if I could turn back time, I would have started exercising like this long ago. When (if?) I’m “cured”, I’ll continue this practice the rest of my life.

I still have a long journey ahead. I’m only now graduating to standing exercises, which are mostly a puzzle to me. I don’t know how to stay aligned in that position. There’s also the mystery of the upper body I need to unravel. I don’t have the answers yet, but I think my process will look like this:

  1. Better understand anatomy and what ideal positioning and movement should look like in that region.
  2. Develop better body awareness and control of my position.
  3. Understand my existing posture and movement patterns with the help of my trainer and/or physiotherapist.
  4. Figure out basic exercises with enough “anchor points” that I’m able to move in reasonably good alignment.
  5. Try not to die of boredom through the process.

I call this “exercising for alignment”. I’m not training endurance. I’m not training strength. I’m not training explosive power. Those are attributes I would prefer to work on, but my alignment “bucket” got emptied without my even knowing.

Training Buckets: Alignment needs it’s own bucket

I like the idea of training buckets. Cross-country skiers need an endurance bucket, a strength bucket, a speed bucket, a mobility bucket, an agility bucket etc. Different types of training fill different buckets.

Don’t over fill or under fill any of your buckets, and, please, don’t ignore your alignment bucket. Also, don’t confuse your alignment bucket with any of the other buckets. It’s not flexibility. It’s not strength. It’s different and needs a different type of training.

Exercising for alignment sucks. It’s tedious, requires tremendous discipline and is enormously time consuming. But alignment provides the foundation for all the fun fitness activities I hope to do again someday.

Everyone knows alignment is important, but it’s hard to know how to address it in practical terms. It seems overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible, to untwist a leg. It felt hopeless to me for a long time.

After years of fruitless work, I finally feel like I’m moving forward. The end is still not in sight, but my right leg has straightened somewhat and I am no longer continually plagued by a sense of torsion. I am grateful for the progress I’ve made and happy to share my approach with anyone who cares to give it a try.

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