Muscle balance and ensuring that all of your muscles are firing effectively is key to ensuring your body is functioning effectively. In this article Mark Deterline talks to leading triathlete Kate Major, and finds out why she advocates the Janda approach.
By Mark Deterline
One of the challenges of being a serious recreational or competitive athlete is balance. Not life balance, but postural and muscular balance. When problems with our bodies finally manifest themselves, they might have been in the making for many years. Whether or not they lead to trauma or discomfort, imbalances can undermine performance. The Janda Approach, now championed by the late biomechanical researcher Vladimir Janda’s colleagues, emphasizes muscle function and the role it can play in injury prevention, rehabilitation and performance.
In early December, Ironman champion Kate Major had just starting going to the gym regularly for off-season training. “I don’t do conventional weight training like many people think of when you say ‘hitting the gym,’” she said. “I do more movement-specific stability and balance strength training.” And she said it’s important to find a personal trainer who can determine an athlete’s muscle weaknesses and imbalances, see why they are the way they are, then make the muscles want to work again.
Major’s perspective validated my own experience over the past two years as I’ve trained for increasingly longer and more demanding cycling events. I had learned that for short races I could get away with chinks in my fitness, technique and even health. But in order to make those short-term performance gains or achieve desired fitness spikes, I had been withdrawing from an increasingly shallow account until I was close to overdrawn, undermining my progress and ultimate potential.
That led me to a chiropractor with extensive experience working with athletes, including cyclists. She pointed out strength and movement imbalances that had led first to poor alignment and flexibility and then to either soreness or diminishing performance. Fortunately, she didn’t want a dependent client; she wanted to get me back to optimal health and performance as quickly and thoughtfully as possible. She prescribed a series of exercises that focused on proper ergonomics and balanced leg strength, such as one-legged pedaling intervals. She also emphasized the hips, where proper alignment and freedom of movement are fundamental.
But there are many paths, and Major’s success on the bike and freshness for the run makes her perspective compelling.
It’s essential to focus on muscle balance and hone our technique in each targeted discipline to recover quickly and set ourselves up for continued gains. “It’s key to keep [my] hip region flexible, making sure the muscles are working in harmony,” Major said. “Then I can work to strengthen them all up while preserving that flexibility. You need to keep an eye on everything in order to recognize when weaker muscles have shut off again so that you can reactivate them. The body is so high maintenance!”
Major said that much of what has helped her excel is muscle stabilization, including and even emphasizing the diaphragm, to promote balance, function and efficient breathing. This brings us to what will hopefully prove a helpful albeit basic introduction to the Janda Approach. This intro includes a few technical terms that are quickly clarified.
Vladimir Janda, MD, was a Czech physiatrist, a medical doctor specializing in rehabilitation and pain treatment, who thoughtfully considered the interdependency of muscles, joints and posture and how all three related to the central nervous system. In his view, chronic pain was the body’s way of ostensibly communicating musculoskeletal imbalances and lingering damage to nerves and joints, while an individual’s lack of efficient movement and power more subtly revealed that muscles were not fully engaged and therefore not firing as they should be.
The term “sensorimotor” refers to the interconnectedness of the musculoskeletal and central nervous systems, a word increasingly used in balance training. It implies that muscles are only free to move and work to the extent that they are receiving and understanding information from the sensorimotor system.
“Proprioception” refers to the body’s sense of where all of its parts are relative to one another at any given time. The Janda Approach seeks to empower individuals—ideally with the help of a trained professional—to better understand information being conveyed by their proprioceptive system to determine weaknesses and imbalances, and then work to address them.
In short, it’s what Clare Frank, Phil Page and other Janda experts refer to as “muscle function.” Instead of raw strength, which can be deceptive and of little importance if the body is not able to deploy it, the Janda Approach focuses on muscle recruitment and efficient firing. Some muscles are prone to tightness, others to overuse and others to laziness, which is why soreness, pain and performance shortfalls can be bewildering when an athlete knows she’s in good shape and rested, but can’t seem to peak or progress.
Major said that she does “certain generalized Janda exercises before training every day, then more focused, specific ones before each workout session.” In addition to flexibility and freedom of muscle movement, it’s largely about stabilization. “If your stability muscles fatigue early on in a race, then other muscles have to work harder than they should, which means you lose form and therefore power,” she explained.
Although exercises depend on each individual’s unique needs and should be prescribed by an expert, Major shares some of the ones that have helped her the most.
“One of my favorite pre-exercises is called the dead cockroach. Most of the exercises I do get the muscles around the hips stronger so that I don’t go into an anterior tilt. I will also do some glute activation exercises I refer to as ‘deadman’ exercises. Another favorite is a single-leg squat with the butt just barely touching the seat of a chair before you go up again. Then there is one that is a bridge exercise you do from a lying position on your side.”
Major said that some of the exercises focus on stabilizing the diaphragm so she can breathe from the lower parts of her belly rather than breathe from her chest.
“When you get tired, what is your body’s priority? To breathe. So your body needs to be able to stabilize itself in order to breathe form the belly since it is more efficient. These exercises are not only strength-building in general but activate the muscles and joints. It is amazing how much difference stabilizing the diaphragm makes.”
Major also noted an interesting technique that her trainer Roger Fitzgerald in Australia employs. “He will strap bands around certain body parts and then have me run with or without them. It clearly illustrates muscle weaknesses or imbalances and helps me feel and be reminded how I need to activate certain muscles on my own.”
You might not need to learn more about or master the Janda Approach to succeed on the bike or as an athlete. But hopefully the topic will give pause for reflection and in the consideration of training options. It also reinforces what athletes are hearing from many experts regarding the importance of core strength and stabilization, efficient technique and balanced muscle performance to reach our cycling and fitness goals.