The Art of Compensation
When people move, the brain plays favorites. It chooses the strongest, most resilient structures to get the job done – regardless if they are the right structures. Movement specialists call this phenomenon compensation, and it occurs hundreds, if not thousands of times per day. At its core, compensation is not bad; it is simply the mechanism that allows a person to maintain movement efficiency by having one structure share the work of another. The problem arises when stress on those strong, resilient structures becomes excessive and leads to injury. To keep compensation in check and avoid injury one must understand why excessive compensation occurs and know how to protect the body when symptoms present.
Why Compensation Occurs
Compensation is essentially a compromise that reconciles two strong, but basic principles that govern movement every time it occurs. The first principle, that all movement be performed as efficiently as possible, works to conserve energy and allow the maximum amount of activity before fatigue occurs. The second principle, the need for self-preservation, requires that the body avoid positions that could cause harm. Since compensation must satisfy both principles when movement occurs, understanding how each affects movement allows one to avoid compensation that leads to injury.
People are hardwired to move efficiently. They can’t help it. Whether a person is walking, running, throwing a ball, or taking out the trash, the human brain is wired to utilize compensation to make the body perform movement in the most efficient manner possible. To do this, the human brain anticipates factors like force, velocity, and momentum, calculates the speed that movement should occur, and determines which joints and muscles can perform that movement most efficiently. Then, in a matter of milliseconds, it executes the movement, adjusting to internal and external stimuli along the way. This efficient movement not only allows people to conserve energy and avoid fatigue, but protects the body by avoiding excessive stress on painful or weak structures. Most people take this subconscious process for granted until excessive amounts of compensation cause pain or injury.
Take running for example. When a person runs at a comfortable speed with good posture, balanced form, and an ideal stride, it allows the task of running to be performed most efficiently. Muscle exertion is present, but controlled. Calorie expenditure is consistent, and heart rate and breathing rate levels are sustainable. Now, say that runner decides to increase her speed and takes longer strides to improve performance. By definition, compensation occurs because the structures used to achieve longer strides have an increased share of the work, and the movement of running will become less efficient. This inefficiency will result in additional calorie expenditure, an elevated heart rate and breathing rate, and premature muscle fatigue. If this process is allowed to play out ad infinitum, tissue breaks down and exhaustion will limit the activity.
There is a trade-off with performance and efficiency, and as efficiency diminishes, the risk of injury increases.
People are also hardwired for self-preservation. The brain knows the body’s limits of strength and flexibility and avoids movement that challenges them. It also avoids movement that places excessive stress on painful or weak structures. Practically speaking, the brain will simply not put a person’s body in a position to fail.
Picture a toddler going down a flight of stairs for the first time. If that toddler tries to step down a step and realizes that her leg is not strong enough to lower her down to the next step, her brain does not tell her, “Jump a little, you’ll make it.” There is too much risk in that. It tells her to turn around and scoot down on her belly because there is not enough strength in the leg to safely descend the stair.
The same self-preservation mechanism holds true with runners as well. If a runner with a weak leg experiences knee pain while running, the brain will intentionally cause the runner to compensate by having stronger, more resilient structures share the work of landing and pushing off during the gait cycle. This work sharing, or a limp as movement specialists call it, is compensation and takes the form of a shorter stride, decreased weight bearing on the painful limb, or a slower running speed. Regardless of the compensation mechanism, the brain avoids excessive stress on painful structures or excessive use of weak structures. The brain knows the extent of the strength and flexibility of the leg and stops short of relying on it to the point of failure, or in this case, pain. A limp is evidence of the brain’s desire for self-preservation, and if there is too much risk with other movement, the brain will utilize compensation to choose a safer means of movement as well.
Why Compensation Leads to Injury
Picture a construction site with several workers. If one worker sneaks off to take a nap and the rest of the crew continues working, who will be complaining when the work gets tiring? Not the napping worker. Injuries from excessive compensation occur the same way. A weak structure fails to perform with a given movement, and the brain will shift the work load to stronger, more resilient structures that are already contributing to that movement.
This scenario plays out for a short time without consequence, but eventually those stronger, more resilient structures fatigue and there are no structures left with which to compensate. At that point, it is not the weak structure that becomes painful, but the ones performing the compensating.
One would think that pain would motivate the brain to identify the problem and correct the compensation, but that is not what happens. The brain is wired for efficiency and self-preservation, but not self-correction. So instead of correcting a dysfunctional compensation, the brain chooses to accept it as “normal,” and quickly gets back to the task of managing efficiency and self-preservation.
Although this approach provides a short-term solution to avoid pain and minimize the effects of an injury, it actually perpetuates dysfunctional movement patterns and predisposes the body to further injury. It is also the reason that injured runners do not eliminate pain or injury by running more. Runners that have pain from compensation actually have adapted dysfunctional movement patterns as “normal” and have become too efficient with compensating for a weakness. Compensation has allowed strong structures to stay strong and weak structures to grow weaker.
Running with an injury simply reinforces dysfunctional compensation patterns of movement.
Returning to the construction site analogy, there is one significant variable that is often overlooked. The the longer the worker naps, the more the crew gets used to working without him, and the less he knows how to contribute to the work at hand when he awakens.
The human body responds to injury in the same way as well. The longer a structure remains injured, the more the body develops long-term patterns of compensation and has difficulty reintegrating that structure into normal movement patterns. It is not enough to simply strengthen an injured structure; that would be like waking the napping worker and expecting him to figure out how to contribute to a project without instruction. One must retrain injured structures to perform healthy movement patterns as the injured structure starts to heal.
Movement specialists help people with injuries do just that. Personal trainers promote healthy movement patterns by reinforcing good form and technique. Physical therapists take it a step further to help people eliminate pain and recover from injuries caused by compensation patterns with everyday movements. The bottom line is that successful reintegration of injured structures involves more than just exercise. When the right structures perform their job and
successfully contribute to the motion as a whole, injury caused by excessive compensation can all but be eliminated.
Avoiding Excessive Compensation
Avoiding compensation should be a part of every exercise routine – not only to use the right muscles, but to avoid patterns of movement that lead to injury. Here are a few ways to avoid excessive compensation:
- Take your time. Momentum typically allows one to avoid using a weak muscle because the speed of movement assists the weak muscle with an exercise. Move through range of motion deliberately and be sure the targeted muscle assists with the movement.
- Be intentional. Target muscles to ensure that they are working. Watch in a mirror to see the target muscle contract or place a free hand on the target muscle to feel it work during the exercise. Avoid leaning or engaging surrounding muscles that would let compensation occur.
- Play favorites. Work one arm or one leg at a time. Many exercises that are typically performed bilaterally can be performed unilaterally, greatly reducing compensation from one side to the other. Perform single arm versions of a bench press or military press with a dumbbell instead of using a bar. Perform squatting or leg presses with a single leg instead of two. Stagger your stance with standing exercise to bias core muscles as well.
- Change your resistance type. Use dumbbells or elastic tubing instead of bars or selectorized machines for resistance. You will recruit more stabilizer muscles and teach your brain to better control movement. Perform arm exercises in weight bearing positions (e.g., pushups or assisted pull ups instead of chest presses and bicep curls.)
- Be specific. Use good form and position an exercise in a way where only the target muscle or joint can perform work. This is accomplished by limiting the range of motion through which an exercise is performed, exercising a muscle group in different positions (seated vs. standing), or using a selectorized weight machine to avoid excessive movement. Although the exercise may look a little different than normal, it eliminates any possibility of compensation.