When Achilles was a little baby his mother dipped him into a river of magic in order to protect him from the world. It worked because Achilles could not be harmed except on the one heel that his mother neglected to submerge in the water because of where she held him when she dipped him into the water.
The Weak Link
Achilles was a mighty warrior that could not be stopped and was known for killing the famous Trojan prince Hector. However, some stories reveal that Hector’s younger brother Paris shot Achilles with an arrow in the heel that was neglected from the magic water killing him. Hence the name of the part of our heel that is the Achilles tendon.
In strength and conditioning the goal is to train the body to be without weak links. The idea and intention should be to build strength and performance without worry of breaking down due to a weak area of the body. This process is the whole point of training. Training should be intentional. Training should be purposeful.
As a strength coach I often examine a respective trainee and immediately try to hone in and find weaknesses. Now having said that the “achilles heel” may in fact be the literal weak link, but figuratively speaking it could be something else entirely. It may not even be physical at all. It could be mental, or even emotional.
Strengthening The Kinetic Chain
A smart strength and conditioning plan in my view integrates movements that emphasize stressing agonist and antagonist muscles to optimize joint ROM. In addition to this I believe in training movement patterns initially with a closed kinetic chain movement to acquire the foundation of strength needed to develop this strong kinetic chain.
Just to be clear the kinetic chain is the notion that joints and segments have an effect on one another during movement. Obviously when one segment is in motion, it creates a chain of events that affects the movement of neighboring joints and segments. Muscles are attached to bone and create this motion so any muscle that is restricted, or inhibited (tight, stiff, weak, etc.) will in practice cause a weak link in the kinetic chain and we can end up folding like a tent if we don’t correct the problem.
In life, or during more intense physical movement this breakdown with the presence of the weak link will cause a chain reaction resulting in greater stress on other segments, or muscles of the body. This compensation is inevitable in this context and is where an injury usually occurs with the individual, or athlete.
The Closed Kinetic Chain
So earlier I mentioned that initially I prefer using a closed kinetic chain exercise to build on the foundation of strength. To be clear a closed kinetic chain exercise involves physical exercises performed where the hand (for upper body and arm movement) or foot (for lower body leg movement) is fixed in space and cannot move. With this type of movement the extremity remains in constant contact with an immobile surface such as the ground, or base of a machine.
So a good example here would be the comparison of a push up versus a dumbbell bench press for the purpose of building upper body strength. The dumbbell bench press would be an example of an open kinetic chain movement because the resistance is not an immovable surface, but rather the arms are able to freely move the resistance…which in this case are the dumbbells.
As I mentioned earlier when initially building on strength I personally prefer utilizing the closed kinetic chain of the push up movement to assess and to progress a trainee to building the necessary foundational strength needed to rid the body of any weak links.
I do this for a couple of reasons. First of all, the proper alignment and stability that is necessary throughout the line of tension required to hold the body in a proper upright push up position quickly becomes apparent with the push up exercise. By getting a respective trainee into an upright push up position I can quickly spot the areas of concern, or weak links along the chain.
An example here would be a common issue I see in many trainees attempting a push up and collapsing the neck by breaking down with a lack of stability at the scapula (shoulder blades). In the photo below I’m purposely demonstrating a visible example of this breakdown as you will notice.
I’m collapsing my neck and even my hips as there is a breakdown at my shoulder blades. With this breakdown there is a failed attempt to keep my body rigid and properly aligned with the act of holding my body in an upright push up position.
By incorporating the push up exercise I can quickly assess this breakdown and correct it by addressing proper alignment with the scapula and neck. To do this I will cue a trainee to push the ground away when in the upright push up position forcing a strong stabilizing scapula and getting the neck and head back into proper alignment. I’m demonstrating that alignment here in the following photo. Notice the difference in head and neck position between the two photos.
Once again this is a quick fix in getting the “set up” of the push up correct before progressing any further into the movement. Of course variations and other necessary adjustments can be made to a respective trainee based on individual strength and ability level. Of course the push up is just one example of a solid closed kinetic chain movement to assess and progress strength.
The truth is that we all have our own “Achilles heel” to worry about and it may, or may not be the Achilles tendon in the literal sense. If we are going to step up our gains and reach serious goals we’ve got to be willing to figuratively attempt to cover our entire body in the magic water! Being indestructible may not be completely attainable, but we can surely strive to be.