Compensatory Movement Patterns

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Compensatory movement patterns, Dysfunctional Movement

Compensatory Movement Patterns are a significant piece of a whoooole lotta movement dysfunction and pain.  I’ve been discussing them a lot lately with new clients.  Let’s dive into what they are, how they form, and what you can do about them.

So what the heck is a “Compensatory Movement Pattern?”

They’re one type of movement dysfunction. Essentially, it’s the body compensating for something (a muscle, kinetic chain, etc) not doing its job.  Instead of sticking with its factory settings, it comes up with a work-around and adopts that as the new way it moves.  Unfortunately, the resulting aberrant movement pattern is often the kinetic equivalent of using duct tape and twine to fix your car transmission…

Victims vs Culprits

Compensatory movement patterns are basically a a relationship between a Victim and a Culprit.  The Culprit isn’t doing its job, but that doesn’t mean that the job just magically goes away! Instead, it recruits some other body part (the Victim) to do it.

Since the Victim isn’t designed to do that job, it gets over-worked, stressed, strained, and beat up. This often means that it can’t do the job it’s actually supposed to do, and so it becomes a Culprit and yet another body part becomes its Victim.  The body is a system of systems, and when one part of a system gets out of whack, it can create a huge domino effect.

One reason I love being in a position to help people with their compensations is because it can make such a huge difference in their lives.  They may have had chronic pain in a Victim, and despite treating it with stretches, exercises, and various therapies, they don’t make any long-term progress because they’ve never actually tackled the true source of the issue – the Culprit.

Common Compensatory Movement Patterns

There are a few Victim/Culprit relationships that I see over and over and over again.  Here is a small sampling of some prevalent Victims.

The Low Back

If you have chronic low back pain, I would be willing to bet that you actually have hip issues.  When the hips don’t function correctly, the low back tends to take a thrashing.  In our society we sit a lot, and this makes it really tough for the hips to function properly. The hip flexors are passively shortened when we’re in a sitting position, and they end up getting stuck in that shortened position. This inhibits the extensors (butt and hamstrings, basically).  Without full use of the hip extensors, the low back starts being recruited to do that job, often being asked to go from flexion to hyperextension while under load.  Yikes!

The Knees

Once again, hips are often to blame here.  I can’t tell you how many people with achy, battered knees I have helped by restoring their hips!  Those same tight hip flexors that I mentioned above can be at the root of this issue.  The tight hip flexors not only inhibit the hip extensors, but they tip the pelvis forward.  This shifts a heavy workload from the posterior chain to the anterior chain.  With the quads becoming over-dominant, the knees get stressed in a way they are not designed to handle.

The Neck and Shoulders

I myself used to suffer tremendously from this!  My shoulders would burn and ache at the end of the day.  Attempts to massage out the tension were futile because it felt like I had concrete blocks in place of shoulder muscles.  What’s the culprit?  A deviant core.  Your core musculature is designed engage reflexively in order to provide stability all the way around your trunk.  When that doesn’t happen, your body still needs stability, so the neck and shoulders get recruited to try to provide it by tightening up like crazy.  Some people suffer from terrible tension headaches due to this same issue.  I threw my neck out by rolling over in bed, a benign movement that should not have caused an injury.

In fact, that’s what got me started on this training journey.  I saw a chiropractor and he asked if I wanted to go through a Functional Movement Screen with one of their trainers.  I remember thinking, “Why not?  I’m sure I move pretty well…” Ha!  Hahahaha!  The resulting information and training was so eye-opening for me.  It drastically changed my relationship with exercise because it was the first time I’d ever encountered the idea of training for quality movement instead of suffering through exercise.

Movement Quality Matters

One of the most important responsibilities in my work as a personal trainer is being a movement coach. I think many people have an image of what a personal trainer is and what they do, and it usually involves a lot of peppiness and counting of reps. That’s not really how I roll. But I know one thing in particular that initially surprises a lot of my clients: I always emphasize quality movement over quantity.

Instead of just showing them how to do an exercise and prescribing a certain number of reps, I put a ton more responsibility on my clients.  They have to learn the intention behind the exercise and then tune in to how they’re moving in order to emphasize quality on every rep.  That may mean that they cut a set short because the quality is going to fade.  I’m fine with that!  I’m never going to reprimand a client for moving well!

This actually takes more mental effort than a lot of people are used to exerting while working out.  But clients who develop this awareness in regards to how they move thrive because they carry over that emphasis of quality movement into their everyday lives.

Life is Movement and Movement Starts in the Brain

I insist on quality vs quantity because movement patterns are neurological.  Movement patterns are essentially just motor programs, which are controlled by the central nervous system.  Therefore, dysfunctional movement is not simply a result of a lazy muscle or an ornery joint – it’s an issue with the brain.

If you are learning something new or changing an existing pattern, it initially takes a lot of thought and concentration.  But the more you practice, the easier it becomes.  The more experienced you are with an exercise, the less you have to concentrate on the big stuff and the more freedom you get to explore the finer points. The more you rehearse a movement pattern, the more it sticks.

This is a double-edged sword, because it applies to both high quality and poor quality movement.  Every time you move, you’re reinforcing your motor programs. So learning to tune in to how you move is essential in regaining and keeping quality movement.  If I have a client who comes to me twice a week for movement restoration but then they zone out and don’t pay attention to how they’re moving the other 166 hours of the week, we’re probably still going to make progress… but it’s going to be S L O W.  That’s why educating my clients on the How and Why of our exercises is so important to me.

How to Fix Movement Dysfunction

Getting an aberrant movement pattern is pretty common. Some very common causes include poor breathing patterns, pregnancy/child birth, desk jobs, and previous injury.

The good news is that you can fix a derailed motor program!  I’d love to lay out exactly how to do that, but to be brutally honest, you’re going to need professional help.  The first step is to identify what exactly is going on.  I put all of my clients through the Functional Movement Screen.  The FMS is movement assessment that highlights asymmetries and other dysfunctional movement patterns.  Also, FMS professionals train on how to tackle any issues we find in the screen using corrective exercises.

A Word of Warning

Corrective exercises are not your average lifting exercises. Like I mentioned above, movement is neurological, so movement dysfunction lies in the brain. In order to actually address and correct a problem with a movement pattern, we have to manipulate the nervous system.

That is really hard to figure out how to do on your own because your body is basically lying to itself about what is and isn’t proper. Having someone else watch and cue you is imperative. But I’ve got to warn you that most trainers don’t know how to properly apply and teach corrective exercise…

I’ve seen too many trainers who try to treat movement dysfunction as though it was a muscular imbalance.  Or they’ll consider it a “lagging” body part, à la bodybuilding. For example, they’ll have a client with over-dominant quads and weak hamstrings, so they’ll prescribe a bunch of hamstring isolation work.  You may be able to build up some big hamstrings this way, but as soon as you move past isolation exercises, you’re going to have to face the facts that there’s a breakdown in the system that resulted in the hamstrings being weak from disuse.  You’re addressing the Victim instead of the Culprit.

Getting Good Help

I suggest starting at the StrongFirst Instructor Search and then check out the credentials of instructors located near you to find one with FMS certifications.  Another good choice is the CK-FMS Search, for RKC instructors.  Both StrongFirst and RKC are kettlebell-centered schools of strength, with a heavy emphasis on movement coaching.  So layering the Functional Movement System approach on top of that is a powerful combo!

Moving Past Dysfunction

Corrective exercises are some of my favorites to teach.  Some of them are straight-up funky!  I personally like to pull my correctives from several different systems.  I use some from Functional Movement Systems, Original Strength, StrongFirst, McKenzie method, Weck method, and the list goes on! While I’ve got my favorites, I like to have a wide variety of tools in my toolbox because no two clients are the same… what works perfectly for one may not click with another.

All of my clients do some sort of corrective exercises.  Everyone’s got something to improve!  Correctives can be frustrating, though, because they’re hard!  Any time you target your weak link, you’ve got to set your ego to the side in order to address it in full.  The trade off is that, thanks to the way we stimulate the nervous system, the results happen quickly.  And there’s another bonus: fixing a weakness makes your strengths stronger!

When my clients start training with me, correctives usually take the bulk of our training time.  As the client progresses, they move better and get stronger. Correctives start to shift to a more minor roll, until they become “prehab.” Usually performed at the beginning of our sessions, prehab exercises are designed to be proactive. Instead of correcting an existing problem, they prevent future problems. They not only set the client up for a good training session, but prevent future injury.

The Happily Ever After

By the time my clients get to that point, they’ve accumulated some mad skills.  First, they have a great set of prehab exercises in their tool box.  But even better than that, they’ve got the knowledge to understand that exercise doesn’t exist in a bubble – what they do in the gym affects what they do out of it, and vice versa.  Best of all, they’ve got the skills to tune in to how they move and to uphold quality movement in their daily life.  It may not keep them totally safe from wonky movement – life is unpredictable, after all! – but it’ll put them in a good position to thrive in their average life and give them a plan of action, should unforeseen mayhem confront them in the future.


Movement dysfunction isn’t fun, but we’ve all been there.  Compensatory movement patterns in particular seem to throw people off because the Victim is often talking so much louder than the Culprit.  Find a professional to identify the problem and help you work on correctives.  Retire your ego and devote yourself to relearning your movement.  And enjoy all the ways that quality movement benefits your life!

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