I was feeling pretty confident after completing the first two modules of my Personal Training course. The material was straightforward. I could understand the concepts, complete each module in about 2 hours, and pass the exam without any trouble.

The course got real with this third module. The chapter was about three times as long as the first two. It covered the essential biomechanical linguistics. These included planes of motion, directional terms, muscular nomenclature, and muscle-joint interactions.

Without going into detail about the concepts and terms I learned in this module, I’ll say it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the complexity of human movement. Even simple functional motions like getting into a car require the perfect harmony of several muscle groups and multiple planes of motion.

As I reflect on what I learned in this module, my thoughts come to rest on one concept: BALANCE.

Let me explain.

Personal trainer in side plank pose on a yoga mat.

The Basics of Flexion and Extension

One of many terms I learned in this chapter is flexion. Flexion occurs when a muscle action causes the relative angle in a joint to decrease. The motion that we commonly associate with “flexing” (a bicep curl) causes the elbow joint to flex. We then bring the wrist up towards the shoulder, resulting in a smaller angle of the elbow joint. The opposite of flexion is extension. It’s when the relative angle of a joint increases, like when the elbow straightens out after a bicep curl.

As I was learning about how the different joints flex and extend, I realized the motion of riding a bike requires much of the body to constantly flex. I’m training for a 545-mile bike ride from SF to LA, so I’m spending a ton of time in the saddle. My elbows, hips, knees and ankles are all in a state of flexion while I ride. Also, my spine is crouched over, and my body has a closed posture.  Over long periods of activity, this causes the muscles to tighten because the constant flexion isn’t balanced with equal extension. This can lead to very tight quads, hips, and elbows. Their primary motion must be balanced to bring the muscles back into their ideal state.

Diagram depicting difference between extension and felxion.
Image Credit: nolanlee.com

Muscle groups will be flexed more than extended in many activities. To compensate for this, athletes must be diligent about stretching the over-flexed joints and muscle groups. This provides the extension to balance the flexion.  It also keeps muscles from getting tight, knotted, and gristled. Stretching allows joints full and smooth range of motion.

I’m currently in physical therapy to help my muscles recover from years of flexion without being balanced by extension. The effects of this imbalance mean I have tight and knotted quads, hip-flexors, laterals, biceps, pecs, and abs. Practically my whole muscular system has been slowly knotting and tightening over the years. Now, it takes excruciating effort to extend and loosen my major muscle groups.

Balance in Our Everyday Lives

I think this same lesson can be applied in other areas of our lives. When we overuse one skill, behavior, thought process, or habit, we can become less flexible and dynamic over time. Even the biggest strengths in our lives can become setbacks if we rely too heavily on them. For example, humor is a wonderful thing. But if you use it too much, people may not take you seriously. Performing well in your career is a great thing. But if you flex that muscle too much, it will cause tightness in your personal relationships and interests. Going out and partying can be great for your social life. But if it’s not balanced by other mentally challenging activities, you may notice implications in your career or health down the road.

Much like how the body must work together in perfect harmony and unison to execute even simple motions, the Mental, Emotional, Physical and Spiritual dimensions of our lives work together to enable a full, healthy, and balanced life. When we don’t have the right balance of stimulation in each of these dimensions, we’ll start to see the effects of that imbalance in other places we might not expect. Symptoms of imbalance are many, but can include fear, insecurity, injury, lack of energy, anger, lack of motivation, sadness, and substance abuse. For deeper insight into the Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual dimensions of life, see my post Holistic Wellness 101.

Now that I’m more tuned in to the consequences of imbalance in the body, I’m going to be more diligent about extending a muscle group after I flex it. My diligence includes foam rolling my quads and back, stretching my hips, and doing yoga. But I’m also going to take that concept and pay attention to the larger story of my life. What skills and behaviors am I using a lot that I might need to balance? Where might I see symptoms of imbalance in my life?

Follow Jacob’s journey to becoming a personal trainer here.