Injury Prevention

Muscle as padding: One more reason to do your strength training

Hit the heavy bag. Drop to the floor for a push-up marathon. Flip over for 300 crunches. That is how we finished every class at Chavez Kickboxing.

I trained there for a few months, while grinding through my physical therapy pre-reqs in Albuquerque. I LOVED stress-release of those workouts. The sparring boosted my confidence, and it was one of the few times in my life when I could boast of a chiseled six-pack.

Having stacked abs was a cool side effect from all of the crunches, the intense cardio, and the limited diet of a college student. Yet, that was not the reason why we finished our training with such a gawd-awful amount of calisthenics.

By toughening our trunks, we were conditioning ourselves to take blows without getting hurt. Internal organs dislike blunt trauma. Our ripped abs became the shield that let us spar without injury.

The benefits of additional muscle mass are well established within the health and fitness world. More muscle yields more brute strength. It allows for better power generation and postural support. And, of course, it also helps boosts your metabolism to promote fat loss.

However, less often discussed, is how muscle can act as protection for the more delicate parts of your skeleton and organs.

Martial artists pay heavy attention to strengthening their midsections, but every athlete can use the idea of muscle as protection. Skateboarding, trail running, and parkour are some of my favorite pastimes. Needless to say, I am a little too familiar with falling down. And, in case you have not taken a spill in a while, let me remind you that it hurts. Multiply that tenfold if you strike a bony part of your body on the ground.

If you are an athlete that crashes to the ground with any frequency, listen up.

Putting more muscle on your body can make your falls less painful.

In PT school, we were taught that bed bound patients and others with limited mobility were at risk for skin breakdown wherever a bone is close to your skin. Because of the limited padding, skeletal prominences are more likely to develop pressure sores than other, fleshier areas. Those bony landmarks are also the parts of your body that hurt the most when they strike anything hard. Think of hammering your elbow into a doorframe or tagging your knee against a car door.

Strike a muscular part of your body against something solid, you can generally shake it off without injury. You might have a bruise and some brief discomfort, but it is nothing like the howling pain of hitting a bony body part.

Everyone knows to protect your skull during a fall or a roll. Other parts of your skeleton that need protection include your:

  • Lateral malleolous – the outer part of your ankle
  • Patella – your kneecap
  • Greater trochanter – the bony prominence of your lateral hip
  • Olecranon process – the tip of your elbow
  • Acromion process – the tip of you shoulder
  • Spine of scapular – the ridge of your shoulder blade
  • Spinous processes – the tips of your vertebrae
  • Coccyx, sacrum, and iliac crest – the bones of your pelvis

In terms of injury prevention, your first line of defense during a fall is learning to strike the ground in a way that you do not hit these landmarks. Improving your kinesthetic awareness and proprioception are useful. Learning to break-fall and roll with good technique are also essential.

dive roll 2

After that, your next line of defense is simple: Put more muscle on your body!

Increasing your muscle bulk provides cushioning against any unplanned-for-impact. It is like strapping pillows to your body. The extra girth makes it harder hit your more sensitive parts.

There is no need to bulk up like a sumo wrestler or strongman competitor. All you need to do is focus on a few key muscle groups.

Which muscle groups should you focus on? Target these three:

  • Shoulders
  • Back
  • Butt

Does this mean you should neglect the rest of your body? Of course not.

Strong calves, quads, pecs, and biceps, all contribute to better athletic performance. But, compared to the three groups listed above, they are much less likely to help cushion your falls.

If you need proof, try out this quick test. Go stand in a grassy field and let yourself crumple to the ground.

I am going to venture that you did not drop to your knees, and then roll onto your thighs and belly like a deranged rocking horse.

You probably went slack through your lower body, started tipping sideways, and then dropped onto a butt cheek. From there you likely rolled sideways onto your back and shoulder.

Maybe you also extended an arm to take some impact.

The broader the area that you make contact with, the less force any single area takes. Having more surface area in contact with the ground, makes for a less painful, and less damaging landing.

By the way, your forearms and triceps are two smaller muscle groups that could easily fit within the muscle-as-padding paradigm. Bulk those puppies up and you basically add two more bumpers to your body’s frame.

Now, imagine for that some reason you were stripped of 90% of you muscle mass. Consider what it would feel like to crumple to the ground via the same sequence.

What would it feel like to do it on the sculpted concrete of a skatepark?

That would be a world of hurt, would it not?

A muscular butt, back, and shoulders are protection for your skeleton.

Fortunately, the way to build these muscles is simple.

Multi-joint upper body pushing and pulling exercises, along with compound lower body movements are the key to athletic development. They are also the key to building muscle as padding.

It does not need to be complicated. These are some multi-joint exercises that can help pad your body:

  • Dips, push-ups, and shoulder presses
  • Pull-ups, chin-ups, and inverted rows
  • Squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step-ups

When your goal is to add muscle as padding, you need to be sure to use a repetition scheme that favors muscle hypertrophy. You want to actually grow the size of your muscles, not just get stronger. Pure strength is achieved at high load and lower repetitions, but that is not what you are shooting for. Instead, target a higher volume of sets and reps at a slightly lighter load. You are trying to provide a stimulus that tells your body:

Hey, let’s add some bulk to these specific muscles.

Once you have built a level of  padding that you are happy with, go ahead return to a workout structure that benefits your sport-of-choice. Depending on what you do, that could mean more endurance, more power, or some hybrid of the two.

Gravity snags everyone sooner or later. Whether you trip on a root, slip in the mud, or bail on trick, it is just a matter of time before you go down. You can either take it like a warrior, and walk away unscathed. Or, you can lie writhing in pain.

A well-developed butt, back, and shoulders, can act as cushioning for your crash landings. Be proactive. Build your padding, and play as hard as you want.

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Are you athlete with lots of falls over your lifetime? I would love to hear from you. What strategies do you use to stay injury-free?

Please leave a comment below.

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