Anatomy Basics: Your Quadriceps

QuadricepsThe first-and-foremost quadriceps fact: It’s not “a” muscle. Rather, it’s a muscle group – four muscles, to be exact, working in concert to perform certain movements. Hence the “quad” in the name. Clever, right?

Your quadriceps (or quads) are one of the three large muscle groups in your thighs (the other two? Hamstring and adductor groups – keep checking back, we’ll get to these eventually). They play main and supporting roles in walking, running, jumping and landing, cycling, kicking, swimming…. ok, in many, many movements. You want them to be strong, so you can walk around and do stuff, and long and not too tight, since they can be a major player in knee pain. No one likes that.

Location: The front of the thigh. The four muscles all start at different points on the pelvis and femur (the long bone in the thigh), but join into one tendon that extends over the front of the knee and kneecap, and attaches to the tibia (the long bone in the lower leg).

What it does: All four muscles work to extend the knee, and one of them helps flex the hip.

What that means for you: Well functioning quads mean you can get around on your own two feet, and do fun stuff like go hiking, or play sports, or walk the dog – whatever floats your boat!

A good exercise for your lats: Squat and lunge variations like the split squat are great for building quad strength. Make sure you do them well though!

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Pec Minor

pec minorWe talked last week about the pectoralis major (pec) muscle (the square looking muscle on the upper chest). What many people do not realize is that the “pecs” are not alone. There is actually have a second set – the pectoralis minor. This muscle is much smaller and lies beneath the pec major at the corner of the chest. While smaller, the pec minor can be much more troublesome, especially when it comes to posture. Much of the tension felt through the upper back, shoulders, and neck after a stressful day or hours at the computer is also made possible by the pec minor at the front of the chest – when it is short and tight, it can create pull on the structures of the shoulder, leading to tension there are well. That being said, when it has normal tension and good length, it does serve a useful purpose: though small, it plays a big role in stabilizing the scapula (the shoulder blade) and keeping it in place along the back of the ribcage. Who likes it when their bones are in the right place? Turns out we all do!

Location: The top outer corner of the chest.

What it does: Stabilizes the scapula on the rib cage by drawing it forward and down.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: A stable scapula is a must-have for quality shoulder movement. A short, tight pec minor will mean too much pull on the bone from the front, which can lead to misalignment and muscle tension at the back.

A good exercise for your pec minor: Tennis ball self massage! Check it out in our other post – Relief For A Tight Neck And Shoulders.

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Pectoralis Major

Pectoralis MajorThe pectoralis major muscles (aka the pecs) are probably one of the most well-known and recognizable muscles on the body, thanks to movies like Magic Mike or 90 percent of everything you’ve ever seen related to bodybuilding. And while they seem to be more valued from an aesthetic standpoint than much else, they are actually quite useful in day to day life, especially if you use your arms… Yep, that’s pretty much all of us. So whether you’re interested in looking good or moving well, your pecs are going to need a little attention!

Location: Starts from the inner portion of the collarbone (or clavicle), the edge of the breastbone (or sternum), and from the cartilage attaching the top six ribs to the sternum. The fibers form a fan shaped muscle that attaches to a place on the upper part of the humerus – the long bone in the upper arm.

What it does: 

  • Shoulder adduction (moving the arm toward the midline of the torso, respectively)
  • Internal aka medial rotation of the upper arm (turning the upper arm inward towards the torso)
  • Shoulder flexion (as in reaching the arm above the head)

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: Strong, well functioning pecs, mean you can push things away from you. This comes in handy when closing car doors and when you’re reaching out for something. Also, as Wikipedia notes – correctly – your pecs are (in part) responsible for keeping the arm attached to the body. It’s a good thing!

A good exercise for your pecs: Push ups! Being able to move and control your body is a key component of good quality of life. Don’t think push ups are too hard for you, either – there are many variations. It’s very likely that you’ll find something in Five Ways To Do Push Ups that works for you.

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Latissimus Dorsi

Let’s talk about the latissimus dorsi. Commonly known as the “lats”, this pair of muscles have a huge surface area, and are arguably one of the most influential in the body. Check out traditional anatomy websites and they’ll tell you that the lats are active in:

  • Shoulder extension and adduction (moving the arm behind the torso, and toward the midline of the torso, respectively)
  • Internal aka medial rotation of the upper arm (turning the upper arm inward towards the torso)
  • Horizontal abduction of the arm (bringing the arm straight out to the side of the body)
Movements of the shoulder joints

Movements of the shoulder joint

…via their attachment points on the long bone of the upper arm, called the humerus. However, the lat doesn’t just affect the humerus; it’s got to start somewhere. This particular muscle actually starts a lot of “somewheres”, with muscle fibers attaching to almost half the vertebrae in the spine, the sacrum and pelvis via the broad sheet of connective tissue in the lower back called thoracolumbar fascia, and the last three to four ribs. It also has a small number of fibers that attach to the lowest point of the shoulder blade, which affect the movements around that bone as well.

All of these attachment points give a great deal of versatility to this muscle. It is not only active in the above-mentioned movements of the shoulder and arm, but provides a significant amount of stability for our torso and core region, helping transfer force between our limbs and torso to complete our movements. This muscle also affects the movement of the scapula over the rib cage. Though in more of a supporting role than a primary mover, strong lats can help counteract the pull of the often-tight muscles on the front of the neck, shoulder, and chest, leading to better posture and decreased neck and shoulder tension and pain. The muscle fibers attached to the ribs even have an impact on breathing – something I think we can all agree is pretty darn important.

While keeping it basic, that’s the low-down on the lats!

Latissimus DorsiLocation: Covering much of the lower and mid-back – one one end, attaching to the lower half of the spine, the sacrum, and the pelvis via the thoracolumbar fascia, narrowing to attach to the front of the humerus.

What it does: Extends and adducts the shoulder, internally rotates and horizontally abducts the arm, and is an important core and torso stabilizer.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: Strong, well developed lats keep your shoulder healthy – including prevention of rotator cuff tears! – as well as providing core support and stability, and assisting in correct breathing mechanics.

A good exercise for your lats: Any overhead pulling exercise will work, including the creatively-named lat pulldown. Chin ups (palms facing out) and the many variations are one of the best options for this.

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Gluteus Minimus

It’s finally time for the last little piece of the pie.

I’m actually talking about the little pie-piece-shaped muscle that is your gluteus minimus. Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about the other two muscles in the gluteal complex – the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius. Now it’s time to shift our attention to the gluteus minimus.

As the name suggests, your glute min (the shortened form of the name, just the same as the other two) is the smallest of your three gluteal muscles. It’s also the odd one out, in a few ways. It’s a very deep muscle that actually has an attachment point on the front of the femur (the long bone in the thigh). The other gluteal muscles attach more towards the back side of the femur, and these attachment points can make all the difference. Instead of working in conjunction with the glute max and glute med, the glute min aids in performing the opposite movements of the hip, though because it’s a much smaller muscle, it doesn’t exert nearly as much force. The one function it has in common (primarily with the glute med) is it’s role as a pelvic stabilizer. Weakness or poor activation can lead to pelvic instability, often seen as a limp or a dropping of one hip when you stand on the other leg (specifically known as a Trendelenburg gait). This may or may not be accompanied by hip and/or knee pain. As with most things, more severe cases are more likely to be painful.

Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus

From left to right: Gluteus maximus, Gluteus medius, Gluteus minimus

Location: Deep on the side and back of the hip, covered by the glute med and attaching on a bony prominence at the front of the femur (the long bone in the thigh).

What it does: Flexes, internally (medially) rotates, and abducts the hip, and is an important pelvic stabilizer.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: Happy, functioning glute min muscles means quality movement at the hip. When this occurs and the pelvis stays stable during movement, your risk of injury, aches, and pains goes way down.

A good exercise for your glute min: The lateral band walk is a great exercise for both the glute med and glute min, working on hip stability in both legs. Use a mini-band or a theraband or theratube tied in a loop, providing enough resistance that you have to work to step out, but not so much that it will cause you to lose your technique.

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Gluteus Medius

Gluteus mediusWe talked about gluteus maximus a few weeks ago, noting it was the largest of the three gluteal muscles. Let’s get to know the other two – gluteus medius this week, and gluteus minimus next week. They are named oh-so-creatively: gluteus, from the Greek work gloutos, meaning buttock, and the maximus-medius-minimus for their respective sizes.

Your glute med – the short form of the name – can do a lot of work, but can also cause a lot of problems. When it functions well, it supports the glute max in creating hip extension (moving the leg behind the body) and abduction (moving the leg to the outside). It also works to stabilize the pelvis when walking and during other movements. But it has the same problem as the glute max – all the sitting we do can cause it to switch off, which leads to poor function or none at all. The subsequent pelvic instability often is seen as a limp or a dropping of one hip when you stand on the other leg (specifically known as a Trendelenburg gait). This may or may not be accompanied by hip and/or knee pain. As with most things, more severe cases are more likely to be painful.

Location: The side and back of the hip, partly covered by the glute max at the back, and wrapping around the side to the front point of the hip. All the fibers converse on a bony prominence in the femur (the long bone in the thigh) so I like to tell people it’s shaped like a piece of pizza.

What it does: Extends and abducts the hip, and is an important pelvic stabilizer.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: Happy, functioning glute med muscles means quality movement at the hip. When this occurs and the pelvis stays stable during movement, your risk if injury, aches, and pains goes way down.

A good exercise for your glute med: The glute bridge that was featured as an Exercise of the Week is a good option to work on activating and strengthening the glute med, as are many of the lower body lateral (side to side) exercises, like the lateral squat, also featured.

 

Anatomy Basics: Your Deltoids

Let’s talk deltoids! Your deltoids – or delts, in more common gym-speak – are the muscles that make the rounded ‘cap’ of the shoulder. They are named for the Greek letter delta, which is shaped like a triangle, and play a role in every movement of the shoulder. Though one muscle, the delt has three parts, called heads, based on where the muscle fibers originate: the anterior, the middle or lateral, and the posterior. Each of the heads has a movement specialty, so to speak, based on it’s starting point.

Location: The shoulder, right at the top of the arm.

  • The anterior head starts at the front outer third of the collar bone.
  • The lateral head starts on a bony projection on the top of the shoulder blade.
  • The posterior head starts on the bony spine along the outer back surface of the shoulder blade.

All the heads converge to attach to the bone in the upper arm – the humerus – at a point about a third of the way down the bone, on the side.

Deltoids

What it does: Working together, the three heads of the delt will raise the arm to the side and up – a movement known as abduction. Working on their own, the anterior and posterior heads are active in other movements. The anterior head helps to flex the arm , lifting it in front of the body, and in internal rotation, rotating the arm inwards towards the torso, while the posterior head does the opposite. It helps to extend the arm, taking it straight back behind the body, and to externally rotate it – rotating the arm outward away from the torso.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: As well as being active in all possible shoulder movements, the deltoid helps protect the glenohumeral joint, which is the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder. When you pick up and carry something heavy, the fibers contract to keep the ball in the socket, so no dislocations for you. Plus, nice delts look good!

A good exercise for your delts: Any movement where you are lifting your arms to the front or sides, or straight up overhead. Dumbbell lateral raise or Kneeling band shoulder press are two of my favorites.

 

 

 

Picture credit: “Deltoid muscle top9” by Anatomography. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Deltoid_muscle_top9.png#mediaviewer/File:Deltoid_muscle_top9.png

Anatomy Basics: Your IT Band

People love to hate the IT Band.

This remarkable length of connective tissue  (also called fascia) is best known for the problems it can cause, primarily with runners and cyclists. With high volumes of exercise, it can be prone to overuse injury leading to pain on the outside of the knee.

The IT band – officially the iliotibial band or tract, or ITB if you want to go even shorter – actually does us a lot of good. Thick and broad, it provides a lot of support to the outer side of the hip, thigh, and knee. Problems associated with the IT band usually stem from the muscles around it not functioning well; as connective tissue, the band itself cannot contract, and is somewhat at the whim of the surrounding structures.

Fun fact about your IT band: Humans are the only species that have it! Scientists assume this is due to the adaptations made as our ancestors began walking upright and on two legs. Kinda cool, huh?

IT BandLocation: The connective tissue fibers making up your IT band come from the top of the ilium (the fan shaped bone in your pelvis), pick up other fibers from your gluteus maximus and your tensor fasciae latae, and continues down the outside of the thigh. The band blends with other connective tissues at the outside of the knee.

What it does: Helps create a stable pelvis and efficient, smooth movement at the knee joint. 

What that means for you: Pain-free movement, hopefully! Your IT band will play nice if you treat the muscles surrounding it right.

A good exercise for your IT band: As mentioned, your IT band is connective tissue, not muscle. It doesn’t contract, and you can’t “exercise” it. Instead, focus on keeping your glute complex (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus) strong, and building and maintaining strength through your quads and hamstrings.

One final thought: Soft tissue treatment like foam rolling on the IT band is not an uncommon sight, and often encouraged by trainers and your runner and cyclist friends. However, there is some question as to whether this does any good, and the argument will probably go on for some time. My two cents: Foam rolling as an injury-prevention measure doesn’t seem to be highly effective, and can even be counter productive. It hurts like the dickens, doesn’t create much (if any) change to the tissue, and preparing for a workout by putting yourself through the wringer is not the best and smartest idea. Soft tissue work (foam rolling or massage) on the IT band can be helpful when dealing with an injury flare up, though, and should be done at the instruction of your physical therapist. (I think that this is likely where people get the idea that the “cure” can also be the “prevention”, and continue to roll the IT band well after the problem is resolved. More is not always better!).

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts!

Anatomy Basics: Your Rhomboids

Did you know you have a Christmas tree on your back?

No, no one gave you a sneaky tattoo last night – don’t panic.

I’m talking about your rhomboid muscles – the thin muscles that line between your spine and shoulder blades.

Rhomboid major and minor

Rhomboid major (large, bottom) and minor (small, top)

There are two on each side (rhomboid major and rhomboid minor), and because their fibers start at points higher than they finish, a little creative thinking can help you find your Christmas tree (look at the rhomboids on both sides and pretend the spine is the trunk – see it?). While anatomists consider them two seperate muscles, for our purposes, they perform the same tasks – so we’ll talk about them together.

While they aren’t large, rhomboids are important: they help control the movement of the shoulder blade when we reach in different directions and are important postural muscles. They also help keep our shoulder blade attached to our torso – there is actually not any bone-to-bone connection between the shoulder blade and the rest of the body.

Take home message: our rhomboids are important. They are also frequently overlooked. Let’s not do that anymore, ok?

Rhomboids and Posture

While having the ability to activate our rhomboids is important in many ways related to movement and daily life, their role in posture deserves a little more attention. As I have previously discussed, we all sit too much, which can significant impact both our hips and our upper back. We all tend to slouch more than we should, which results in some muscles of the upper torso shortening and getting tight, and some getting long and weak. Since a slouched position pulls the shoulder blades away from the spine and towards the side of the rib cage, and the rhomboids pull the shoulder blades towards the spine when contracting, the constant passive stretch they are under when we slouch leads them to be stretched long, and weak. All the more reason to take good care of them.

Location: Your rhomboids (major and minor) are located between your spine and the inner or middle edge of your shoulder blades. Rhomboid minor stems from the vertebra roughly level with the base of the neck, and at the lowest point, rhomboid major attaches to the lowest inner corner of the shoulder blade.

What it does: When your rhomboids contract, they pull the shoulder blades (anatomically called your scapulae) towards your spine, and also cause the outer corner of the shoulder blade to rotate downwards towards your feet.

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: We want our rhomboids working well to help support good posture. This not only helps several of our internal systems stay aligned (skeletal, nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems – these work best when they are aligned correctly!), but also helps us stay pain free through our shoulders, upper back, and neck. How many people do you know that get sore through those areas after a long day at the desk?

A good exercise for your rhomboids: Before we strengthen, let’s make sure the muscles are in good working order. Check out my post on Relief For A Tight Neck And Shoulders for some suggested self-massage techniques for the rhomboids and other areas that affect how much passive stretch they get. Then check back next week, when out exercise of the week will help you to get some strength through these guys!

Anatomy Basics: Your Gluteus Maximus

Are your glutes on? 

My clients hear that constantly. When I say “glutes,” I’m talking about the gluteus maximus (glute is so much less of a mouthful!), also shortened to glute max. The gluteus maximus is the largest of your three gluteal muscles, and indeed the largest muscle in your body. When functioning optimally, it is also our most powerful hip extensor, and assists with other movements at the hip. Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, iliac crest, sacrumSadly, long periods of sitting tend to inappropriately lengthen and switch off our glutes, and once they are switched off, they can be difficult to get going again. Glute weakness and inactivity is a common contributor to lower back and knee pain – not much fun, as any sufferer knows.

Location: The glute max starts roughly in the area around the sacrum (your tailbone), forms the ‘bulk’ of your buns, and inserts onto the lower outside of the hip.

What it does: The glute max extends the hip to take the leg from in front of the body to behind it, and assists in external rotation – turning the leg to the outside. The upper and lower fibers help the hip move away or towards the body respectively (abduction and adduction).

Hip Movements

If you want to study up on the Latin names, scientific terms, and all the other nerdy stuff, I suggest taking a look at my favorite anatomy website here.

What that means for you: Your glute max is doing a lot of work in a lot of situations, predominantly when you’re moving your hip backwards or behind your torso while your knee is bent – think when your riding a bike and pushing the pedal downward. It’s also working hard any time you’re in a single leg stance (standing on one foot) as a hip stabilizer, to help keep the hips level. This happens more often than you might think, since we are effectively in single leg stance with every step we take walking or running.

A good exercise for your glute max: Since many of us have sleepy glutes, I’ll throw a couple of options out there. The first is one of the easiest “exercises” there could possibly be. You can do this anywhere, any time, and if you do it right, people wont even know you’re doing it. I’m talking about the glute squeeze. One of the easiest ways to wake up the glutes and get them firing again is to squeeze them together. One of my favorite ways to describe this: Imagine you have a $100 bill between your butt cheeks and you don’t want to let that sucker go. Squeeze your butt tight, hold it for five seconds, then relax. You can do this sitting at your desk or in your car, or even in line at the grocery store. Options abound.

If you’re interested in something a little more active, last week’s Exercise of the Week, the glute bridge, is a great option for a warm up exercise, or anywhere else in the workout. Keep squeezing those glutes!

 

 

Awesome skeleton picture credit and special thanks to http://sequencewiz.org/ for a great pic and great website!