The Need for Structural Balance
The concept of structural balance has been around for many years although it is underutilised in modern program design. Russian and Eastern European countries used this system to classify athletes and to better prepare them for competition. The modern use of structural balance, and in my opinion the best use of this concept, was created and implemented by world renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin.
Charles came up with the concept of structural balance because over the years of working with many national teams he was trying to reduce injuries and increase performance, and every team he worked with needed normative data for selection.
You need normative data so you can determine which athletes will succeed in a given sport and you also need predictor lifts to be able to select the best individuals for that discipline. So for example, Charles figured out early on that in bobsleigh, you needed to be able to double body weight front squat or there was no point in you trying out for the national team because you wouldn’t be strong enough to overcome the inertia of the sleigh.
By using predictor lifts you can determine what each athletes strength levels need to be, to be able to perform internationally or at the top of their chosen sport.
The two main reasons you want to do a structural balance test are:
As the old saying goes, you are only as strong as your weakest link. The more in balance you are the greater potential for strength you have. As an example, if you are trying to increase your bench press or if you have stalled in this lift, it may not be that your pectoral or triceps strength is under par, it could be a weakness in the upper back, particularly the rotator cuff. The reason for this is that if the rotator cuff is not strong enough to stabilize the shoulder joint while bench pressing, your brain will send a signal to shut down your working muscles (in this case the pec’s and triceps), to protect the shoulder from injury. So to increase your bench press in this case, you would need to get your rotator cuff strength to match the given norms before you would progress.
As proof, one season Charles trained pro hockey player Jim McKenzie, who improved his 36cm, close-grip bench by 23kg in 12 weeks, from 127kg to 150kg. He did this by focusing on rotator cuff strength – in fact, Charles said he did not have McKenzie do any benching at all during this training program. Six weeks later McKenzie did a close-grip bench press of 172kg.
Another reason why you want to do the structural balance test is that you need to know where to orientate your training. If you don’t have the normative data from the test showing you which muscles are weak and what your limiting factors are, you are just guessing what sort of training you should be doing. So for example if you find that you did have a weak rotator cuff, you would know that you need either more rotator cuff training, more intense rotator cuff work or more varied work for these muscles.
What types of tests do we do?
In the upper body we pick exercises that give an indication of how the shoulder and elbow flexors move. By getting the normative data on these lifts we have an idea of what is going on with the athlete and how to prevent injuries and also what we need to program for them to improve their sports performance.
For the lower body, it depends on how qualified the athlete is. For most, we do challenge tests which can tell us all sorts of things from whether or not the athlete has a weak VMO, weak hamstrings, weak glutes, a weak lower back, tightness of the hip flexors, a tight piriformis, and much more. By doing this we can progress the athlete into being able to perform full squats and Olympic lifts with a reduced risk of injury and in the long run an increased performance in these lifts.
For those that come in and are pretty well structurally balanced, we use lifts such as the power snatch, power clean, front squat and back squat to determine where an athlete needs to focus their training. For example if someone comes into testing and they have a very strong back squat but their power snatch is below the norm, we know that this athlete needs to improve speed with relatively lighter weights or may need more technique work for the power snatch.
What else can be determined from the structural balance test?
We can also test fibre type using the structural balance test. It is not as accurate as a biopsy but it is far less invasive and much more practical to implement. By taking 85% of the 1rm for a given lift and getting the athlete to lift it to failure we can get a picture of what type of athlete we are dealing with. The lower the reps an athlete achieves the more fast-twitch they are.
Training age and the type of training the athlete has done in the past can influence the result of this test. So if an athlete has done excessive amounts of aerobic work in the past they may appear more slow-twitch than they actually are. If you give this athlete a couple of months off aerobic work they can return to the fibre type they are genetically programmed towards. To counter these slight variables within the fibre type test, we correlate these results with a neurotransmitter profile we run on each athlete to determine the best rep schemes, rest periods, rate of change of exercise, and the type of training systems we use for each individual.
This test is important to ensure optimal program design and rate of progress for the individual. For example if you give a fast-twitch athlete a program that is more suited for a slow-twitcher they may lose muscle mass, adapt to the training program too quickly and plateau, overtrain, increase risk of injury, and actually decrease performance in their given sport.
This is true individualisation of training, by using the structural balance test and our other screening procedures; we create a complete profile of the athlete so we can prioritize the training to the athletes needs and optimize their gains by periodising the plan specifically to meet their goals.