Have you heard about the two health conditions called Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS) and Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS)? If you’re a regular reader of Darwinian-Medicine.com, you undoubtedly have, as I’ve mentioned these disorders many times here on the site in the past. However, if this is the first time you’ve stumbled onto this site, I’m willing to bet that you haven’t.
Everybody knows that bad posture and lower back pain are very common problems in our society today; however, what a lot of people don’t know is that muscle imbalance syndromes often lie at the root of these problems. The term muscle imbalance is both overused and misused. However, that doesn’t mean that muscle imbalances aren’t a very real problem.
Actually, muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS are probably among the most prevalent health disorders in our society today. Despite this, they are rarely talked about. Most people have never heard about them and most health practitioners have no idea how to treat them. This is unfortunate, because these types of disorders can cause a lot of harm.
Muscle imbalance syndromes such as lower crossed syndrome and upper crossed syndrome cause a lot of suffering for a lot of people
When I started working as a coach/trainer many years ago, I quickly discovered that the aforementioned syndromes are ubiquitous in our society today. A large proportion of the clients that I took on and started coaching exhibited signs of LCS and UCS (e.g., arched lower back, protruding abdomen, hunched upper back) . Many of them also complained about musculoskeletal pain and other grievances that often go along with muscle imbalance syndromes.
Unfortunately, the education I had gone through in order to become a personal trainer/coach hadn’t prepared me to deal with these problems. In the anatomy and physiology classes I had taken, the primary focus was on the names, insertion points, and functionality of the different muscles that make up the human body; very little attention was devoted to what happens if the musculoskeletal system is somehow thrown “off balance”. As for the more practical courses, the teachers’ primary concern was that the students learned how to perform different exercises in a safe and effective manner. They didn’t devote any attention to the correction of UCS, LCS, or any other muscle imbalance syndrome.
I can clearly remember that one of the teachers I had back then showed the class a picture displaying the evolution of man – from fit, tall, and well-built hunter-gatherer to sick and fat westerner – and pointed out that the posture and physical characteristics of Homo sapiens have changed a lot over the past millennia. He also mentioned that a lot of contemporary humans suffer from musculoskeletal disorders such as LCS and UCS and shared a couple of strategies with the class that he meant were effective for preventing and treating these conditions. But unfortunately, not much additional instructions or information on the muscle imbalance concepts were provided after that.
So, since I hadn’t learned much about muscle imbalance syndromes in school, I had to learn about them for myself. During the first couple of years I worked as a coach/personal trainer, I spent a lot of time reading up on UCS and LCS, and I experimented with a variety of different strategies for treating them. The reason I chose to focus specifically on these two conditions is that a lot of my clients suffered from them.
Over time, I gradually put the pieces together and assembled a tool kit containing the tools I needed to effectively address the issues that I had come to find were at the root of LCS and UCS. Today, several years later, I still use this toolkit in my work with clients. I’ve replaced and polished some of the tools as I’ve learned new things; however, the kit still contains the same core components as it did a couple of years ago.
My experience is not unique. Most personal trainers, coaches, therapists, and other health/fitness practitioners didn’t learn much about muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS in school. This is one of the reasons why I decided to write about these conditions here on the site. I don’t claim to know everything about these conditions; however, I do think I have, over the years, gained a pretty good understanding of why they develop and what can be done to treat them.
The modern lifestyle stimulates the human musculoskeletal system in novel ways
But why do so many contemporary humans have bad posture and suffer from muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS? To answer this question, we have to put on our evolutionary glasses and examine the path that got our species to where it is today.
There is little doubt in my mind that UCS and LCS are mismatch conditions – conditions that develop as a result of a mismatch between genes and environment. This statement is based on everything I’ve read and observed with regards to the health and physical structure of ancient humans and contemporary hunter-gatherers. The fossil record indicates that ancient humans were robust and physically well-built, which is not surprising, given that they led a very physically active lifestyle. Pictures taken by explorers, travelers, and researchers indicate that contemporary hunter-gatherers exhibit the same physical characteristics. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but in general, it’s safe to say that the posture and physical structure of the modern man differ markedly from that of the ancestral human.
It’s not really surprising that this is the case. All wild animals tend to be quite lean and fit. Humans are no exception to this rule. If you’re fat, sick, or unable to run or move efficiently due to muscle pains or bad posture, you will have a hard time surviving in a natural environment and your genes may quickly go extinct.
Today, the situation is very different. You don’t have to be fit or lean to survive in a modern environment. Also, your survival won’t be threatened by muscle pains or other problems associated with muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS. What will be threatened, however, is your health and well-being.
The main reason that so many people today suffer from muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS is that the modern lifestyle stimulates the human musckuloskeltal system in a very different way than the ancient human lifestyle did. Our primal ancestors didn’t sit in front of a computer all day long; rather, they were out walking, running, and engaging in other physical activities. They also rested a lot, but since they didn’t have chairs to sit on, they likely spent more time in flexed positions (e.g., deep squatting) than modern humans. This is the type of lifestyle that the human body is accustomed to. It’s not designed for a modern, sedentary lifestyle.
When you sit on a chair, your body is in a position that it’s not evolutionarily accustomed to be in for prolonged periods of time, and you run the risk of developing weak, inactive, and flabby glutes, tight hip flexors, and weak/lengthened upper back muscles, among other things. This can then result in bad posture and various musculoskeletal pains. Moreover, it can impair your ability to move correctly: you’ll likely start compensating for your poor glute and upper back strength by putting more stress on your quads, lower back, and pecs, especially during exercise. In other words, you enter into a vicious cycle. Top that of with an imbalanced training program and you got a recipe for disaster.
Reversing the process: How can we turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one?
You don’t have to look far and wide to find a treatment protocol that promises to correct muscle imbalances and improve your posture. Unfortunately, many of the programs that are out there are pretty bad. I’m particularly skeptical to programs that only include light activities and exercises such as yoga and stretching. The problem with these types of programs is that they don’t really address the muscle imbalances that are a part of disorders such as LCS and UCS. You have to apply some tension to the system, or else, it won’t change. In my opinion, you can’t effectively treat UCS or LCS without strength training. You have to train heavy, but not so heavy that your form is compromised.
Another issue I find with many of the programs that are out there is that the exercises they include seem to have been chosen at random. There doesn’t appear to be a system to the selection process. Rather, a bunch of exercises that are generally perceived as being beneficial are put together into a weird concoction. This approach is unlikely to yield much fruit, and may actually, in some instances, make the muscle imbalance problems worse.
In order to correct a specific muscle imbalance syndrome, we obviously need to address the muscle imbalances that are a part of that exact condition: we have to target and strengthen the weakened/lengthened musculature and improve mobility/flexibility where it’s needed. In other words, my belief is that we have to try to reverse the process that caused the problem.
In the case of LCS, the muscle imbalances typically develop as a result of reciprocal inhibition involving a weakening/lengthening of the glutes and abdominals and a shortening/strengthening of the erector spinae and ilipsoas. Other muscles are involved as well, but those are among the major ones.
In my experience, the glutes and the upper back muscles are the key muscles involved in LCS and UCS, respectively. If you manage to effectively target, strengthen, and build those, then you’re well on your way to bring about positive changes in posture and physical function. This is often easier said than done though. People with muscle imbalance syndromes typically have difficulty performing multi-joint exercises such as the squat and deadlift with good technique and need to focus on learning how to move in a good movement pattern before they can start doing heavy strength training.
By taking steps to correct the imbalances and faulty movement patterns that drive the development of muscle imbalance syndromes such as UCS and LCS, it’s possible to turn the vicious cycle that underlie these conditions into a virtuous one. I’ve published two articles (UCS, LCS) here on the site in the past in which I outline some of the strategies I’ve developed for dealing with LCS and UCS. The guides should give both trainers/coaches and average Joes a general idea of how to treat these conditions.
It’s important to note though, that these guides are general in nature and are not to be considered exhaustive. I would strongly recommend people who suffer from muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS and UCS to seek out the help of a coach or therapist who has experience with treating these disorders. I’m not saying this because I myself work as a coach (see this page for information about my coaching services), but because my experience is that a lot of people find it very difficult to correct their posture and train effectively on their own.