Shouldn’t Female Weightlifters Be Injury Prone?
Reflexive Tension an Antithesis of Reflexive Release
A series of essays explored an aberrant proliferation of lower extremity injuries in American sports such as American football from a reverse engineering perspective (Charniga, 2016-18 sportivnypress.com). The basic idea of reverse engineering is to determine injury mechanism and/or predisposition for injury by analyzing how power athletes like weightlifters avoid serious injury from some “Black Swan” event or seemingly catastrophic fall in the process of lifting maximum weights. Whereas, on the other hand, many football, basketball, volleyball, Lacrosse players and others are prone to suffer severe no – contact injuries, even though circumstances of the injuries pale in comparison to those of the weightlifters.
Figures 1 – 2. Elite female weightlifter’s facial expression in figure 1 reflects sensation of shock and discomfort at approximate instant her left elbow sustains a minor strain. This is transformed to one of a relaxed, placid expression some 0.142 seconds later as muscle tension is released and she moves safely away from the barbell. The facial expression coincides within the moment of reflexive release of muscle tension, i.e., the reflexive release of tension involves much more than just the muscles grasping the barbell. Charniga photos.
Perhaps the single most important quality in the elite weightlifter’s makeup which can be crucial to injury avoidance is inter – muscular coordination. The classic snatch and the classic clean and jerk are complex exercises which require a high degree of coordination; impossible to develop without the ability to relax muscles very fast. Rapid shifts of the lifter’s body, especially the switching from straightening the trunk and lower extremities dropping rapidly under the barbell are impossible if the lifter is unable to relax muscles very fast.
“(muscle) Relaxation is an important component of any motor habit in any movement a sportsman performs; the development of which requires rather prolonged special training.“ (B. L. Federov, 1955; A. V. Nazarov, V.S. Farfels, 1975). quoted by Verkhoshansky, 1988
The body possesses innate reflexive, safety mechanisms which can be enhanced in elite athletes who have well developed inter – muscular coordination; part and parcel of which is the special ability to relax muscles.
Three essential attributes crucial to injury avoidance in sport:
1/ Reflex reactions such as reflexive release, are designed by nature to overcome the too slow mind – to – muscle – actions ( called electro – mechanical delay) needed to avoid injury in high speed dynamic sports;
2/ Reflexes automatically shift mechanical energy to avoid hyper-extending or simply bending or straightening joints at excessive speed as an athlete’s movements approach the body’s geometric limits. (Zajac, F. 1993)
3/ Stress/strain limitations of tendons, ligaments and bones to withstand mechanical energy typically exceed the maximum stress/strain conditions of even elite sport activities.
“Reciprocal innervation is a reflexive act characteristic of all movements and is perfected quickly in the process of training.” Y. V. Verkhoshansky, 1988
Reflexive release is an extremely rapid, complex switching from muscle tension to relaxation in response to some sudden loss of equilibrium, fall, injury or other unanticipated event in sport. This mechanism precludes conscious effort to move or fall in such a way to avoid injury. Circumstances where reflexive release can be effective in injury avoidance are too fast for mind – to – muscle actions to be useful.
Indeed, if there is such as thing as reflexive release the opposite must be reflexive tension. An athlete, or person whom experiences a sudden loss of equilibrium, fall, injury or other unanticipated event reflexively tenses instead of relaxes muscles; of the lower extremities for instance. The human body has to rely on reflexes to avoid injury in events which occur too fast conscious muscle actions to be of of any help. Without question, reflexive tension, more often than not would tend to result in negative consequences as the event depicted in figure 4.
“… the majority of people who have not undergone special training have little ability to relax the muscles.” (B. L. Federov, 1955; A. V. Nazarov, V.S. Farfels, 1975). quoted by Verkhoshansky, 1988
Reflexive release is enhanced considerably as an athlete develops inter-muscular coordination. This is obvious when one compares an elite lifter falling with a weight or otherwise moving away from a falling barbell to a lesser skilled lifter. The motor skills associated with the skillful performance of the snatch and the clean and jerk are inseparably connected with the ability relax muscles very fast; including a rapid reflexive release of tension in a wide variety of unanticipated circumstances to avoid injury.
“the ability to volitionally relax the muscles leads to a perfection of the mechanism of involuntary relaxation of muscles”. Shuvalov, G.A.
A lower skill set invariably means less coordination; less coordination means less ability to relax muscles. And, accordingly, one can anticipate a slower involuntary relaxation of muscles (Shuvalov, G.) from athletes of a lesser skill set. Athletes who are engaged in exercises of prolonged muscular tension (isometrics, bodybuilding, powerlifting) would tend to suppress reflexive release mechanisms in favor of reflexive tension (see example in figure 4).
Figure 4. A poignant example of reflexive tension. Relaxing one’s grasp instantaneously either reflexively, or let alone consciously, can be easier said than done. A lifter (in this case a male lifter) can be either too slow or incapable of relinquishing his grasp of the barbell despite falling, neck on barbell and riding across the floor. The athlete reflexively tenses his grasping muscles instead of relaxing.
Figures 5-6. Olympic champion at the instant of reflexive release of muscle tension, i.e., release of muscles grasping on the barbell and instantaneous leap forward out of harms way. Contrast this to male lifter in figure 4 with frozen grasp and neck on barbell. Charniga photos
The transmission of electrical impulses via nerves is too slow (electro – mechanical delay) for a downhill skier, for instance, slipping while traveling at 26 meters/second; to consciously maneuver in the midst of falling. A situation where a weightlifter is unable to fix the barbell overhead or suddenly loses balance requires a too quick for conscious thought release of muscle tension to move away from the weight. This situation is illustrated by the photos in figures 1 – 4.
Figure 7. Rapid reflexive release of muscle tension from shoulder girdle to hip to foot allows female lifter move safely from under the barbell. Charniga photos.
The female lifter in figure 7 (and the accompanying video) reflexively released her grasp on the barbell while relaxing tension in her shoulder girdle and lower extremities. This enables her to drop down very fast in order to slide forward away from the falling weight.The release of muscle tension is not limited to the grasping muscles but occurs in concert with the lower extremities as well.
Look closely at the photo on the right. She has closed her eyes at the moment she has released tension. This is a peculiarity of female lifters in general, although not exclusive; but, especially so the super elite and elite.
Reflexive release of muscle tension in this example, involves more than just the muscles grasping the barbell; it is practically the whole body. This is why the athlete is able to drop and slide away from the falling barbell in a blink of the eye.
Experience shows the reflexive release mechanism appears to be more sophisticated for females than it is for males. Given the greater complexity of the female body; it is a logical assumption nature would provide the female body, tasked with passing on life; to possess more sophisticated reflex mechanisms to ensure the safety of multiple organisms, i.e. in gestation.
An elbow dislocation is a fairly common, but not a chronic injury problem in weightlifting. Anecdotal evidence and extensive observation indicates female lifters experience proportionally fewer of these injuries than males. The reason for the disparity, likewise from observation and anecdotal evidence suggests female lifters generally release tension and drop the barbell faster than male lifters before a serious injury can occur. A male lifter typically would be slower to release grasp of the barbell, increasing the potential for serious injury under similar circumstances depicted in figures 1 & 2.
The integrity of the body’s springs (tendons, ligaments and fascia) are highly resistance to stress/strain failure because they are designed to exceed the maximum operating stress/strain athletes encounter in sport exercises. Furthermore, reflexive release of muscle tension can shift mechanical energy quickly from hip to foot for instance, or vice versa, lessening the possibility or severity of an injury. Elastic tendons, ligaments and fascia are designed to stretch rapidly to absorb and/or release considerable energy before circumstances would lead to failure. The key element here is muscle tension is released allowing mechanical energy to shift from one part of the body to another and/or in the process dissipate mechanical energy.
Figure 7-8. Males are able to generate maximum muscular tension faster than females but experience shows are slower to release and switch rapidly from intense muscular tension to relaxation; which may leave them more susceptible to injury. Extremely placid expression of female elite lifter grasping barbell. Charniga photos.
Reflexive Release and Compliance
Examples of circumstances were presented in two essays about Achilles tendon rupture and the NFL where serious injuries to the lower extremities occur under conditions with much less stress/strain on soft tissues than in weightlifting. In many cases reflexive release is either too slow, non – existent, or simply ineffective because of taping of joints, lack of mobility, insufficient elasticity, and so forth.
The term compliance of a material/object refers to the ability “to yield elastically when a force is applied” (Merriam Webster). That being said, the effectiveness of the human reflexive release mechanism can vary from individual to individual and even joint to joint.
Assume one is able to relax and release muscle tension in the midst of falling. If the compliance, or elastic give, is lacking overall, or even in a single joint, (think of taped or braced ankles in American sports) the ability to disperse or otherwise dissipate the mechanical energy will be compromised.
Consequently, the female athlete’s ability to relax muscles works hand in hand, facilitating reflexive release. In the presence of unanticipated circumstances such as of loss of equilibrium; tension is released, muscles, tendons, ligaments elongate as joints bend or otherwise flex over a large amplitude of movement to effectively dissipate mechanical energy.
“The process of muscular relaxation is more active for female athletes than for men, which allows us to suggest that women perform muscular work more economically than men.” (V. L. Federov, I. M. Yankuskas, 1972; quoted by Verkhoshansky, 1988)
Extensive observation and anecdotal evidence indicates reflexive release is more active in females; but by no means, exclusive to them. Males have a greater ability to generate great muscular power faster; but, anecdotal evidence suggests this ability comes with a slower reaction to relax from significant muscular tension, i.e., to avoid a possible injury. The slower reaction of the male athlete to release tension may predispose males to higher injury rates.
The too numerous to reiterate problems with the female anatomy which can be found in the literature would most certainly preclude participation in such an extraordinarily high intensity event like weightlifting. Yet compared with other sports female weightlifters experience relatively low injury rates; this despite the extraordinary mechanical energy inflicted on the woman’s ‘frail’ body.
A reflexive release mechanism is one of nature’s gifts to the human body to engage in power sports given the limitations of mind to muscle response; which, otherwise would be prohibitive due to the speed and complexity of fast power movements. Female athletes in general and weightlifters in particular have a fine tuned reflexive release mechanism; an outcome of developing and perfecting the coordination requisite for the weightlifting exercises.
Highly skilled weightlifters perform the competition exercises with requisite rapid shifts of direction, complex contra-lateral movements; the perfection of which means muscles have to be relaxed faster than contracted. Research has shown the speed of muscle relaxation relative to the athlete’s ability to contract the muscles improves with the rise in an athlete’s qualification; weightlifters inclusive. This trend continues until the elite athlete is able to relax faster than contract muscles (Matveyev, 1977).
So, why would female weightlifters be less prone to injury? In a nutshell, the ability to react quickly, in many respects, faster than males, to unanticipated circumstances, loss of balance, falling and so forth, with very rapid reflexive release of muscle tension to dissipate and/or otherwise re – distribute mechanical energy.
Nasim Taleb coined the term “anti-fragile” to describe the opposite of fragile. Reflexive release is one of those innate qualities of the female body which can function as a sort of “anti-fragility” mechanism for sport. On the other hand, fragility in sport is the opposite of “anti – fragility”; which in effect, has been described in the essays about reverse engineering. Strength training for dynamic sports with bodybuilding/powerlifting exercises, taping and bracing joints to restrict range of motion over time make these athletes (male and female) more susceptible to injury, i.e., fragile.
The body’s reflexive release mechanism in injury prophylaxis consists of several facets:
1/ A rapid (reflexive) switch from muscle tension to relaxation deploying visco-elastic tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) for:
A/ shock absorption;
B/ re – distribution of mechanical energy;
C/ dissipation of mechanical energy.
1/ Charniga, A. “Expression of Strength in Weightlifting”, Sportivnypress.com
2/ Charniga, A., “Its all connected parts I – III, www.sportivnypress.com
3/ Zajac, F.E., “Muscle Coordination of Movement: A Perspective”, J. Biomechanics 26:suppl1:109-124:1993
4/ Verkhoshansky, Y.V., Fundamentals of the Special Physical Preparation of Athletes, FIS, Moscow, 1988. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
5/ Matveyev, L.P., Fundamentals of Sport Training, FIS, Moscow, 1977
6/ Taleb, N., Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder, Random House, 2012
7/ Shuvalov, G.A., “Effect of the Ability to Volitionally Relax the Muscles on the Display of Speed – Strength Qualities”, Teoriya I Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury? Translated by Andrew Charniga.