Upper body impacts from foot positioning

In our last few blogs we have discussed the importance of the lower limb. As with anything in the way our body moves, the legs are never truly isolated, they have an important role on the spine, pelvis, ribs and upper limbs, even the neck and head. In this note we broaden our perspective by examining and explaining how the lower limb can affect upper limb position and even how the arms pull on the oars. This will allow us to expand further into the murky realms of rib stress fractures and other performance issues at a later date.

The body is an integrated system. A key prerequisite of understanding is that the body is not made up of individual segments but is an integrated system of mechanics that works together to create movement and produce force – nowhere is this more evident than in the action of rowing. The connection of the  powerful leg drive up through body and into the engagement of the arms to pull back on the blades and supply the hull with movement is vital. There have been volumes of research in other sports, especially running, in regards to the connection of leg and arm movement in propulsion.

We see this mechanical link between the lower and upper in people who walk around daily with leg length differences and gait abnormalities which transfer into back and shoulder pains that are aided by orthotics. It’s not magic, just anatomy.

The lower limbs are connected to the rest of the body via the pelvis and the spine. The spine is divided into 3 parts; the lumbar (low back), thoracic (mid back) and cervical spine (neck). These are all connected and each influence movement of the whole torso and body. The bones of the shoulder complex hinge from, and work off, the thoracic spine and rib cage, as well as having attachments to the cervical spine.

When muscles are added to this picture the connections to the lower limb are even clearer. The abdominal muscles attach to the pelvis and then up to the rib cage, the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum back muscles also attach via the pelvis and run up to attach to the ribs and thoracic spine. These are all affected by the positions and movement of the lower limb and can cause changes to shoulder position
and, functionally, to arm movement and breathing mechanics. The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone….you get it.

The most important soft tissue structures in this case are:
• The latissimus dorsi muscle (or lat’s);
• The thoraco-lumbar fascia – a diamond shaped band that links the lats and other
shoulder muscles directly to the lumbar spine and pelvis. This band has an important and direct
relationship to the power producing gluteal muscles, erector spinae and other spinal support muscles
• The trapezius muscle (the tight ones on top of the shoulders that hurt when people press on them) which attach to the lower thoracic spine.

The function and movement of these structures are all affected by leg length and position both anatomically and biomechanically. So when the feet and legs are not set up appropriately, the shoulders are often adversely affected.

From a coaching perspective, shoulder issues can often be adjusted and helped by correctly positioning the lower limb. We have seen many athletes with technique based shoulder problems that can’t be fixed by shoulder-focused technical coaching but instead require further problem solving and thinking outside the box – or just further along the anatomical chain.