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Today I was having a check up by a orthopedician (tests were all good btw), and he tasked me with keeping my entire arm straight, and pushing against his hand with my fist in various orientations. As I tried to do this exercise, he told me that I am apparently using my neck muscles (around trap regio.. I think?) to push his hand instead of my arms. He told me that I may be making the same mistake in the gym too.

It seems to me that even when you do the same motion, once can activate different muscles to do it. So, how do we make sure the intended muscle group is activated when doing an exercise?

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I'd challenge the frame of the question in that the imprecision of human communication and the difficulty of performing an exercise perfectly, might have led to confusion. In my experience, it's not terribly uncommon, when doing exercises, to recruit additional muscles for a particular exercise, particularly initially. This is perfectly normal, and part of normal function. In regular life, we don't isolate muscles to do things, but rather use our entire bodies. Of course, exercise is a more artificial situation where we are intentionally trying to do a movement less efficiently by attempting to do a movement in a more limited way to target specific muscles. What the doctor may have been intending to indicate was that you were recruiting additional muscles when attempting to push or resist movements, most likely using them to brace yourself more than trying to indicate that you were using them to actually move your arm.

So, why would this be relevant to your situation, specifically coming in to check function after an injury? Well, part of the natural adaptation after an injury is to use uninjured parts of the body to compensate for the injured parts, and the habit can remain afterwards, which can both make it harder to isolate a movement, and can also create additional fatigue when you continue to provide extra bracing when your arm is fully recovered. If you got into the habit of tensing your shoulder and back muscles before moving your arm in order to reduce pain and further injury, you may still be tensing them during movements, which will not only add additional energy expenditure, but also might work against the arm movement.

As to how you can counter this, the primary method is self-awareness. I'm probably not telling you anything you haven't heard before, but when exercising, it's important to be in the moment, to be aware of what your body is doing, and to not be too distracted. If you're watching a TV show, or listening to a podcast, it gets a lot easier to zone out and get into bad habits, like recruiting additional muscles or bracing yourself in unnecessary manners. For as much of the exercise as is possible, consider what your body is telling you about what muscles are being used. If you are not used to such self-introspection, you may be able to borrow another's senses by having a friend or spotter set their hand on areas where you're using the wrong muscles so that they can give you feedback if, e.g., you're heavily flexing your back muscles in an exercise where most of the movement should be in your arm.

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    As a person that semi-regularly get injured, I believe that's probably the case. Usually muscles around the injury get recruited to compensate when a movement triggers pain in the injured tissue. Sometimes fysio is needed to heal the tissues back to normal function.
    – Luciano
    Apr 7 at 13:25
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The notion that you can use incorrect muscles despite correct technique is ridiculous. You cannot move your arm using the neck or trapezius muscles instead of the arm and shoulder muscles, because the former muscles do not attach to the arms (at most the trapezius can move the scapulae), and without the muscle of the arm and shoulder, the arm would go completely limp.

Normally I'd respond to such questionable advice from a doctor with a recommendation to get a second opinion, not tell the second doctor about the initial diagnosis at all, and see if they come to the same conclusion. However in this case, why would you even see an orthopedician if you din't have a specific, pre-existing musculoskeletal injury?

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  • Basically, I fell down really bad on my shoulder some time ago and wanted to check if all yakois Apr 7 at 9:12
  • The technique correctness is only mentioned in the title by OP, and it is not reflected by the exchange reported in the post as something said by the orthopedist, who, on the contrary, say the exercises are not done correctly. This should not be the green tick answer.
    – Naebaf
    Apr 8 at 17:30
  • I mean... if you can "lift with your legs, not with your back", then I'd push back some (heh... no pun) on the notion that you "can't" employ the wrong muscles to perform some work. Similar to poor lifting technique, I can think of two different ways to use the muscles in my lower torso to push my arm against something. Sure, the arm's only moving because it's attached to my torso, and I'm moving the whole thing. But it's still moving, despite the arm muscles being uninvolved for anything more than bracing, and certainly not doing the work of actually moving the arm.
    – FeRD
    Apr 8 at 18:08
  • @FeRD that's why I said "despite correct technique". The adage about lifting with your legs rather than your back is cautioning about listing posture (i.e. different technique) rather than being able to use different muscles despite identical posture. Apr 9 at 6:58
  • @Neelahn I think it can be assumed, given that the orthopedist did not offer instruction on correct technique, that when they said that the poster was making "a mistake" in which muscles they were using, they were referring only to muscle recruitment and they perceived posture and technique to be correct. Apr 9 at 7:01
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Best answer is: ask your orthopedist for details and explanation.

Otherwise here is my take from the exchange you reported: it seems you are having compensatory activation of the shoulder girdle muscles to perform the requested action. Instead of moving (or pushing, as it sounds like a static test) only your arm against your orthopedist, you were likely using the whole arm+shoulder blade against them.

A practical guide, besides self-awareness mentioned in another answer, would be to put your other arm onto your shoulder blade. During the exercise, you should not (or only minimally) feel it move in the direction of the arm.

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  • That orthopedician was not really easy to talk to.. it was more of a one directioncal communication. :/ May 8 at 5:14

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