The Right Leg’s Connected to the … Left Leg?

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The Right Leg’s Connected to the … Left Leg?

Rehabilitation of any injury or condition is a multifaceted process that requires attention to every aspect related to a successful recovery. One of the factors often overlooked is the maintenance of conditioning on the non-affected side. What many individuals, including coaches and clinicians, often fail to appreciate is the fact that training the non-injured side of the body can lead to a faster and more complete recovery, through a process known as cross education.

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Rehabilitation of any injury or condition is a multifaceted process that requires attention to every aspect related to a successful recovery. One of the factors often overlooked is the maintenance of conditioning on the non-affected side. What many individuals, including coaches and clinicians, often fail to appreciate is the fact that training the non-injured side of the body can lead to a faster and more complete recovery, through a process known as cross education.

Cross education (also referred to as “cross transfer”, “interlateral transfer”, “cross limb transfer”, “contralateral training effect”, and “interlimb transfer”) was first referred to in the literature in 18941 and has been thoroughly investigated in over 20 clinical trials. It is basically the phenomenon whereby training one side of the body leads to strength changes on the opposite side.

Broadly speaking, the two main mechanisms by which force production capacity can be improved are 1) changes in the muscular tissue and 2) changes in the nervous system, or put more simply, improvements in the hard-wiring to the muscles. These nervous system changes take place at numerous different sites, including the brain itself. As you are probably aware, there are two hemispheres of the brain. These two hemispheres are linked by numerous structures, in particular an important bridge called the corpus callosum. These structures allow for communication between the two hemispheres, and for the benefits of training stress to be shared between both sides of the body. Essentially the brain is not smart enough to figure out where the training stimulus is coming from and as a result makes both sides of the body stronger.

Studies have shown strength gains in the non-trained limb of up to 77% of the trained side2. Amongst the research citing evidence of it’s effectiveness the most relevant to rehabilitation professionals are the three studies showing increased strength and a maintenance of muscle mass on the opposite side even when the limb was immobilised3,4,5. Whilst these studies haven’t been repeated on injured individuals, it does suggest that if we can maintain strength training on the opposite side we can potentially ward off some of the strength and muscle mass losses that inevitably occur following injury, and therefore optimise the rehabilitation process.

There are other benefits to this approach. Athletes will often become somewhat dejected when injured and unmotivated to continue training when they are unable to go about their normal routine. Injured fighters are sometimes isolated from their usual training environment and teammates, which can have serious psychological side effects, and significantly set back the recovery process. Some people also falsely believe that training the uninjured side will cause them to become “unbalanced”. Rehabilitation should always be viewed in as positive a light as possible, with a focus on what can be done rather than what can’t. Knowing that making gains in a certain area will also carry over to a more optimal recovery can help increase motivation and boost morale.

A complete guide to rehabilitation in combat sports is featured in The Science of Striking: A Comprehensive Guide to Physical Preparation for Stand up Combat Athletes, available through amazon in kindle and paperback formats.

References

  1. Scripture, E. W., Smith, T. L. & Brown, E. M. On the education of muscular control and power. Stud Yale Psychol Lab 2, 114–119 (1894).
  2. Hortobágyi, T., LAMBERT, N. J. & HILL, J. P. Greater cross education following training with muscle lengthening than shortening. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 29, 107–112 (1997).
  3. Farthing, J. P., Krentz, J. R. & Magnus, C. R. Strength training the free limb attenuates strength loss during unilateral immobilization. J. Appl. Physiol. 106, 830–836 (2009).
  4. Farthing, J. P. et al. Changes in functional magnetic resonance imaging cortical activation with cross education to an immobilized limb. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 43, 1394–1405 (2011).
  5. Magnus, C. R., Barss, T. S., Lanovaz, J. L. & Farthing, J. P. Effects of cross-education on the muscle after a period of unilateral limb immobilization using a shoulder sling and swathe. J. Appl. Physiol. 109, 1887–1894 (2010).

About the author

Sam Gilbert

Sam Gilbert is a registered physiotherapist with the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Physiotherapy from Latrobe university (Melbourne, Australia) and a master’s degree in Exercise Science (Strength and Conditioning) from Edith Cowan University (Perth, Australia).

A 3rd Dan black belt in Shinkyokushinkai Karate under the World Karate Organisation (WKO), Sam participated for over 20 years in full contact competition, winning multiple state and national titles, and culminating in a 4th place in the heavyweight division of the Shinkyokushinkai World Cup in 2009.

As the co-founder and clinical director of Club 360, the premier multi-disciplinary health and fitness center in Tokyo, Japan, Sam has combined his practical experience with an in-depth study of sports performance in relation to combat sports, and strives to help other combat athletes reach their full competitive potential, whilst at the same time decreasing injury risk and increasing competition and training potential.

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