Step 2 of 4 to Eliminate Pain & Improve Mobility | Precision Movement

Step 2 of 4 to Eliminate Pain & Improve Mobility

Dissociate to Activate: Why and How

By Coach E

I used to call this step “Activation and Dissociation”, but I’ve changed to “Dissociate to Activate” for 2 reasons: 

1) Verbs imply action and we love taking action around here

2) We dissociate to get muscles activated - there aren’t 2 distinct pieces. 

Subtle change that most would not have noticed but I strive to communicate in the most accurate way possible. #analaboutlanguage

How Weakness Begets Pain

The fitness community is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of activation exercises as I've seen them being programmed into warmups for muscles that will be used in the main workout. For example, people often do hip bridges to fire up the glutes before a lower body strength training workout.

When muscles don't properly activate, they become weak and atrophy because they’re not being used - use it or lose it.

And when they’re weak, other muscles have to jump in to pick up the slack. 

This is one path to a Compensatory M/AP, which can result in pain in a muscle that's compensating because it's not well suited for the job.

Thus, to address the root cause of pain due to a Compensatory M/AP requires getting the inactive muscle that's not working properly active and strong. 

I’m sure this makes perfect sense to you so we don’t need to go any further.

Why Dissociation is Important

Now let’s discuss what it means to Dissociate…

The definition of dissociation is “to sever the association of”.

In the case of the Precision Movement 4-Step process, we’re going to dissociate commonly associated M/APs.

Commonly associated M/APs exist where one movement or activation pattern automatically leads to another. 

Let's say you've developed the (dysfunctional) M/AP of pinching your scapulae down and back when your arms are overhead, meaning that whenever you use your arms overhead, you automatically pinch the scapulae down and back. 

This is the natural consequence of training a pattern over and over - it becomes habitual. 

Now, imagine you go rock climbing where you're often required to stretch out and reach to grab a hold - if pinching your shoulders down and back is associated with reaching overhead, you'll do this when climbing and it will drastically limit your reach compared to if you elevate and protract the scapula when you're reaching your arm up.


You can see just how much your reach is limited right now by standing facing a wall and lifting your arm overhead and comparing the difference in reach when fully retracting/depressing vs. protracting/elevating your scapula.

If you can do the movement well you'll find it's a difference of about 5-6" - this is a significant amount for rock climbing, boxing, reaching for objects on high shelves and more. 

So dissociating M/APs opens up new ranges, new movement possibilities and increases your chances of choosing the most efficient and effective pattern for the task at hand. 

Dissociation is Great for Muscle Activation

Another benefit of Dissociation - one which is of critical importance for the purposes of eliminating pain and improving mobility - is that it can ACTIVATE inactive and inhibited muscles, even those you've had a tough time firing despite your best efforts. 


Associated M/APs often occur because one movement needs help due to a weakness or restriction, so some other part of the body moves to compensate. 

Here's an example - when reaching overhead is restricted by shoulder mobility, the body can compensate by using lumbar extension to achieve the movement goal, thus compensating for and reinforcing the restriction every time this pattern is repeated.


So if we need greater shoulder flexion range, one way dissociation helps in this case is building greater strength of the muscles that flex the shoulders at their true end range due to the simultaneous activation of muscles that counter the compensatory movement (rectus abdominis, external obliques to flex the lumbar spine and prevent ribcage flare), which ultimately causes the shoulder flexors to work eccentrically.

Dissociation ↑ ⬆Eccentric Activity for Greater Strength

When muscles work eccentrically, that means they are active but lengthening instead of contracting (concentric) and the research is clear that muscles can generate greater force eccentrically than concentrically with studies typically showing the amount being from 110-140% greater.

So through dissociation, we’re utilizing eccentric contractions of the prime movers and will build greater strength compared to relying just on concentrics.

This is how I can get the programs I design down to 15-20 minute routines without sacrificing results - because I apply science to get the most out of every rep.

OK, enough of the science - here are 2 Dissociation techniques you can use to unlock your shoulders right now:

Dissociation of Glenohumeral Joint Extension & Anterior Scapular Tilt

This technique will help you change the dysfunctional pattern of glenohumeral (GHJ) extension + anterior scapular tilt, by working the opposite - GHJ extension + posterior scapular tilt. The dysfunctional pattern is common if you do dips using a chair or bench or on the parallel bars or rings and can set you up for AC joint pain.

Perform the technique for 5 minutes focusing on quality and resting when necessary.

Dissociation of Shoulder Flexion/Extension and Spine Extension/Flexion

This technique will help you build overhead mobility while preventing lumbar spine extension, which is a common compensation people with restricted shoulder mobility use to reach overhead, putting excess stress on the lumbar spine.

Perform the technique for 5 minutes focusing on quality and resting when necessary. 

Do both techniques DAILY and when the next piece comes out where I'll be revealing Step 3 of the Precision Movement 4-Step Process, you'll have paved the way to get the most out of the Step 3 technique.

P.S. If you've gotten value so far, let me know while helping your friends with tight shoulders by sharing this article with them. 

NOTE: this is Part 2 in a 4-Part series.
Here are links to the rest: PART 1PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.