What to do about muscle tightness

In my last post I spoke about how muscle tightness isn’t really a bad thing. It may not be a desired thing, but it is something that is in place for a good reason, which is to help you from moving into an unstable range—one you can’t control. If you think of your muscle tightness or joint limitation as an indicator or feedback then it can help to serve you as to where you might need some extra work—that work being in the way of doing something that invigorates the altered neurological connection that is causing your tightness/limitation. One of the best ways to stimulate this neurological connection is to do an isometric contraction into the position of limitation. An isometric contraction is where you would push one limb against a solid surface (like your hand) and hold a contraction for a period of time at the same tension. The way we do isometrics here is by holding a position in the shortest position for a muscle (or most limited range) and lightly push against something like your hand for about 6 seconds and repeat 6 times (with a few seconds in between each isometric contraction).

To use the same example from the last post—tight hamstrings (or limited hip flexion)—you would notice that your ability to lift your straight leg up (either in a standing position or, preferably, in a lying position) would be limited, which could mean that one or all the hip flexor muscles could not shorten or contract any further, thus causing the hamstrings to put the “brakes” on. To improve hip flexion range you would want to do an isometric contraction in the direction of hip flexion. You would bring your leg up to its highest active range (where you move it on your own—no pulling—until you reached your end range) and lightly push into something like your hand. You would be trying to contract further into the range you want to achieve, which, in this case, is more hip flexion. This will cause the hip flexor muscles to actively contract and in doing so you should be gaining better neurological function where there was once limitation. If you are re-activating the neurological connection to those inhibited muscles, the opposing muscles should let up on the “brakes” and allow more motion. Remember, your body will only allow motion it can control so by re-activation the neurological connection to the muscles on one side (the side you are trying to move into), the other side (the tight side) will lessen its contraction (protection) thus allowing more motion.

It is important to do these contractions lightly. On a scale of 1-10 you should be pushing at a level of 1. One way to help gauge this is you should, if you wanted, be able to push 10 times harder. This is not a strength exercise. You are trying to wake up the muscle sensors so the lighter you go the more you have a chance of jumpstarting the neurological connection (neurological loop between the muscle and nervous system) that was once compromised. If you cramp or feel pain when doing an isometric you need to either let off on the amount of effort you using or lessen up on the range you are using (take yourself out of the range just a bit at a time until you don’t feel cramping or pain). If this doesn’t help then make note of what you are experiencing and see a professional—like a doctor, physical therapist or muscle activation techniques specialist.

You can move each joint of your body into various ranges of motion to detect available range. Consider that your body moves through a combination of three planes of motion—side to side, front to back and in rotation. Most of the joint in your body move through these three planes so you can evaluate your own range by moving in these planes of motion (note the elbow and knee primarily move in one plane—front to back—but do have some rotational capabilities—forearm and shin rotation). At Fitness Werks we actually use a full body range of motion warm up that also serves as an evaluation (available upon request). Before I share those warm up activities/motions, I should note that the biggest cause of most aches and pains may be identified by asymmetries in motion. Meaning, one joint would be more limited than the other side (the right hip flexion would be more limited than the left). So when our clients are going through this range of motion warm up they are also self-evaluating their motion from left to right side. If they find one side more limited to the other they administer an isometric (as noted above) for the limited position. They can also do any isometrics for any position they feel is limited equally on each side to gain more range. However, when going through just the warm up we have them move in each direction 3 times and hold the end of each range for 2 seconds. They are not pushing against anything except their own end range of motion. They do the aforementioned isometric as a corrective exercise once they notice an asymmetry in their range.

Here is a description of our active warm up/evaluation: we start with rotating the head back and forth (like saying no), followed by moving the head forward and back (saying yes) and finish with bending the head side to side. We then move on to the shoulder where we hold our arms out the side with our elbows bent (so our hands are at the side of our head) and rotate the arms up and down (hands would end up down by the hips but the elbows would remain out to the side of the shoulder). We continue on to raising the arms straight over head, followed by bending the elbows so the hands end up behind the head, then we bring the arms down and back behind our backside while keeping the arms close to the body (the hands should be facing forward—this motion would be in the backward and forward plane). We would finish the shoulders by going across the body with straight arms (in front of your chest and turning your thumbs down) and then bringing them straight back and out the side (like a cross) with the palms facing forward (thumbs up). Next we move on to the spine where we would rotate the torso from side to side while keeping the hips/pelvis straight forward (so your shoulders rotate away from your hips), followed by bending the spine forward and backward without bending at the hips (just spinal flexion and extension) and then finish with bending from side to side. Moving on to the hips we would pick the knee up so the hip and knee are both at 90 degrees (thigh would be parallel to the ground—also helps to hold on to something when you are on one leg) and then rotate the thigh back and forth, bringing your foot in and out (like kicking a soccer ball). We continue on to bringing the straight leg out and up in front of us (like kicking a ball) and then finish the movement behind us with the knee bent and trying to bring the thigh behind the hip (think of the old quad stretch where you would grab your ankle and pull back—but here you use your own effort—no hands). Lastly for the hips we bring one straight leg across the body (in front—like you were kicking a ball the opposite side of you) and then finish with the leg going directly out to the side. To include the ankle we would do ankle circles three times in each direction, then go up and down with the foot/toes and finish with trying to turn the bottom of the foot up and in (so the bottom of your foot points inward) and the up and out (so the bottom or your foot points outward).

Again, each motion is to be done slowly and in a controlled manner. Each side is to be held for 2 seconds. Lastly, you should notice a pattern in the order of motions done here. We start each joint with a rotation exercise, followed by a forward and back exercise and then finish with a side to side exercise. If you notice any limitation from right to left side you can then use that position of limitation to do your isometric. For example, if you noticed when you brought your arms across your body and in front of your chest that your right arm didn’t go as far as the left then you could do a corrective isometric here by pushing your right arm (the limited on) lightly into your left hand (holding it at the level of the right wrist) for 6 seconds. This is done in the limited position—where your arm stopped is where you start to push.

Remember, this is a suggested warm up which also serves as an evaluation to compare one side to the other. This does not replace a proper evaluation from a doctor and like doing any physical activity you should get clearance from your doctor first. The same thing goes for the isometric exercises. Anything that does not feel right is justification for going back to the doctor for further investigation. If you have any limitations or minor aches and pains that you believe are related to muscle issues please feel free to contact us for a free 15 minute evaluation.

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