For most of us, it’s not until we get into our mid twenties to early thirties that chronic issues begin to manifest themselves into pain or injury. Mine started when I was in my teens playing basketball. I played all the time and thought I was stretching but turns out I never paid attention to my hip flexors. It resulted in lower back pain so bad; I couldn’t stand up straight after a game. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn how all the muscles in my body are related and when one muscle repeatedly compensates for another, you are eventually going to be in a world of pain.
Sitting all day…
It was on a particularly long road trip that I knew something was very wrong. I had been sitting all day driving to our game and when our team arrived, we were informed that our game time had been moved to right now! After sitting for hours, I got changed and ran onto the court to warm up for five minutes; which was me shooting the ball and not stretching. Basically, by sitting all day (hips in a shortened and tight position), running around (contracting these already tight muscles) and inhibiting my load bearing muscles (hip flexors now activated instead of gluteal muscles), I was on my back by halftime trying to breathe without intense lower back pain.
This reminds me of so many people I’ve seen at the gym, they work all day sitting at a desk, then drive to the gym where they rush through their stretches and exercises. I believe this is why after a week or two most people quit going to the gym regularly because there’s too much pain and no gain. With quick, effective stretching and mobilizing techniques, you can give yourself the best chance for being not only pain free but stronger than ever!
There are many ways to stretch your muscles but they’ll all fall into two categories, dynamic and static. Dynamic stretches have you actively moving during the stretch and working up a sweat, usually before a workout as it prevents injury and primes the body. A static stretch is often performed after a workout and will help increase the range of motion in a muscle. Take this time to focus on breathing and relaxing which is a great way to come down after a tough workout. Sometimes these workouts can cause further problems if your tight muscles haven’t been addressed.
Let’s break down what tight muscles are and what affects them. Tight muscles or the change of length in your muscles can be affected by either the amount of tension in the muscle belly or if the connective tissues are restricted in some manner. The amount of tension in a muscle is based on your ability to control your muscles through their neuromuscular pathways, that muscle to mind connection gym bros talk about. Essentially, can you flex a muscle on command and how many muscle fibres can you recruit when doing so?
Flexing your muscle!
A lot of times people become stronger just by recruiting previously dormant muscle fibres without actually getting bigger muscles. Rock climbers are a good example of this because they may not change their overall size as they improve but instead are able to recruit more of their muscles to assist holding their own body weight. For the purpose of this discussion, these pathways can be affected by chronic postural dysfunction, myofascial trigger points or reflex spasms.
Chronic postural dysfunction
CPD is when a muscle has become hyperactive and shortened because of overuse. The antagonist of the tight muscles become reciprocally inhibited and sets up a chronic imbalance of activity. The imbalance leads to the development of faulty movement patterns because the tight muscles fire such that they dominate the movement pattern while the inhibited muscle tends to be left out, aggravating the whole pattern with each repeated activity. The solution for this is consistently mobilizing the tight muscles (possibly strengthening them as well) and learning to activate the now uninhibited muscle until it fires on command naturally.
Mobilizing the right way
Myofascial trigger points are areas of local tenderness that occur because of sustained shortening of muscle fibers. They are the end result of a chronic postural dysfunction. Mobility movements where you actively seek to change your end range positions are the best way to reduce these trigger points. Common sites are the traps, levator scap, subscapularis, pecs, ql, psoas.
These spasms are a result of a reaction to pain. For example, you may be leaning as a result of a disc bulge pressing on a nerve or abdominal rigidity from appendicitis. Think of putting your hand on something hot and how fast you pull your hand away, without really thinking about it. That’s a reflex spasm…and so is this demonstration.
These tissues can become restricted when the muscle is immobilized in a shortened position. Imagine your arm in a cast for a few weeks and what happens to the surrounding muscles. Or similarly, if you had to sit at a desk for any length of time each day, your gluteal (butt muscles) would become compressed, inhibited and weak.
Scar tissue or restrictions in the fascia may not allow the muscle bundles to move well with activities either. You can also have viscoelastic changes in the tendons and ligaments. These are dependent on the force applied and the rate of change in length of the tendon or ligament. Too much force with a fast rate of change in length and you’ll snap the tendon or ligament. At that point, surgery is often required.
How does your posture get worse?
Chronic muscle shortening with continuous imbalanced postural patterns that caused CNS adaptation also caused chronic fascial restrictions. Or in other words, your bad posture when moving can easily translate into pain or injury if you don’t correct the movement pattern.
Assess movement patterns
How can we reverse these poor postures before we endure an injury? We must assess and not guess. First, identify which movement patterns are being affected. Then select appropriate mobilization and stretching techniques to allow weak muscles to ‘fire’ during your workouts. Being able to properly assess an individuals movement patterns allows for a truly personalized exercise plan.
By identifying what weaknesses are present in your kinetic system, you can identify any exercises that may aggravate the problem. Taking out these offending exercises, means you can replace it with appropriate ones that will correct the compensation pattern. Determine stretches required and how frequently before, during and after exercise they may be required.
Advancement is determined by ones ability to perform the exercise before the compensation pattern takes over. Finally, lifestyle stretches and exercises are added because consistency is more important than intensity when changing how you move. This is a lot to ask of anyone; especially a beginner to exercising but all these elements are what make a truly personalized exercise program.
A program developed in this way will set you up for success in the short and long term. The earlier you can address your postural patterns, the better chance you have to change it for the better. By strengthening your weakest links during a functional workout, you’ll greatly reduce any chronic pain throughout your body during daily activities.
I specialize in assisting people with their postural patterns and how to build overall strength, so if you found this helpful, follow me on social media or book your session today to find out how I can help you move better and get stronger!