Updated: Jul 2
An Iceberg of a Problem
They say 90% of an icebergs mass is below the surface of the water. Imagine the tightness or pain you are experiencing as the very top 10%. When managing and correcting muscular and joint issues it is important to dive past the 10% and see as much of what is underneath the water as possible. This article will focus on explaining the extra 90% by reviewing potential reasons why you are experiencing tightness or pain, highlighting goals to accomplish for temporary and long-lasting relief, and provide in-depth guided exercise demonstration.
Prolonged Inactivity & Immobility
Sleeping, work lifestyle, and an overall lack of movement throughout the day can lead to muscles tightening and placing excessive tension on joints. This is dependent on body positioning and an individual’s anatomical or physiological predisposition.
The integrity of our body is held together by a natural resting “tone” level or “tonus.” This is how our body maintains form and positioning when we stand, sit, or lay down to sleep. During REM sleep tone levels decline allowing for deeper relaxation. For some individuals, this resting state can be excessive and lead to muscle and joint soreness or pain. This will be explained in greater detail during Central Nervous System Relaxation.
Inactivity + immobility + tone creates a cumulative effect overtime. Have you ever had a muscle spasm and lock-up suddenly? If our muscles, tendons, and joints remain unattended then they will progressively tighten leading to pain or injury.
As muscles tighten… joints become immobile.
As joints become immobile… the risk of injury increases.
This is when we become a ticking time bomb where one wrong move can set it off. Have you ever reached to pick something up off the ground and had your back “go out?”
Daily Posture & Asymmetries
On a scale of 0-10 (10 = perfect) how would you rate your posture on a daily basis? Consider rating your sleeping, sitting, and standing posture. In what positions do you feel pain or soreness start to develop? Do you wake up in pain? Does your back start to hurt after sitting for a long time? Reviewing these details can often lead to the cause and ultimately preventative measures for relief.
The positions you rate lower can speak loudly and indicate where you are most susceptible to current or future injury or pain. For example, if you have a desk job and are sitting for a majority of the day then your risk for low back and neck issues can increase dramatically, especially if minimal preventative measures are being taken. Consider taking an ergonomic postural evaluation to determine susceptibility or speak with your employer regarding a wellness or ergonomics program.
Previous injury may also play a role. Surgery or incomplete rehabilitation from a previous injury can easily lead to body asymmetry and strength imbalances. Most of the time these issues are unnoticeable. Small imbalances + thousands of daily micro movements can accumulate into a much greater issue overtime. This can result from a range of issues including major surgery, joint replacement, hardware installation, joint sprains, muscle strains, or fractures (to name a few). Speak with your doctor regarding these issues and inquire on physical therapy to help correct.
Improper Muscle Targeting & Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Human movement is complex requiring practice and knowledge to perfect. The further away from perfection the greater the risk of pain and injury. The individual who believes they can go from couch potato to marathon runner or CrossFit champion will be “sorely” disappointed. Even casual running is far more involved and strenuous on the body than is given credit.
Health & fitness is a profession that requires the same dedication as rehabilitation, engineering, accounting, and any industry. However, you don’t see individuals rehabbing their own post-surgery injuries, designing their own home blue prints, or filing taxes without professional guidance and assistance. Being your own fitness professional comes with a cost and often times that cost is unknow until it is time to pay up.
Two common causes of muscular tightness and joint pain are improper muscle targeting and post exercise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) management.
Every exercise has an optimal position that targets synergistic muscle activation. The result is an exercise performed properly and efficiently without compensation. The further we deviate the greater the carryover into compensatory muscles and joints. This can be one reason for post exercise soreness and pain in unintended areas.
Following a strenuous workout muscle soreness can increase for 48-72 hours post-exercise. DOMS is caused by eccentric loading (controlled lengthening) of a muscle during exercise. This is an effective way of identifying which muscles were targeted during the previous workout. More specifically, did we target the intended muscles that reflect on the exercises chosen? For example, consider an eccentrically dominate lower body day involving squats and lunges. Proper targeting would lead to quadricep, hamstring, gluteal, and mid-back soreness. Compensatory targeting would lead to low back/sacral and adductor (groin) soreness. DOMS management is important to quickly relieve muscle tension and soreness to restore proper functional movement patterns and prevent compensatory movement due to soreness.
Learning how to move your body correctly and efficiently is far more important and effective than replicating what you see on Youtube. Human movement with exercise has intricacies that you will never visually see or mentally process from watching a video. The key to relief from chronic muscular tightness and joint pain is corrective exercising. This means focusing on joint positioning and proper muscle engagement during movement patterns over counting repetitions and calories lost. To learn more research “Corrective Exercising” or find a health & fitness professional who is a Corrective Exercise Specialist or holds a similar certification.
Focused Goals for Life Lasting Relief
1.) Promote Parasympathetic Nervous System (ANS) Relaxation
Body System Function Parasympathetic Sympathetic
Overall Body Response State of Calm Survival Response
Cardiovascular System Decreases Heart Rate Increases Heart Rate
Pulmonary System Bronchial Tubes Constrict Bronchial Tubes Dilate
Musculoskeletal System Muscles Relax Muscles Contract
Adrenal Response Restricted Release Adrenaline Release
Learning to control the physiological inner workings of our body can bring about a higher level of enlightenment. Think yoga! Through deep, conscious breathing, mental focus, and self-massage techniques one can inhibit the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and promote the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Creating relaxation from physical, mental, and emotional stressors is key to preventing future muscle imbalances and risk of injury.
2.) Active Stretching Techniques
Inhibition, or relaxation of a muscle is crucial before introducing stretching techniques. Without applying self-massage first, we are dampening the effects stretching will have on our muscles, tendons, and joints.
Imagine the world’s toughest pickle jar. We can stand there all day trying to pry it open but by applying a few simple techniques first (running under water; tapping with a hammer; having your man try and first first) the lid can become “inhibited” and pried off more effectively!
Just like the several ways to open a pickle jar so are there multiple options for self-massage and stretching.
Passive Stretching – Manipulate body position to exclusively rely on gravity to move a joint into a static position.
Active Stretching – Utilize isolated and synergist muscle activation to move a joint into a static position.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Stretching (PNF) – Promote antagonistic muscle activation to stretch a desired muscle.
Definitions are always a little dry and confusing. Let’s focus on active stretching. It will yield more noticeable results compared to passive stretching and is far less confusing that PNF stretching. All you have to remember is to use muscles to stretch muscles and achieve an increased range of motion over time. For example, if you are performing the famous long seated forward reach stretch (sitting legs straight out in front and reaching for toes) and feel limited by tightness then use the abdominal muscles to draw-in and flex your trunk further forward.
Think of active stretching much like you think of a standard exercise. An active stretch can be broken down into sets, reps, and isometric holds. Referring back to the long seated forward reach stretch:
- Set 1 – 60” Hold – 10 Reps (Forward Reach) – 5” Hold / Rep
- Set 2 – 90” Hold – 15 Reps (Forward Reach) – 3” Hold / Rep
- Set 3 – 20” Hold – 1 Rep (Forward Reach) – 20” Hold
We are disconnected from thinking of active stretching as an exercise because it lacks movement. Our brains have been programmed to associate exercise with movement. Performing active stretching at the end range of restricted positions will effectively improve strength and range of motion.
Since we are treating active stretching the same as any other exercise performed then make sure it lasts just as long. A controlled 10 rep set of squats, leg lifts, or shoulder raises should take 45-60 seconds to complete. Make sure active stretching exercises reflect this time frame. Do away with the notion of holding a stretch for 5-10 seconds and switching. Considering the goal of inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system, or creating a calming effect across the body, extending the duration of an active stretch to 90-120 seconds can have a more cumulative effect on releasing muscle tension.
3.) Isolated Muscle Targeting & Strengthening
Corrective, mindful exercising focusing on concentric, isometric, and eccentric control is the final prescription to correct muscle and joint tightness and manage pain. Control each rep through a full range of motion.
Concentric Phase – Muscle Shortening
Isometric Phase – Static Muscle
Eccentric Phase – Muscle Lengthening
The Two-Second Rule
By adding a tempo to an exercise, we can guarantee increased “time under tension.” This refers to the total duration of an exercise spent in the concentric, eccentric, and isometric phases. More importantly, slow and controlled reps will give the mind more time to process its internal and external environment. Specifically, it helps focus on feeling proper muscles engage, control joint alignment, and facilitate stability throughout the range of motion. Using this technique will help identify the faults and compensations in an exercise and prevent future mistakes from occurring.
Correcting a Lifetime of Posture
Applying targeted strengthening exercises to antagonistic muscles will help relieve unwanted muscular and joint tension. Consider a common issue, low back tightness. This is caused primarily by excessive tightness through lumbar paraspinals, quadratus lumborum (QL), and hip flexors. Due to the actions of these muscles, the pelvic bone is pulled into an anteriorly rotated position. By targeting antagonist muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals, we can promote strength and muscle shortening to pull tension out of tight muscles and realign bones and joints to a neutral position.
How Much Do You See Now?
Identifying and understanding the reasons why we feel restricted or are in pain can lead to quicker, and longer lasting relief. By increasing daily movement, identifying faults in posture, and improving the efficiency and targeting of muscles during workouts we can transform our bodies into a mobile, pain free specimen. This can be achieved through accurate and achievable goal setting including introducing sympathetic nervous system inhibition through self-massage, active stretching techniques to improve functional range of motion, and strengthening of weak muscles to improve body symmetry and alignment.
Please enjoy the videos below for individual guides on relieving specific body tension and managing painful areas.
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