Surviving Summit: Talking muscle tension
Excess muscle tension is a normal occurrence that can be caused from a variety of activities. Whether you’re instructing on the mountain or in the office working at a computer all day, muscle tension can strike at any time and leave you with intense pain.
While it’s normal for our muscles to have some degree of tension, problems can start happening when there is excessive tension built up from poor posture and/or overuse.
Thankfully, stretching can help remedy these issues. Let’s be honest, though: Stretching is typically not “fun” for many of us, so it’s commonly rushed through or not performed at all.
But, working on flexibility can actually be very rewarding. It relaxes our muscles, eases our pains and brings some peace to the end of an active day or workout. Most often, a stretching routine is left out because it requires patience, commitment and the right approach, but decreasing muscle tension doesn’t have to involve mindless stretching or hours of your time. Instead, by thinking globally and acting locally, your stretching program can be short and to the point, focusing only on what your body really needs.
Look at the big picture here — think about what your body has to endure throughout your workday and recreational endeavors. Specifically, think about what positions or motions are most frequently performed. This information will help pinpoint what muscles and regions of your body need stretching.
For example, sitting for extended durations can lead to tight hamstrings and hip flexors, which is associated with lower back pain. Another situational example is working on an assembly line, where overuse in the upper neck and shoulder muscles tends to cause pain and even tension headaches.
When you stop and think about what your body is doing, whether being still or in motion, you can really appreciate what regions are most active and need some TLC. So, when you’re thinking globally, try to determine what areas of your body are subject to the most stress.
You can spot an overly tense muscle easily by applying pressure. The culprits are usually tender to the touch, specifically with deep pressure. With skilled hands or enough exploration, one can appreciate taught and tender bands within the muscle — these are called “trigger points.” Trigger points can be incredibly tender locally and even refer pain to other areas of the body.
Muscle tightness and inflexibility are other local signs that will help focus your stretching routine. Sometimes, it’s a simple motion that’s lacking. You might discover it through your daily routines, like flexing forward to tie your shoes. Other times, it might be a more obscure (but still essential) motion, one that is not commonly challenged with day-to-day life. An example of this is extending your spine backwards (the opposite of rounding your lower back) or rotating your hips internally (the opposite of sitting cross-legged).
If a specific motion feels tight and limited, compare side-to-side if there’s a discrepancy. Symmetrical tightness is typically less problematic compared to asymmetrical tightness. For example, if one hamstring muscle is tighter it can pull on the lower back unevenly and cause issues. This asymmetrical tightness might be associated with certain activities that bias one side or motion, such as tennis, snowboarding and golf.
Be sure to do your research and incorporate stretches that target the tissues in need. If you need some direction, a physical therapist can surely get you on the right track.
Releasing muscle tension
When it comes to stretching, it’s mostly all good, although there are some approaches that have gotten bad press. These include ballistic stretching (bouncing in the stretched position) and static stretching (long holds) specifically conducted right before exercise, which is associated with decreased performance.
To reduce excessive muscle tension after activity, aim your focus at static stretching to improve mobility. The ideal sequence for optimal stretching after activity is as follows:
1. Mobilize: Ideally the tissue is mobilized, which can be accomplished with foam rolling or self-massage. This loosens and desensitizes the layers of muscle and fascia tissue. Just be sure you aren’t overly aggressive.
Example: Using a foam roller, massage your glutes, hamstring and calves. Then, use a lacrosse or tennis ball to massage the bottoms of your feet. This sequence will reduce the muscle and fascial tension of the “posterior chain,” which is the interwoven connective tissue at the backside of the legs and lower back.
2. Stretch: Find your target muscle, and then isolate and stretch it for 30-60-second durations. Do a few sets.
Example: After the posterior chain massage, work your stretches from the bottom to the top. Start with the calf muscles, then the hamstrings, then the glutes, and then end with the lower back.
3. Move: Don’t go from stretching back to sitting down. It’s ideal to go for a short walk or actively move your body through the new range of motion. The idea is to bring the new motion you’ve just recuperated back into function, as this is what helps maintain the benefits of your stretching program.
Restoring or maintaining optimal flexibility can be quite challenging. It takes time, dedication and the right direction. When done correctly and consistently, though, the rewards are amazing: less painful tension, more mobility and better performance.
Be sure to use these simple strategies to identify and address your taut and tender tissues. While our busy winter season may be winding down, our tight muscles have been winding up — so get your stretch on!
Eric Dube is a licensed physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist with Howard Head Sports Medicine in Summit County.
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