[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mariska Breland, founder and instructor of Fuse Pilates, where she reminds us of some essential principles of muscle anatomy.]
A fundamental truth of anatomy is that an overly tight muscle (or connective tissue) will inhibit its opposing muscle’s strength.
What was once the result of MS-related weakness for me has become a structural issue from walking not-quite-right for years, to walking flat-out-wrong for a few years beyond. Structural issues are formed from habits. These habits can range from anything, for instance, from talking on the phone too much (creating that kink in the neck) to poor posture. Today, unless I’m standing, my ankle doesn’t come up to a 90 degree angle towards my leg and doing a calf stretch for 5 to 10 minutes twice a day at this point won’t cut it. I found that as much as I tried to strengthen the muscles to flex my foot, it wasn’t working because the tightness in the back of my leg wouldn’t allow it.
This can also happen in women (and some adventuresome gents…Prince comes to mind), that live in their high heels (another form of habit). Wearing high-heeled shoes will cause shortening of the calf muscles and Achilles tendons. In addition, heels shift the pelvis into an undesirable position, though simultaneously making your legs look awesome. Those trendy heels I used to love aren’t so good for balanced leg muscles which yoga and Pilates are ideal for maintaining.
Think about it like this: If your bicep is contracting, it shortens, so your tricep has to lengthen. If both contracted at the same time, your arm couldn’t bend.
The simplest reason muscles become tight is that they aren’t stretched or taken through their range of motion sufficiently. The cause may also be neurological as a reaction to things like stress, or it could be a biomechanical problem where the body will tighten around a joint that it recognizes as unstable to protect from further injury.
Other causes of tightness include overuse, which can produce micro tears in the muscles. Those tears result in the muscles tightening to protect themselves. It is also possible to overstretch. When the body feels you are over-stretching, it activates the stretch reflex where the muscle contracts to stop you from injuring it during overly ambitious stretch exercises.
Of course, it could always be a combination of more than one thing.
How to fix a muscle that’s weak?
When you properly stretch a tight muscle (and the surrounding connective tissue), its antagonist muscle (the one that does the opposite job), theoretically can spontaneously increase in strength. In addition to regular Pilates and yoga, there are devices you can use to harness the stretch, such as the stretch brace that I now wear for hours and hours and hours on end, all with the goal of stretching out the tight leg muscles that are making my foot flexion difficult.
The ultimate goal: No pain and walking with a better gait, even when fashion wins over dorsiflexion and I break out the high heels.
A Tip: The next time you feel weak in one body part, look at the one that does the opposite motion and ask yourself, are you weak or tight? Or maybe both?
Stay hard core,
Fuse Pilates, developed in 2005 by fitness expert Mariska Breland, builds on traditional Pilates exercises and teaching styles with an original, fun, and highly effective twist on Pilates mat and apparatus classes. Prompted by the growing popularity of the Fuse Pilates method, Breland partnered with Roxanna Hakimi and Sormeh Youssefieh to open the Fuse Pilates Playground in Washington DC’s trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood in June 2011. Each Fuse class is different, uniquely customized to student requests and choreographed to upbeat music. Classes offer an intense yet approachable method of mat, tower, reformer and chair instruction, along with private coaching and wellness counseling for beginner to expert levels. Fuse Pilates’ highly trained and experienced instructors concentrate on 360 degrees of the body to shape and create beautifully-toned physiques while promoting overall health and wellness. To learn more about Fuse Pilates visit http://www.fusepilates.com/.
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