Author: Julie Bacon

Licensed Massage Practitioner, Seattle Athletic Club Downtown

Tricks of the Trade: How We Make Muscles Relax

There are several tools that can be used so loosen tight muscles without causing any pain, and in many cases, banishing any feeling of pain in the muscle that might have been felt before treatment. There is Hold/Relax Stretching, Reciprocal Inhibition, Positional Release Therapy, and Eccentric Contraction, to name a few.

Hold/Relax Stretching is an osteopathic technique in which the practitioner passively stretches a muscle until a small amount of resistance is felt, at which point the patient is asked to contract with equal effort against the resistance provided by the practitioner. This results in an “isometric contraction” in which no movement occurs. This sequence is repeated several times (where each point of resistance is felt) until there is no more stretch to be had, resulting in the muscle reaching its normal length. When this type of stretching is used to remove skeletal deviations when tight muscles pull bones out of alignment, it’s called Muscle Energy Technique.

Next we have Reciprocal Inhibition, which takes advantage of the way the body is “wired.” Most muscles have opposing muscles, such as biceps/triceps or hamstrings/quadriceps. If one wanted to put an ice cream cone to his/her mouth, they would be contracting their biceps. Your body is “hard-wired” so that the opposing muscle (triceps) will automatically relax, allowing the biceps its action. So, say a person was lying on their back, knees up and feet together. We want to make the inside muscle (adductor) relax, but if we try a Hold/Relax stretch, the adductor hurts as we ask it to contract. No problem: we have them press against our resistance on the outside of their knee with their opposing muscle, hold for several seconds, and the adductor will lower into a stretch, pain free!

Positional Release Therapy (PRT) is a technique consisting of passively placing clients’ limbs in various positions, each of which constitutes complete slack (and is painless) for a tight muscle being treated. Each position is held for 90 seconds, which is sufficient time for the nervous system to decide that, since there is no pain at that site, it no longer needs to send a guarding signal. Passive replacing of the limb renders the muscle’s tender point pain free. This is a very relaxing protocol for the whole body (mentally as well as physically), and is particularly effective for neck and low back areas, IT Bands, etc.

Eccentric Contraction is the perfect way to not only get a muscle to “let go,” but also make it’s movement very clean and not restricted in any way. (For the bicep muscles, this is the action of slowly lowering one’s self from a “chin-up”.) Let’s say one has a tight left piriformis, or lateral rotator of the hip. The patient would be lying prone with the left knee bent at a 90 degree angle so the calf is perpendicular to the thigh. Pulling the calf outward (to the left) is restricted. I would take the calf at the ankle all the way over to the patient’s right, then have them “resist me, but let me win” as I pulled the bent leg over to the left. We would repeat this action several times, each time getting farther, and producing freer movement. I suspect this exercise somehow “scrubs” muscle fibers clean of adhesions, which allows the muscle to stretch to its full length, with noticeably more freedom of movement.

By communicating with the nervous system, and using several forms of muscle contraction such as eccentric (“putting on the brakes” as the muscle is stretched), isometric (contraction, but no movement occurs), reciprocal inhibition (contracting the opposing muscle), as well as just placing a muscle in a position of complete slack (Positional Release Therapy), we can easily obtain relaxation for muscles, as well as full range of motion – all without solutions which are often time-consuming … and painful!

Ice is Nice, but it can be Even Better

Most people know to ice as soon as possible after sustaining an injury, but did you know that if you ice correctly, you can often avoid more serious injury? By serious injury I mean the kind that causes recurring pain for weeks or more and won’t go away with just rest. The key is simple – as soon as you can, ice in a stretched position and ice until you’ve removed all excess heat from the injured area, so that it’s the same temperature as healthy tissue adjacent to the injury.

Icing in a stretched position is critical. For example, if you strained a hamstring, you would place the ice bag directly under the injury and sit on it, on the floor (or 2 chairs), with your leg completely straight and your torso upright against the wall (or chair back). A strained calf could require slightly different stretches: depending on which muscle is injured (there are several). The entire leg could be straight and the foot stretched back toward you with a strap. Or, the knee should be bent while the calf is stretched, and so on. If you’re not sure of the specific stretch for a certain muscle, (or if you don’t know which muscle is injured) ask any of our yoga instructors, personal trainers or massage practitioners.

Briefly, icing in a stretched position achieves two results. First, placing the muscle in a tight stretch causes newly forming scar tissue to be aligned parallel to muscle or tendon fibers. Icing ensures that the scar tissue hardens or cements in this proper alignment. Misaligned scar tissue can result in re-injury: recurring pain with a specific activity. (A massage practitioner trained in injury treatment can help to resolve the issue.) Second, icing until all excess heat is removed diminishes any secondary injury that may be caused by cell death due to lack of oxygen. (Swelling increases interstitial fluid between cells, spreading them farther apart so nutrients have to travel farther to get to cells.) Icing lowers the temperature and slows cell metabolism, decreasing the amount of oxygen needed to survive.

While we’re at it, stretching need not necessarily be part of your warm up. A “warm up” is just that – increasing the temperature in your muscles. A high velocity, low resistance activity is recommended, such as the stationary bike. Spin like crazy (with slight resistance) until you break a sweat – now you’re warmed up. While I recognize that for elite athletes stretching is a mandatory part of their warm up, it’s probably OK for the rest of us to save the stretching until after your athletic activity, when you are at your very warmest.

I’ll finish with a specific incident: while on break during my massage shift I passed one of our trainers in the juice bar. She had just returned from a run and was alarmingly incapacitated, hardly able to walk, and in a great deal of pain. “Bacon!!” she says, “You’ve got to fix me!!” I told her that, as she had just done it, there was nothing for me to fix yet (scar tissue was only just starting to form). I told her to ice herself in a stretched position. When I saw her next, she was lying on her belly, propped up on her elbows, (effectively stretching her hip flexors) resting on a bag of ice at her upper thigh/groin region. The very next day, she was moving with only the slightest limitation and fully recovered, needing no further treatment.

Recovery Massage & Maintenance Massage: Two Applications of Sports Massage

Sports Massage techniques consisting of flat, broad-hand compressions, jostling, and kneading are generally done without oil with the athlete draped (under sheets) or in loose clothing/ athletic attire. Deep gliding strokes with oil can also be used, with the overall purpose being to clean and prime the muscles by increasing circulation. The difference between Recovery Massage and Maintenance massage is in their application. Recovery Massage facilitates recovery from competition or a strenuous training session and is applied soon after the activity. Maintenance Massage is received on a regular basis by athletes as part of their training regimen. Its purpose is to help athletes maintain optimal physical condition during training.

Recovery Massage is administered for the uninjured athlete soon after the activity. It should last no more than 30 minutes and is essentially a post-event Sports Massage. This somewhat immediate, shorter duration application can reduce the athlete’s recovery time from an event by half and is designed to minimize the physiological effects of the activity. Several hours after or the next day, the Recovery Massage could last as much as one hour, although post-exercise soreness may have already developed. Jostling coaxes the nervous system to let muscles relax, compressions and deep gliding strokes increase circulation, promoting better cell nutrition and removal of waste products.

Maintenance massage consists of general recovery massage on the entire body with specific attention to problem areas, concentrating on tight and sore muscles, stiff joints and former injury sites. Sports massage techniques are effective in addressing tension and improving muscle flexibility, thereby restoring normal Range of Motion. Although the jury is still out as to the cause of post- exercise soreness and pain, broad-hand compressions of Sports Massage can successfully alleviate this condition: pressure used is administered lightly at first, increasing proportionally as the pain diminishes, until all muscle discomfort is eliminated.

By increasing circulation of blood and lymph, Recovery and Maintenance Massage carry away waste products or metabolites, promote cell nutrition, reduce edema and expedite healing of damaged tissues. They calm the nervous system and restore Range of Motion. Afterwards, athletes should feel relaxed and refreshed.

Alleviate Your Computer Posture Discomfort

Repeatedly during the course of a massage, I have raked muscles between the scapula and thoracic spine and found them to be hard, tight and painful to the client who immediately pleads with me to work right there – that’s where they want me to provide them with relief. Unfortunately, it’s out of my hands, literally! Why? These muscles are typically stretched tight (like a rubber band) because they are weak; they are under tensile stress, and losing the battle against gravity. Most massage practitioners will agree that all the manipulating in the world will not relieve these muscles: they remain just as tight and painful at the end of the massage. It might feel good (or painful) to have them worked on but this is only palliative. The real solution to your discomfort is to strengthen these muscles yourself.You will learn five strengthening exercises that can banish your discomfort and/or improve your posture for these specific areas:

  1. Neck (Forward Head Posture)
  2. Upper Traps (Tensile Stress)
  3. Mid Traps (Tensile Stress; “Rounded Shoulders” or Forward Shoulder Posture)
  4. Descending Traps (Shoulders curled Forward/Down)
  5. Thoracic Erectors (“Slump” or excessive Kyphotic Curve in Thoracic Spine)

A great witticism that I’ve grown fond of is this: “Nobody likes to drink out of a fire hose.” That’s what’s so great about these exercises: no 3 sets of 30 reps etc. Each one can be done using your body weight, just ONE time, for as long as you can hold it (to fatigue). I’d prefer you do them nightly, right before bed, but you can also do them in your office chair and/or on the carpet if necessary.

Computer Posture Exercises:
Shoulder Shrug (targets shoulder tension)
Lift shoulders as high as you can (arms hanging down). They should reach almost as high as your earlobes. Contract your shoulder muscles as hard as you can – so hard they tremble. Keep lifting/trembling for 20 –30 seconds. Now lower the shoulders slowly –dropping them too quickly can trigger spasm.

Forward Bend vs. Neck Extension (targets neck tension)
Perform a forward bend. Keeping knees straight, lace fingers together and extend arms over your back/head as far as possible. Now, without changing your position, lift your head back in opposition. (The tendency is to let arms down / back up as your head comes up.) Pit these two actions against each other in an isometric contraction for 20 seconds, then bend your knees, and return to standing (slowly).

Superman (targets longitudinal tension between your shoulder blades)
(Caused by descending fibers of the trapezius being weak and overstretched). It combats scapulae curling forward and down. Lying face-down and resting forehead on the floor, place arms in front of head. Upper arms should be at a 45 degree angle, elbows bent and forearms pointing straight forward. Lift arms off the floor and hold them in this position until you can’t anymore.

Iron Cross (targets tension across the top of the shoulder blades)
(Named after the gymnastic feat performed on the rings.) Targets tension across the top of your shoulder blades caused by weak, overstretched mid-fibers of the trapezius. It prevents shoulders rounding and curling inward. Lying face-down and resting forehead on the floor, stretch arms out to the side, perpendicular to your body. Make a fist, turn your thumbs up toward the ceiling, and lift your arms off the floor. Hold until you can’t any more.

Swan Dive (targets longitudinal tension along your thoracic spine)
It prevents forward slumping of thoracic spine, forward head posture and medial rotation of shoulders. (This is the grand-daddy of them all, if you’re only going to do one exercise, do this one!) Lying face-down, arms down at sides, lift head, neck and chest off floor, squeeze shoulder blades together while externally rotating arms by sticking thumbs out like a hitch-hiker. Hold until you can’t anymore.

Restorative Yoga (this is your big reward)
Using a bolster, yoga block or rolled up towel, position it horizontally directly inferior to the bottom edge of your shoulder blades – this is approximately half way down your thoracic spine. Resting in this position for up to 5 minutes lets the force of gravity work to undo excessive bowing forward by bending you backward!!