The term reciprocal inhibition might not mean much to you but there are few things that affect your body more regularly. The theory of reciprocal inhibition states that “When the central nervous system sends a message to the agonist (muscle causing movement) to contract, the tension in the antagonist (muscle opposing movement) is inhibited by impulses from motor neurons, and thus must simultaneously relax”, taken from Massage Therapy Principles & Practices by Susan Salvo. What this means is that our muscles act in pairs and coordinate with each other by simultaneously relaxing and contracting as a protective measure to help keep us from injury. If both opposing muscles were to fire simultaneously, not allowing the other to relax, a tear in the muscle may occur. A common example of this is running. The action of striking the ground will send impulses from the central nervous system to contract and relax opposing muscles (hamstrings and quadriceps) to ensure a fluid and safe motion.
Although much of reciprocal inhibition is controlled subconsciously, we can use this principle to “trick” the body during a stretch in order to achieve a greater range of motion. For example, if the goal is to stretch the hamstrings, contracting the quadriceps upon reaching a near end range of motion will allow for the hamstrings to relax further, thus increasing the stretch. Another example of this is during a stretch involving the chest muscles (pectoralis major/minor). Upon reaching the end range of motion of this stretch, contract the muscles located directly behind the shoulder (rear deltoid/mid trapezious) to send a signal to your body forcing the chest muscles to relax further.
Stretching should be an essential part of everyone’s workout, however simply stretching alone is not the most efficient way to ensure a proper muscular balance in your body. Although there are many different forms of stretching that can have dramatic effects on increasing range of motion, without addressing strength and tension imbalances of the opposing muscles, these results are often only temporary. If the goal is to stretch the muscles of the chest in order to correct a forward shoulder tilt, it is crucial to also strengthen the muscles of the back that are responsible for holding the shoulders in place. To correct the pelvis from excessive forward tilt, it would be important to not only stretch the hip flexors but strengthen the glutes as well. By strengthening these opposing muscles you will ease the pull created by muscles that are too tight, allowing for the range of motion gained through stretching to have a long lasting effect. If you would like to know more about properly balancing your workouts or more information on how to stretch effectively, please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Will Paton.