Nerdilates: What causes tight muscles?

One of the more common issues our clients deal with when starting an exercise program is chronically tight and sore muscles. If your muscles are tight and sore, then you are not going to move comfortably and fluidly. We at SOMA Movement Studio believe that you should first relax those muscles, then proceed to challenge yourself athletically. There many situations and scenarios that can lead to tight muscles, but all have a unifying theme: some type of stress whether it is mechanical or perceived, causes a unconscious and reflexive contraction who's goal is to protect the muscle and the structures in the body that are associated with it.

Voluntary, or intentional movement originates in the cortex of the brain. Involuntary movement, may not involve the brain at all. Instead reflex loops may be mediated by the spinal cord and nerves in close proximity of the muscle.

Voluntary, or intentional movement originates in the cortex of the brain. Involuntary movement, may not involve the brain at all. Instead reflex loops may be mediated by the spinal cord and nerves in close proximity of the muscle.

A basic understanding the functional anatomy and physiology of the neuromuscular system is necessary to understand chronic, tight muscles. There are main two systems that can initiate muscle contraction; the brain mediated (conscious voluntary system) and the spinal cord mediated (unconscious reflex system). The conscious voluntary system is that one that carries a message from the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, through the spinal cord and nerves, to the muscle to initiate a movement that you thought of. For example, it is this system that moves your arm to pick up a pencil when you want to write something on a piece of paper.

The unconscious reflex system is used when there is not enough time to "think" about a movement. In this system, sensors (neural receptors) in the muscles or skin sense pain, muscular stretch, or other "danger" signals and send those signals to the spinal cord. If the danger message is strong enough, the spinal cord converts this sensory information and sends a message back to the muscle to contract, thus protecting the part of the body in danger. This system does not require input from the brain. An example of this system is when you touch a hot stove and your arm pulls back before you've even realized you've burned yourself.

This unconscious reflex system also responds to stress and chronic mechanical trauma in addition to acute situations. One way to look at stress is that it is a perceived or anticipated danger or fear. Emotions and the ability to anticipate the future predispose us to initiating our body's "danger" response in reaction to stress and anxiety, just the same as we would if we were to encounter dangerous situation, requiring us to defend ourselves. The end result is tight shoulders, necks, backs, etc from constant stress.

The average human head weighs between 10-12 pounds. Head forward posture greatly increases the amount of strain on the neck as the head moves in front of the body. This leads to poor biomechanics, compensatory patterns, and discomfort during exercise.

The average human head weighs between 10-12 pounds. Head forward posture greatly increases the amount of strain on the neck as the head moves in front of the body. This leads to poor biomechanics, compensatory patterns, and discomfort during exercise.

Additionally, mechanical injuries can initiate muscle contraction. The average human head weighs somewhere between 10-12 lbs. Displacement of the head forwards or backwards due to poor posture, even just a few inches, can put an incredible amount of stress on the spine and the muscles that support the spine.  This is analogous to carrying a heavy bucket; everyone knows that it is easier to carry a bucket next to your body than it is to carry it on an outstretched arm. The extra work that bad posture puts on your skeleton and muscle causes them "defend" themselves by contracting. The same applies for repetitive injuries such as pounding the knees with running or typing with unsupported wrists.

There are many causes of chronically tight muscles, and only a few are described here. If you do experience chronic muscle contraction, it is important for you to attempt to address the cause(s) in order to avoid discomfort especially before starting an exercise program where you will be putting even more stress on your body. Improving posture, managing stress, working and functioning in an ergonomic environment, and increasing your fitness level can all help alleviate chronic tightness. Ultimately, you must be aware of the way your body moves and the way you feel, and identify your limitations in order to address them. Then you are moving efficiently and freely, challenging your fitness in a progressive and logical way.

Reclaiming Your Body: More On the Tabula Rasa

Since The Valley Press article came out earlier this week, I've had a couple people ask me to explain more about SOMA Movement Studio's unique approach to exercise (click here for more on our Philosophy & Mission). Our primary goal at SOMA is to teach people how to move more freely and comfortably; fitness then becomes more enjoyable and exercise comes naturally. 

There is nothing magical about our studio. We don't wave a wand and make fitness easy. If your neck and shoulders are chronically tight and sore, and you walk into one of our Pilates classes for the first time off the street, guess what. You'll be doing Pilates with a tight neck and shoulders. What does make our studio different, is our approach to preparing our clients for exercise. This is what we call re-discovering you're body's tabula rasa state of being.

Tabula rasa is a Latin phrase that literally means blank tablet or blank slate. The concept of the tabula rasa refers to the idea that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception. This concept dates back to the Greek Philosopher Aristotle, however, it is the English philosopher John Locke's interpretation of the tabula rasa from the 1600s that SOMA uses as an analogy to our initial approach to movement. 

In Locke's philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that at birth the (human) mind is a "blank slate" without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences. Have you ever watched a healthy, two-year old child run? They have perfect posture, are free of muscle tension, flexible, and move without hesitation. Then as we grow we are introduced to stress, deadlines, early mornings and late nights, unhealthy habits, computers, cell phones, the list goes on. Gradually, the our shoulders round in towards the chest, the head moves forward, the pelvis tucks while the lower back becomes rigid, and our breathing becomes shallow. We begin to avoid certain activities and become complacent with our new state of being. The slate is no longer blank. Evolution now looks like this:

SOMA Movement Studio believes that it is possible to rediscover the freedom of movement we once had as children. We offer movement classes, called Hanna Somatic Movement or Hanna Somatic Re-education, that are focused on identifying the underlying, reflexive muscle activation patterns that interfere our body's ability to move freely. 

A somatic muscle (also known as skeletal muscle), i.e. muscle that moves you (as opposed to the smooth muscle of the vicera or blood vessels), has no internal controls. It simply does what the nervous system (for simplicity's sake, lets say the brain) tells it to do.  A muscle that is cut off from the nervous system is flaccid and loose. Restore input from the nervous system, and the muscle regains tone. A "tight" muscle is one that is simply receiving inappropriate input from the nervous system and so its "tone" is too high. The problem lies in the control center (brain) not in the muscle itself.

So, in order to efficiently address the problem of tight muscles, we must relearn how to control our muscles by consciously overriding these subconscious muscle activation patterns. The mind body connection becomes more of a "how the brain controls the body" connection. Muscles are relaxed through conscious intention rather than by stretching, massaging, or other muscle-centric approaches that only produce fleeting results.  In Hanna Somatic Movement jargon, these subconscious muscle holding patterns are referred to as Somatic Motor Amnesia. So in pictorial terms, our goal at SOMA Movement Studio becomes:

EvolutionSOMA.jpg

So how do you figure out where to start at SOMA Movement Studio? We recommend you start with a Pre-Pilates Introductory Class/Movement Orientation session and then go from there..... Our instructors are always available for advice and clients are encouraged to sample each of the movement regimens that we offer. In general, if you can move freely and comfortably, go ahead and take the more athletically focused classes. If you find you have a restriction or just want to develop better body awareness, try adding Hanna Somatic Movement or Pre-Pilates to the mix. Our classes are designed to be complementary rather than sequential so you can take them in any order at anytime.