So often we focus our time and energy on trying to get rid of tension. This can help us to reduce our aches and pains to some degree, but it’s only a portion of the puzzle.
When it comes to moving and feeling better in our bodies, we have to have the right amount of tension. So that means, some tension is good and desirable. Instead of only attempting to remove or reduce tension, we should instead be evaluating where we need less tension, where we need more tension, and how to attain a nice level of tensional balance.
One of the many fascinating things about our physiology (and the physiology of all animals that need to move) is that our bodies are actually tensional systems. The soft tissues of our body hold us together, in the literal sense, and allow us to move by adding more or less tension on demand (by muscle contraction and relaxation).
The ability to shorten and lengthen muscles both actively and passively means that we have the ability to alter the degree of tension within that system. When we do this, we create movement because part of being a tensional system means that our bodies are well designed to transfer tension throughout the soft-tissue network of our body. The result of transferring tension to different parts of the body is movement.
How does this relate to reducing our pain?
Firstly, please note that pain is complex, and so this isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. One of the numerous factors contributing to a given painful situation may include some imbalance of tension.
In both situations of adaptive lengthening (too little tension) and adaptive shortening (too much tension) we may experience pain signalling as a result. Both of those terms relate to the nervous system control over flexibility (not the literal length of the muscle).
If we can manage to get the right balance of tension within each of our muscles, we often see a general lessening of those aches and pains many of us encounter.
The strategies/interventions for each of those scenarios (too much/too little tension) overlap, albeit with a different intent/purpose for each of the applications. Let’s talk about this below.
Massage or manual release tools can be effectively applied to help with the following:
- • Adaptively shortened muscle – with long, slow applications of pressure we can utilize the golgi-tendon organ reflex to reduce the neural drive to the muscle, thus giving it a little more baseline length.
- • Adaptively lengthened muscle – by targeting trigger points. Trigger points not only often cause quite a substantial amount of sensation and pain, but they also reduce the ability of the muscle to contract, which could lead to an adaptively lengthened muscle and/or it could reinforce that neural pattern. So releasing trigger points can help with the availability of the muscle for contraction.
The general idea is to load the tissues, as load is somewhat the language of the muscles and connective tissue network. Whilst it can be done passively, we typically get a little more “bang for our buck” when it’s active. We can apply it in the following ways:
- • Adaptively shortened muscle – ideally we’d be loading through a full range of motion (for our individual bodies). This gives more input into the nervous system that over time drives adaptation to keep the muscle at a slightly greater length.
- • Adaptively lengthened muscle – loading (perhaps a bit heavier than the above) through a smaller range. Not that we shouldn’t explore our full range, we just might be looking to encourage the addition of tension in this scenario and so we give the desired range to our nervous system to gradually adapt to.
All of these adaptations are temporary and must be repeated to be kept. So when we find an area that needs either more or less tension to come to our ideal level, we need to do consistent work towards that. Whenever possible too, try to get really specific with your targeted work before building towards larger, more integrated movements.
The extra challenge for you
It’s often difficult to self-evaluate on which muscles are adaptively shortened vs. lengthened, and that’s where your massage therapists and body nerds come into play. For example, our upper traps are often blamed for being “tight”, and yet, for most of us they’re actually adaptively long – whereas a muscle just deep to the upper traps (the levator scapulae) is often the real one behind that sensation of shortness in the shoulders. Being able to distinguish between these helps to target both the manual therapy and the movement tools more accurately and effectively.
If you’re looking to have a play with self evaluation on this, a generalized suggestion would be to try to find movements that are difficult for you – either in their range of motion, or in their ability to be done with control. And we’re not talking about complex movements here, we’re talking simple movements (as in, only one or two muscles are primarily driving the action).
As the general “rule” when you can’t control the movement or perform it for long, this is a muscle you might benefit from building more tension in. When the movement is difficult because the range of motion you have is restricted, then you may benefit from the interventions that help to reduce tension in that muscle.
Good luck hunting for that perfect level of tension 🙂
Continue reading with “Trigger Points: Those “Money Spots” in Massage.“, and “Question everything you think you know about pain.“.