One of the biggest reasons people hold off starting to exercise is joint pain. Understandable, since exercise can often make muscle or joint pain worse. But there are simple steps you can take to minimise pain during workouts (as well as daily life), and keep it from coming back.
You probably know: Regular movement is important for maintaining lifelong health. Being pain-free and not worried about injury is important if you want to keep moving. Increasing daily movement is a clear path to improving your health, or simply feeling better than you do right now. The right movement can be the medicine your body needs to get rid of sore spots.
Ready to get pain free?
These three DIY steps focus primarily on loosening and lengthening your muscles and connective tissues – leading to decreased joint stress – and then improving muscle strength. Follow these steps. You’ll keep your body working efficiently and minimize the stiffness and pain that can prevent good quality movement.
Step 1: Loosen
Muscles that are too tight don’t work efficiently. Excessive muscle tension can decrease how quickly a muscle can contract and how much force it can contract with. Since the speed and force of contraction are what creates movement and supports your body, this is less than optimal. Plus, tight muscles generally don’t feel good.
There are many reasons you might have tight muscle. Muscles can spasm and hold tension to protect a sore or injured area. Tension can build from long-standing compensations that result from an injury or tissue damage. It can also be caused by posture and occupational or lifestyle demands.
“Loosen” is step one because it has the greatest impact on the other two steps. A muscle with optimal tension and with minimal adhesions – what we commonly think of as “knots” – will be able to stretch and strengthen better.
Different loosening techniques include:
1. Hands-on techniques like deep tissue massage or remedial massage therapy, myofascial release, and trigger point therapy, and
2. Self-massage techniques using a foam roller, trigger point ball, massage sticks, and other similar tools.
You can also help manage muscle tension by staying hydrated, putting heat on tight muscles, and not holding your body in any one position for too long.
Step 2: Lengthen
Muscles that are too short can lead to poor joint alignment and repetitive strain or overuse injuries. Tight areas of muscle don’t stretch well, and can potentially cause the tissues around them to overstretch. So for most people, stretching after doing soft tissue work gives the best results. Quality stretching keeps joints moving freely and easily. It also can prevent tension build-up caused by poor postures and movement patterns that shorten and stress muscles.
There are many ways that you can stretch, like traditional static stretching, PNF stretching, or partner variations like assisted stretching. No matter what you choose, aim to hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. It takes at least that long for the tissues to develop flexibility; shorter and they seem to bounce back to original length like a rubber band.
One caveat to the Lengthen step: If you are hypermobile (i.e. double jointed), stretching can make things worse. In hypermobility conditions, the tissues surrounding a joint are long and loose, giving the joint very high degrees of movement (aka joint laxity). This can increase injury risk when you add more stretching on top of it. Since your body’s #1 goal is to not get hurt, ever, the reaction to this laxity is to create more tension in the tissues around the joint. Tension makes you feel like you need to stretch, but that’s actually the opposite of what your body needs. If you are hypermobile, skip this step and do more self-massage (or go for a good remedial massage) to decrease muscle tension. Building muscle strength (step three) will decrease feelings of muscle tension and decrease injury risk.
Step 3: Strengthen
The first two steps are all about getting the tight, short muscles ready to contract. Step three starts with turning the weaker muscles on, and building into a well balanced strength program.
Weaker muscles tend to be underactive, and hold less tension. These are the muscles or areas that your strength program should focus more on during the early stages. For many people, these are the muscles directly opposite the tight muscles you would be working to loosen and lengthen. Common short/tight and long/weak pairs include:
- Glutes (weak) and hip flexors (tight)
- Rhomboids and middle and lower traps (weak) and pecs and delts (tight)
- Deep neck flexors (weak) and upper traps (tight)
Everyone has their own unique sets of weak and tight muscles, and these sets can impact different movements differently, even in the same body. If you are planning your own program, get some advice from a coach or trainer who will help you determine your weakest links. This is a useful shortcut to an effective program that will build a strong foundation, decrease injury risks, and make any ongoing physical activity or exercise much more effective.
Once your weak muscles are starting to geta bit stronger, you’ll get more benefit from a more balanced program. The best programs are created based on both your physical needs and the types of movement you enjoy. They can include components of body-weight exercises, band-resisted exercises, yoga, Pilates, and traditional dumbbell-and-barbell strength training. Anything that makes you work will get you stronger.
Putting it together
How much time you should spend in each of these stages will depend on your starting point. To figure this out when starting with a client, I look at current movement quality, normal activity levels, injury and health history, lifestyle, and goals. The art of creating the best program for YOU means understanding what your body needs in order to handle the activities you love, and then simply working through the steps. If you have questions about how these steps apply to you, please reach out and ask.
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