Muscles are meant to operate at a certain length. In fact they are at their optimum power just short of what is called their normal resting length. When a muscle is overworked it can become shortened and tight. This has a knock-on effect throughout the body. Muscles work in pairs or groups and tight, shortened muscles can stress their partner muscles and are themselves under stress.
At the most basic level muscles work in pairs. When one muscle contracts the muscle that performs the opposite motion relaxes so that movement can occur. They need to be balanced in order to work at their most efficient. Any tightness on one side will upset this balance. But it’s not only the opposing muscle that can be affected. That pain you sometimes feel in the back of your shoulder when you’ve been running for a while-well it might just be that it’s related to a problem with the opposite hip, or even the ankle.
Tight muscles on one side can lead to weak muscles on the opposing side. For example, if your job means that you spend a lot of time sitting down, then it’s possible that the muscles that flex the hip can become shortened and tight. This in turn can lead to the muscles that extend the hip becoming weak. Typically in the hip that means the big gluteal muscles become weak and the knock-on effect of that is that your hamstring muscles have to compensate for the the weak gluteal muscles and they in turn become stressed and overworked!
So, what’s the solution? The first thing you need to understand is that there is no point trying to strengthen a weak muscle until you’ve got the shortened muscle back to its proper resting length. In fact strengthening the weak muscle will probably make the problem worse because now you will have tightness on both sides of the joint, reducing flexibility and preventing fluid movement. Manual therapy like massage and manipulation can help relax the stressed muscles and restore length. Simple, regular stretching can help maintain the new length and begin to restore range of motion and flexibility. Left untreated, shortened muscles can lead to tendonitis, a condition that causes inflammation and pain in the tendons.
There are a few simple things you can do to help yourself as you train. Firstly, always make sure you have good posture when you exercise. Shoulder back, round and down, was a phrase my PT always used to repeat as we did various circuits. Don’t just use the mirrors in the gym to admire your biceps, use them to check your posture! You can support your posture too by making sure you include exercises that work the muscles groups you can’t see in the mirror. You could even ask someone to do a simple posture check by looking at the alignment of your ear, shoulder, hip and ankle. Most postural problems lead to a forward head position.
Secondly, make sure you are doing some work on flexibility and that you are stretching regularly. We all know that stretching can be the tedious part of any exercise routine, but we can’t ignore its importance.
Thirdly, build rest and recovery into your training plan. Vary your training load and intensity so that your body gets to recover. And last, but not least, stay hydrated. A 2% fall in hydration can lead to up to 20% loss of function, so keep drinking plenty of water as you train.