How do you know whether to stretch or strengthen? Often when we feel a muscle tighten, we immediately think that we need to stretch. Do we really know what the tightness in the muscle means? Is it tight from overuse, or is it atrophied? Atrophy is defined as “wasting away in a living body with lessening of size and strength… emaciation.” There are several situations that can lead a muscle or group of muscles to atrophy. It is useful to know how a muscle may be atrophied and how we can learn to tell the difference between atrophy and overuse.
Accidents and injuries are the most common precursors to atrophy. An accident could be a fall, crash, slip or trip that then leads to an injury. The injury can range from a bruise or inflammation, to a tear or even breakage. Atrophy can occur after the mildest or most severe situation. Regardless of the cause of the atrophy, what can start to occur is an interruption in the brain’s ability to send the muscles a message to fire, or engage and to act in a natural way.
Due to the injury and depending on the severity, we often need rest, ice, elevation, or possibly even surgery. During this period of rest and recuperation, the brain continues to not send the message to fire or engage to those muscles in order to protect them. Over time, our body develops a habit of not using these muscles and relies on the rest of the self; this is referred to as “compensating.” This built-in reaction is our self-preservation and thank goodness we have it. It keeps us alive. However, once the injury is in recovery the habit remains. The compensations have taken over and without awareness this will never change.
There are two specific ways to know when a muscle has atrophied. One, is noticing the size of the muscle. Has it decreased in size? Secondly, are you able to contract or fire the muscle? An atrophied muscle is nearly impossible to fire, or it has a delayed response in firing. Theoretically, a healthy muscle can immediately fire and will contract. You can test and compare one side to the other on yourself. In your mind you should be able to tell yourself to “contract” and the muscle will fire/engage. Can you do this on the site of injury? Most likely it will be severely delayed. If you have had surgery, it may be so atrophied that it barely fires at all.
Extreme atrophy can occur when a long time, perhaps even years, have passed since the onset of an injury. This feels like your muscle has become so tight that despite your efforts to stretch, it will never release. In fact, it may even feel as if the muscle may even snap, as if there is no juice left in it. This is atrophy, not tightness from overuse. It is critical for you to go through these two tests to determine if your muscle is tight due to atrophy or to overuse.
Overuse of a muscle can also occur from an injury. Overused muscles are the muscles compensating for the atrophied muscles. Similar to an atrophied muscle, the overused muscle won’t likely release due to the brain telling the muscle to “protect” and “preserve” itself. The only way to get an overused muscle group to let go from compensating is for the injured muscle to begin to work again to activate and perform. Then the overworked muscles will let go. It’s hard for us to understand, but there is a whole dialogue going on inside your brain with your body. Over the past 25 years of working with thousands of individuals I will tell you that most likely, especially if you have had an injury, both situations are going on. I hope to create a way for you to know and understand what your body is doing so that you can strengthen, stretch, or do both to address the situation.
I have found that after bringing strength back to the atrophied area, healing and recovery begins immediately, returning the body to a higher functioning level. Stretching alone will take you nowhere. Strengthening and stretching are equally important. Add in the strength first and get those atrophied muscles to start firing and regaining some strength. Then apply stretching during your cool down. You will be amazed at how quickly you will start to recover feeling balanced again.
How to evaluate yourself:
- Did you have an injury? If so what part of yourself did you injure?
- Can you fire the muscles that are injured? Compare the injured side to your healthier side. Is there a delay? Less strength? No strength?
- Do you have visual and noticeable reduction in the size of the muscle?
- Do you have tightness in the muscle that never changes despite your efforts to stretch?
Now that you have identified the atrophied muscle(s), it is time to strengthen them. You may want to seek out advice from a trained professional like a Physical Therapist to help you determine the muscle groups you need to begin strengthening. They can help you develop a program or a routine. Next, get started with that routine and be diligent. It is going to be hard work because these muscles have been lax for quite some time. However, the more consistent you are, the faster your recovery will be. Notice if the compensating (tight) muscles begin to loosen on their own. Most of all remember it is critical for you to learn how to feel, sense, and become aware of yourself to make a change and to restore freedom of movement back into your life!