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Edition 68: Master The Basics Of Muscle Release To Realise Your Physical Potential
I began this year by running through some of the ‘atomic habits’ that have had the biggest contribution to my life in terms of health, wellness, and physical progression. Some of those habits have been exercise related, for example lifting heavy, sprinting, or carrying out explosive plyometric movements, while some have been simply about resting and recovering efficiently, using heat and cold for health benefits, or carrying out low intensity exercise on a daily basis.
Another of these habits of mine I am going to introduce today is multi-faceted and does not necessarily come with any predetermined attainment goals we should all be striving for in order to meet our physical potential. This is simply a general tool I believe is crucial we all have at our disposal to help optimise how we move and feel as a being, and that tool I will refer to as ‘muscle release’.
We all have tight muscle fibres in various places throughout our body (some of us more than others!). Some muscle groups work harder than others based on how we choose to stand, walk, run, lift or even watch TV and sleep. Our habits create these biases which can rapidly develop into areas of ‘hypertonic’ muscle - an engine that cannot switch off. It is the pulling effect of these tight muscles on their tendons (and crucially, the bones these tendons attach to), which alters our posture either acutely or chronically, and causes the small or large changes to the way we consciously or subconsciously move our body.
We develop our movement biases from birth - think of them as your favourite way to move subconsciously. Your path of least resistance. For example, if you were laying on your stomach on the floor and I asked you to get to your feet as quickly as possible, how would you carry out that action? You may lift your chest off the ground, but to what degree? Then place your arms in front of your chest and push up as you flex your hips - but how much do you flex your hips compared to somebody else? Which arm do you lean into more to generate force as you push? And finally, to complete your movement, you might flex your knees and hips even further to bring them underneath your centre of mass - but some people don’t like bending their knees! This action can look wildly different for 50 different human beings because we all have biases based on the degree of tightness, strength and mobility in the muscles around our body.
Well, using this concept, it is possible to test yourself in some fundamental human movements and begin to understand where you are tight and overworking, and where you are long, weak, and lacking muscle density and activity. I have many clients for example, with super active upper traps (due to lack of posterior shoulder strength/stability and excessive slouching). Being aware of this hyperactive muscle is the first step towards releasing it on a regular basis and slowly but surely reversing some of the detrimental effects to posture. Other typically hypertonic muscles for our sedentary society include:
Psoas / Hip flexors
So how do we go about releasing this tightness? This is where our knowledge of the tools for muscle release come to our rescue. Personally, I am a fan of using a foam roller a few times per week for 5 minutes, paying for a sports massage perhaps once every couple of months (sometimes more frequently if mid-football season), using a massage ball daily for a minute or two at home to roll my feet or shoulder blade area, and occasionally using a massage gun at home. Often I’ll also just use my fingers and thumbs to find an area I am feeling tight, and jab down hard on that spot until I release the tension - this might be when I’m just laying in bed. Here is a rundown of those techniques and how they can help you:
1) Sports Massage
Sports massage involves applying various massage techniques to target specific muscles and areas of the body. It aims to reduce muscle tension, improve flexibility, enhance recovery, and prevent injuries. The therapist may use techniques like kneading, deep tissue massage, stretching, and friction to release muscle tension.
I get my sports massages with Sophie Lee - a brilliant therapist (and talented footballer), who I coached many moons ago and have known for 10 years - she is highly recommended!
2) Foam Rolling
Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, involves using a foam roller to apply pressure to specific muscles and trigger points. By rolling the body over the foam roller, muscle tension and tightness can be alleviated, promoting muscle recovery and flexibility.
A scientific study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the effects of foam rolling on muscle performance and recovery. The study found that foam rolling led to acute improvements in range of motion and flexibility. It also significantly reduced muscle soreness and improved muscle performance, suggesting that foam rolling can effectively release muscle tension and aid in recovery.
3) Massage Ball
A massage ball is a small, firm ball that can be used to target specific muscles and trigger points (I’m pictured below using a larger medicine ball!). By applying pressure to these areas and rolling the ball slowly and repeatedly over the affected area, muscle tension and tightness can be relieved.
4) Massage Gun
A massage gun, also known as a percussion massager, is a handheld device that delivers rapid and repetitive strokes to targeted muscles. The percussive force helps relax tense muscles, increase blood flow, and relieve muscle soreness.
A scientific study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research investigated the effects of a massage gun on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The study found that using a massage gun significantly reduced muscle soreness and improved muscle recovery compared to a control group. The researchers concluded that massage guns can effectively alleviate muscle tension and promote recovery after intense physical activity.
5) Fingers & Thumbs
Sometimes, if you want something done right - you gotta do it yourself. Using fingers and thumbs to apply direct pressure on specific muscles and trigger points is a common technique employed in various massage therapies. This manual technique can help release muscle tension and promote relaxation. I personally find myself doing this more often than any of the other techniques - it is so easy to have a poke around your body, find an acute spot which is tighter than it is supposed to be, jam your thumb in there HARD, hold it… keep holding… massage a bit while still holding, and then release. Job done.
Give these techniques a try! They can be valuable tools for anybody seeking to relieve muscle tension and enhance their overall physical well-being.
“The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers, and crooked men” - Henry David Thereau