Muscle Function and Release

Muscles function mostly by lengthening and shortening. Most mainstream treatments of muscle function ignore the lengthening because shortening (contracting) is believed to be the extension of human will and "how the work is done". Lengthening is considered passive and taken for granted. Graceful and pleasureable movement however, requires that opposing muscles work in unison, some shortening, some lengthening. An over-simple model of muscle function states that muscles only lengthen when a different muscle, gravity, or a mechanical force pulls on them. This does not take into account the role of reducing contraction stimulus to the muscle that should lengthen. General states of alarm or vigilance can keep even opposing sets of muscles more or less continuously tense.

Over-time muscles shorten chronically and this is probably related to connective tissue elements (the 'fibro' part of fibromyalgia) Because of anatomy, in many parts of the body, chronically shortened muscles are matched with opposing muscles that are overlong. Chronically shortened and chronically over-lengthened muscles are both weak, because it is a certain middle range of length at which the filaments are optimally overlapped..

A large part of the sensation or feeling of relaxation comes from the perception of muscles that are fully energized, at optimal length, and ready to do work. However, doing work is not necessary, and a relaxed state is appropriate for resting or going to sleep. After muscles contract, discharging some energy, they must take in energy to fully un-contract and relax. That is why rigor mortis sets in; a few hours after death all the energy molecules (ATP) is gone from the muscles and they cannot lengthen or shorten. A continuously tight or contracted muscle is usually an exhausted muscle. Chronic tension disappears from awareness, however. Often people only become aware of muscle only when they have found a way to lessen it (but of course without awareness, they are usually not in search of such a way.) Tense muscles may be dense and bulky, but not necessarily. Good-willed but untrained palpation may fail to detect tension. Some signs of muscle tension are:

Ironically, a large amount of chronic muscle contraction may lead to frenetic, un-graceful, constant activity as the will power and mind try to overcome the depletion. Chronic muscle contraction also leads to difficulty falling asleep, and rumination.

As mentioned above, muscles shorten when a person is alarmed, or frightened, or humiliated, but they also shorten or contract to hold back a response. When a body is under constant stress, or is exhausted, or unable to take up energy, the muscles tend to stay contracted. There is also a part of nervous system in the muscle called gamma-motor units which fire continuously at a baseline level to keep some tonus. Under sympathetic shift, the tonus is higher than it needs to be. Shortening becomes chronic, and the elastic but non-contractile connective tissue elements of muscles and tendons shorten. Shortened muscles decrease feeling overall, but when feeling is increased because of a strong stimulus, tight muscles imbue the situation with a tone of fear and worry.

This view of relaxation is of course at odds with the mainstream cultural belief that holds that relaxation will be the result of either accomplishing enough (attainment), or holding the right thoughts ('figuring it out'). If one starts working with the body, however, personal experience is usually convincing about what really provides relaxation.

Muscles that are weak and chronically lengthened must be allowed to shorten and gently exercised in a way that does not keep over lengthening them. This is truly tricky. A traditional physical therapy way is to apply a brace that limits the range of motion for that muscle, but bracing is overseen by the medical field and truly out of fashion there. What may in fact be best for overstretched muscles is alignment as discussed below.

Yoga asanas are a process obviously aimed toward tuning muscles to optimal length, strength and tension. However, the instructional tradition is geared to a body that is not too far from the optimal already. The overwhelming number of modern American bodies, even aerobically fit ones, are not prepared for it and struggle in yoga class, receiving an endorphin response but not re-alignment. An investment in true Pilates studio work is well worth it, because this has a truly remedial focus. .

Release: Muscles that are chronically short must lengthen again to relax and be ready for satisfying movement. In bodywork this is sometimes called 'release', and I'd like to group it into nine general strategies for releasing shortened muscles:

  1. stretching
  2. moderate exercise with the muscle
  3. employing vibration
  4. bringing muscle tension into awareness
  5. warming
  6. direct massage
  7. improving alignment
  8. expression of emotion, especially anger and sadness.
  9. visualization

Stretching: Stretch is not synonymous with lengthening. Stretch implies creating a tension in the muscle and connective fibers that does not necessarily arise in all lengthening methods. Stretching has the advantage of being intuitive to our culture of doers—that is, it seems like doing something. In stretching, will power can be applied to the body, but then this also undermines the basic goal, since will power tends to contract muscles overall. Gravity can be employed to stretch what it usually compresses, however, with the use of an inversion table. An inversion table has the advantage of being somewhat immune to the over-use of the will, because one just 'hangs around,' and there is no way to try to perfect the maneuver. The nature of stretching has its own page.

Exercise Moderate exercise will discharge tension from a muscle, and the muscle, in restoring itself, will replenish itself with energy and lengthen. If there was a modest contraction from stress in the first place, the end result will usually be less contraction than when the exercise was started. That is why office workers usually feel more relaxed after working out or taking a walk. The first stages of 'Progressive relaxation' , in which muscles are isometrically contracted and then 'let go', is based on this.

Heavy exercise may be a different matter. When the body is stressed cardio-vascularly, muscles that do not need to tighten usually do anyway. Joseph Pilates felt strongly that strong exertion was bad for body conditioning. Many amateur joggers develop a great deal of muscle shortening, and often some postural distortion, as everyday observation will show. Heavy “cardio” will produce exhilaration, but this is from endorphins. Endorphins act like opiates, that is, they dissociate the mind from how the body feels. The endorphin response seems safe enough as opiate responses go—it is self-limiting. Still opiates seem to increase contraction in the long run. Of course, vigorous exercise can have positive effects on heart health and weight etc..., and can be paired with appropriate measures to keep muscles lengthened.

Vibration A tense muscle will start to vibrate coarsely as it lets go. There is some belief that vibrating the body coarsely with voluntary movements or externally applied vibration can induce muscle lengthening and relaxation. In the Reich and Lowen tradition, vibration is also an end in itself, a basic life process. The basic Lowenian bioenergetic positions are stress positions that stretch large muscles and allow for vibration to occur. Therapists that work with trauma, such as Peter Levine, have recognized “shaking” as a basic recovery mechanism in all 'higher' animals. The Trauma Release Exercises ® of David Bercelli is a sequence of seven exercises intended to induce vibration in the psoas.

Awareness Awareness of muscle tension is believed to lessen the tension. The muscular tension that functions as armor does so because it has fallen from awareness and functions automatically. Increasing awareness cannot come about by will or increased vigilance for muscle sensation, but rather by quieting and mindful movement.

Warming Applying low heat directly to muscles will relax them. This method has the advantage that it does not require skill, with common sense it cannot be done wrong. It is possible to affect core muscles also, although the body will resist much change in core temperature. Hot-tubs, saunas, and sunbathing are all tradition methods of relaxation with heat. 'Hot” or Bikram yoga seeks a synergy with heat and stretch.

Massage Tight contracted muscle relax with massage. There are three aspects of this. One, pleasureable massage releases oxytocin, which is a general relaxant. Two, skilled massage can produce considerable local warmth in a muscle, which relaxes it. Third, applying pressure perpendicular to contracted muscle fibers 'forces' them to relax. This third type of massage is painful, at least until the muscle relaxes. Reich and Lowen themselves were both known for this painful maneuver, which can backfire if the participant does not really understand the reason for it. On the other hand, it may be the only thing that works for some recalcitrant muscles. Massage is particularly useful for the muscles of the mid- and upper-face, which cannot be stretched. Trigger point massage can be very effective, since chronic muscle tension is not homogenous, but bunches close to the motor endplate.

Alignment Undue contraction in one muscle or group throws the body out of balance and other muscles must become contracted just to provide a semblance of balance. If a person can be 'put' into a good enough alignment, a multi-location release might be possible. This seems to be a premise of Rolfing, Hatha yoga, and Feldenkreis.

Emotional Expression Both Reich and Lowen sought true emotional expression as a goal of therapy. Lowen however, developed the principle that emotional expression was also a way to release muscle tension, and in fact is a necessary adjunct to sustain gains. However, a distinction must be made between catharsis and true integrated expression. A cathartic outburst is seen by the ego as an aberration and not really true for the person. Only when the expression both involves the body (eyes, face, hands, voice, etc) and is seen by the ego as true for the person, can self-expression provide a release psychologically and muscularly.

Visualization Visualizing seems to be able to 'get to' underlying mental beliefs that are holding muscles tight, not by directly opposing them but by substituting a different subconscious guidance.