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Isolation is a Myth Revisited

Why it’s important that our muscles can glide their fibres long and short, instead of “clenching”

Human movement is complex.

There are many working parts that come together to help us move – our joints, muscles, nerves and fascia just to name a few.

So, if someone tells you in a movement/Pilates class that you are trying to “isolate” a certain muscle or muscle group – you should be skeptical – or at least you should be, after reading this post.

As Stephanie said in her last blog post: “Generally speaking, if all your attention is on the “one” muscle you think is being isolated the tendency is to “clench and go”. This creates many future problems. “

It’s true, if we try to use one muscle to do a job that is meant for many muscles working in concert, problems can arise:

  • we can actually block the movement we are trying to achieve by holding the muscle tightly
  • we can develop increased tension in the muscle that is difficult to release again
  • tender trigger points or taut bands can develop in the muscle that lead to pain
  • and we can ultimately confuse the brain and nerve connections to that muscle so that it’s difficult to do anything other than clench it in the future

You mean I’m not supposed to clench my muscles to really feel them working?

In short – no. But, let’s take a deeper look into how muscles really work to understand this better…

First of all, muscles don’t act alone. It’s impossible to disregard our nervous system if we are talking about movement:

Our brain sends a message to our nerves, through our spinal cord and on to many more nerves that communicate in a sequence between our brain and each muscle in our body (see picture below). The final nerve in the chain then sends a chemical signal to the muscle itself to tell it to take action. The result, is that the many overlapping muscle fibres within the muscle either contract or relax, to stabilize or move our bones and joints.

Diagram

Zoom in even further to the muscles fibres themselves and there are millions of tiny protein fibres called sarcomeres that change length as our muscles contract and relax.

As a muscle contracts – these fibres overlap more, shortening the overall length of the muscle. When a muscle relaxes after a contraction, or stretches, these fibres overlap less, expanding and lengthening the larger muscle.

So, when the brain sends a “contract” signal to a muscle, many nerves are sending many messages to many muscle fibres to make the entire muscle contract. Our nervous system is in charge of the whole shebang.

One Sarcomere:

Sarcomere

Richfield, David (2014). “Medical gallery of David Richfield”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.009. ISSN 2002-4436. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264027

If you would like to learn even more information about muscles and their fibres, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcomere

Quick review:

SYNERGIST: The synergist in a movement is the muscle(s) that stabilises a joint around which movement is occurring, which in turn helps the agonist function effectively. Synergist muscles also help to create the movement.

AGONIST and ANTAGONIST muscles often occur in pairs: as the agonst contracts (and shortens), the opposing muscle or antagonist, relaxes (and lengthens). Example: during a bicep curl, the bicep is the agonist and shortens, and the triceps is the antagonist and lengthens.

However, in our day to day lives, our brain rarely sends a “contract glutes” message, instead the brain sends a “walk” or “sit” or “stand” message. When we produce movement in our joints with our muscles, there is never only ONE muscle working alone to produce that movement. Even when we are using muscles to stabilize a joint and producing virtually no movement – ie. the deep synergist muscles around the hip joint when standing on one leg, there is still not only one muscle working to create that stability and stillness. Our joints are 3-dimensional – there will always be muscles working 360 degrees around them, some shortening while the opposing muscles lengthen, or multiple muscles surrounding the joint contracting simultaneously to create stability. AND sometimes – most of the time – all three of these things are happening all at once.

Isolation is indeed a myth.

Now, you may be saying, “but my (insert rehab or movement professional) has given me exercises to isolate my glutes, core, rotator cuff… before”. While this may be true, there is a very specific purpose for exercises like this. When you have an injury or pain, the brain-muscle connection can weaken or become confused, and so a Physiotherapist may give you exercises to try to “wake up” that brain muscle connection again. However, this type of “isolation” exercise should only be done for a short period of time until the brain-muscle connection strengthens enough to get that muscle working properly again during larger functional movements, like the ones we do in Pilates and in life. Keep in mind, if you are moving your leg while doing “glut isolation exercises”, or moving your arm while doing “rotator cuff exercises”, then you are still using many different muscles working together to move.

So, what happens when you try to isolate certain muscles while doing Pilates?

Well, when you focus your attention on contracting one particular muscle, or you try to use only one muscle to perform a complex movement, it is easy to end up clenching that muscle instead of contracting it effectively. Clenching sends too many “contract” signals to the muscle, so that all of the overlapping fibres are held too tightly, or for too long, and the muscle doesn’t have its usual opportunity to relax so that the muscle fibres can move apart again. Over time if you are continuously trying to isolate or clench one particular muscle or muscle group, this can interfere with a muscle’s ability to relax in general, and tender trigger points or taut bands of muscle can develop, which can eventually lead to muscle pain and tension at rest.

When we allow all of the muscles around a joint to work together to produce leg, arm or spine movement, then each muscle gets a more balanced amount of “contract” signals. They work together to share the load, contracting together, or some contracting while others relax as our bones change position. When we allow muscles to work together – synergists, agonist and antagonists – each one doing their part of the work, then each muscle is able to glide short on contraction, and glide long on relaxation, instead of getting stuck in the shortened position during a “clench”.

So, unless you are in the very early stages of working with a Physiotherapist to rehab after an injury, don’t worry about trying to “isolate” your glutes, core, or any other muscle you might want to work on. When you perform skillful Pilates movements and listen to your instructor’s cues, the work will happen, you will still get the burn, and that post-Pilates soreness will be the “hurts so good” type, and not a confused, painful muscle still trying to relax after being clenched.

Strategies to avoid clenching:

  • LISTEN carefully to your instructors’ cues – at Art of Fitness, the instructors use their words to skillfully guide your movements and shapes, rather than specific muscle contractions, to get your muscles working properly
  • Then, focus on the MOVEMENT you are meant to perform, not just the muscles that are working to get you there – if you do the movement successfully, the work will happen, you will feel the burn, and the load will be shared between all the interested parties/muscles
  • And remember to BREATHE – breath holding often goes hand in hand with bearing down or clenching muscles instead of gliding them long and short with your breath cycles

If you find that you are still clenching after this, then speak with your Pilates/movement instructor to help you change how you are doing a certain movement; and if you have excess tension or pain developing in any of your muscles, find a trusted Physiotherapist for further consultation and treatment which would include manual muscle release, focused muscle relaxation techniques and reprogramming of the brain-muscle connection.

Sarah EbyWritten by Sarah Eby
Physiotherapist and Owner of Root Physiotherapy in Uptown Waterloo
www.rootphysio.com
Facebook: @rootphysio
Instagram: @rootphysiosarah

How do I keep my joints healthy for years to come?

Joint health, An article by Sarah Eby, Physiotherapist. 

As a Physiotherapist, this is a question I get frequently. It’s a common story: joints start to get stiff and achy as we get older, joints don’t recover as fast from injuries as they used to, or we start to develop joint pain during sports or our basic day to day activities.

Can you relate? If so, I am here to shed some light and instil some hope.

You can promote healthy joints throughout your body in two primary ways:

Through movement and strength.

Joint health

Our joints, all of our joints, are meant to move. They are built so that movement brings fresh blood flow and lubrication to the cartilage and joint surfaces to keep them smooth and healthy. The muscles and ligaments around our joints stay strong and malleable by stretching and contracting as our joints move through their full range of motion.

Joints are built to move, withstand load and compression, and adapt to the stresses that we apply to them throughout our daily movements.

What if my joints start to get stiff and achy? Shouldn’t I rest them so they don’t become more painful?

If you have had an acute injury or trauma, or are experiencing sharp pain with specific movements, then there may be a need for rest and recovery.

However, if there has been no trauma, it is likely that your joints just need to move more. It’s the old adage “move it or lose it” – our bodies adapt to the stresses that are placed upon them, so if you spend your days sitting at a desk or hunched over looking at your phone, your body with start to adapt to the limited range of motion or movement that you are regularly exposing it to and start to stiffen up. The cure is simple – move more. Figure out which movements feel the most stiff, limited or difficult, and slowly start to do more of that particular movement.

For example, one of the most common complaints I hear is about stiff hips. If this is the case for you, you could start each day by pulling your knees into your chest and then rotating your hips in a circular motion each morning before you even get out of bed. You’ll be surprised at how fast your hips start to feel less stiff and achy throughout the day.

The reason this works is that when you move your hips this way each morning, you are sending a message to the body that you require your hips to have a full knees to chest bend, and full rotation, and the joints will start to adapt. The cartilage will get compression and lubrication on all of its surfaces and stay healthy and supple for any movement you throw at it.

When joints get stiff or start to be painful our instincts are to stop moving them, which is often the opposite of what we need. Movement is medicine for our joints.

It’s hard on my joints to do a deep squat, run a marathon or lift heavy weights, right?

Wrong.

I have heard this time and again – and here is my answer: there are no “bad” movements or activities, just poor preparation.

Many of my patients have reported someone telling them they should stop doing x, y or z activity (often that they love doing) because it is harmful or because it is causing them pain.

Again, if you’ve had a trauma, surgery or illness that is affecting your joints then heed these warnings, but if you are clear of all these things, then let me give you some examples to demonstrate my point.

Yes, if you have never run a day in your life and you suddenly decide to start training for a marathon, without any knowledge about proper footwear, how to safely progress your distance or cross training (ie. separate strength training of the muscles that you use for running), then you are setting yourself up for injury. But, if you do your research, join a running group, strength train and invest in good footwear, then you will properly prepare your body and your joints for the stresses that running places upon them (and could crush that marathon goal of yours)! Running in and of itself is not harmful, but jumping into long distance running without the proper preparation could be hard on your joints.

In the same way as running – taking up yoga and suddenly doing repetitive deep squats, when you haven’t done more than squat down to a chair in years, could cause pain and inflammation in your knee joints.

And suddenly deciding to become a power lifter and dead lifting 100-200 lbs without first practicing how to do a proper deadlift without any weight, and then slowly increasing your weight incrementally, will put undue stress and strain through your lumbar spine, hips and shoulders.

Our joints will adapt to the load and movements they are given – but the process is not instantaneous. Problems arise, injuries occur or “harm” can be done to our joints when we try to do things that we have not properly prepared for.

Muscular strength is another big component of joint health. The deep muscles around our joints ie. the core muscles in our spine, the rotator cuff in the shoulder, and the glutes in the hip, are there to increase joint stability, maintain good alignment and promote functional joint movement. These deep muscles also protect the joints (the bones and cartilage) from compressive or shearing forces that could cause injury. You want to keep them strong!

Our larger muscle groups, such as our biceps/triceps and quadriceps/hamstrings, are meant to create large joint movements in our body – bending the elbow and bending the knee joints respectively, while our deep muscles fine tune these movements and protect the joints as they move. Both types of muscles are important for joint health, working in unison to create joint mobility and stability.

This is why Pilates is such a fantastic form of exercise.

It takes you through movements that involve your entire body, moving your joints through healthy ranges of motion, and works your core and the deep stability muscles surrounding your joints.

It is one of the best things you can do to keep your joints healthy for years to come.

Joint health is complex, and joint pain is not always clear cut. If you think you may have an injury or pain that needs attention or diagnosing, feel free to contact me at sarah@rootphysio.com or 519-757-7668 for a complimentary 10-minute consultation.

Written by Sarah Eby, Physiotherapist and KW Art of Fitness Client 

More about Sarah

Sarah Eby

Sarah is a Physiotherapist, Yoga Instructor, movement enthusiast and is in love with all of the classes she has been taking at KW Art of Fitness since moving back to Waterloo a few months ago. After years of studying and working in Toronto, treating a wide variety of patients in busy downtown clinics, Sarah decided it was time for a change – time to move “back home” and time to set up her own practice, Root Physiotherapy, in Uptown Waterloo.

Her vision was to create a physiotherapy practice where people receive quality, one-on-one care from a skilled Physiotherapist who has their best interests at heart; and to get to the root cause of your issues, so you can move well and be well for years to come.

When Sarah isn’t working, you can find her taking a Pilates or yoga class, hiking somewhere, cooking at home or spending time with her family and friends.

Learn more about Root Physiotherapy, click here.