Relaxing a muscle and contracting it are both aspects of controlling our body. We can improve our ability to stretch our muscles, activate them and strengthen them by learning to feel our muscles and control them. We can focus feeling the belly of the a muscle since this is the part that does the work. We can also learn to feel our bones and the points of attachment between muscle and bones.
Focusing on the belly of a muscle we can feel when that muscle contracts and relaxes.
Focusing on the endpoints of a muscle, the points at which it attaches to bone, we can move these points away from each other or towards each other to help stretch a muscle or activate it.
This article focuses on learning to feel, control and relax the belly of a muscle so that we can stretch it.
Some muscles cross and act on only one joint. Some muscles cross or act on two joints. Yet other muscles cross multiple joints. The better we understand the “Layout” of a muscle and the bones that it attaches to, the easier it will be for us to direct our awareness to the appropriate place so that we can feel our muscles activating or relaxing, and so that we can control them. If we have an understanding of where a muscle is located we can put our awareness in that place to feel it.
Looking at any anatomy book, we can see learn where the belly of a particular muscle is and then try to may that awareness to our own body. As an example, the biceps is located at the front of the upper arm. The belly of the biceps is located between the elbow and the shoulder. To feel our biceps, it helps if we focus our attention on the front of our upper arm. If we then bend our elbow and straighten so that the biceps contracts and relaxes we can then practice feeling our biceps.
If at the same time we are aware of how the biceps connects to the shoulder blade and lower arm, we can notice any pulling sensations at the shoulder and elbow and based on those sensations decide whether we are actually engaging the biceps or some other muscle as well.
We may find that we are engaging the brachioradialis or the coracobrachialis, the first of which attaches the upper arm bone to the radius, the second of which attaches from the upper arm to the coracoid process on the shoulder blade.
So that we can learn to activate and relax muscle tissue at will some basic understanding of how muscles work with and against each other can be useful.
Bones connect at joints so that they can move relative to each other. Muscles act on bones across joints to either change the relationship of the bones at that joint or maintain that relationship.
- A muscle can contract and “close” the side of the joint it works on. The greater the force it works against the greater the muscle needs to contract
- Muscles can work against each other with unequal force so that a joint closes in the direction of the stronger muscle
- Muscles can work against each other with equal force so that a joint is stable
- A muscle can gradually relax and allow the side of the joint it works on to “open.”
- All muscles that act on a joint can be relaxed so that the joint is able to move freely.
In the first case, a muscle might be working against some outside force, or the weight of the body part it is acting on. Holding one arm straight out in front, we can bend the elbow and cause the biceps to engage. Since it is only the weight of the arm that is moving, the force required is minimal.
Holding a weight with our arm down by our side, the greater the weight the greater the force our biceps would have to exert in order to bend the elbow.
With the arm in front or by our side we could tense the triceps, at the back of the arm, and then engage the biceps. If the force of the triceps is only slightly less than that of the biceps then the elbow will slowly bend. We can thus use one muscle to help us engage another muscle.
If we slowly relax the biceps, reduce the force that it exerts, or we increase the force that the triceps exerts, then we gradually open the elbow.
Thus we can use body weight, the weight of some external object or an opposing muscle to help contract a muscle. To relax a muscle we simply relax or release the force that it is working on.
If our focus is on relaxing muscle tissue so that it can be stretched we need to be aware of any opposing forces that a muscle may be acting against, whether body weight, an opposing muscle, or some external weight or force, so that we can negate that force and allow the muscle to relax.
Note that if for some reason we feel unsafe, we may tense muscles in opposition to create stability and safety. This can work against us if our intent is to stretch. If we can figure out the reason why we feel unsafe or position ourselves in such a way that we feel safe it may then be easier for us to relax and stretch.
Relaxing and Contracting
When the fibers in the belly of a muscle contract, the muscle tries to shorten and pull the bones it attaches to towards each other. I say “Tries to Shorten” because if a muscle works against against a greater force then it will actually lengthen. However if it is working against a lesser force then it will shorten. If it is working against an equal force then it will stay the same length.
When a muscle is relaxed or inactive it tends to return to its resting length. If the bones that it is attached to are moved away from each other then the muscle will be lengthened. If moved gradually beyond it’s resting length the muscle will actually be stretched.
Tendons-Connective Tissue that Transmits Force
The belly of a muscle is attached to bone via connective tissue called tendons.When a muscle contracts it pulls on tendons which in turn pull on the bones that they are attached to. When the bones that a muscle is attached to are pulled apart these same tendons then help to lengthen the belly of the muscle. When the belly of the muscle creates a pulling force, it is the tendons that transmit this force.
Tendons are made up of connective tissue and this connective tissue extends into the belly of the muscle itself. It defines bundles of muscle fibers and allows them to move relative to each other as well as giving them something to pull on when they contract.
The connective tissue within the belly of a muscle has some elasticity so that they help the belly of the muscle return to its resting length when relaxed. It is this connective tissue that is lengthened when a muscle is stretched.
Positioning The Body to Relax So That we can Stretch
Since muscle tissue can lengthen even when active (because it is trying to act against a greater force,) just because a muscle is lengthening when we pull on it doesn’t mean we are stretching it. If we want to stretch a muscle we need to relax it so that we stretch the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle. One possible way of doing this is to gradually relax a muscle as we lengthen it. We can practice gradually lengthening to the point of total relaxation, hold for a moment, and then gradually contract.
Part of relaxing muscles at will is positioning the body in such a way that the muscles we want to relax can relax. In general this can mean providing a stable foundation for the muscle(s) that we are trying to stretch. This means making one of the bones or body parts to which that muscle is attached stable. Then the other part can move relative to the stable part.
As an example, in a standing forward bend we are trying to move the pelvis relative to the legs to lengthen the hamstrings. Since the hamstrings attach from the lower leg to the pelvis, we can stabilize the lower leg, including the shin, ankle and foot, to give the hamstrings a stable foundation.
Laying on our back and pulling one leg back and down, we are moving the leg relative to the pelvis. So that the pelvis is stable we can activate the abs to unify it with the ribcage and stabilize the lower back. We again give the hamstrings a stable foundation.
So that we can give the muscle(s) we are stretching a stable foundation we need to know which parts of the body a muscle attaches to, and which of those parts we are moving relative to the other. We can then stabilize the other part so that the muscle in question can be stretched.
Leading with a Clear Idea
Another part of stretching or allowing ourselves to stretch is having a clear idea of what we are trying to do. If we define a foundation as something that allows us to do what we are trying to do, whether it is erect a building or stretch a muscle, then we can say that a clear idea is a foundation of sorts because it allows us to get on with what we are trying to do. Without a clear idea we don’t know what we are trying to do, and so we may have an idea of getting more flexible but not knowing how we are trying to get flexible while in a particular pose.
For example, in a seated forward bend we can reach our legs forwards and push our pelvis back to create space in the hip joint so that it is easier to bend forwards.
There are four hip muscles that connect the thigh to the pelvis which can be used to create space between the pelvis and the thigh bone. When focusing on reaching the legs forwards and pushing the pelvis back we can help to activate these muscles.
Since these muscles also cause the thighs to rotate externally, we can counter this tendency by engaging the outer hip muscles. Since the outer hip muscles can also be used to tip the pelvis forwards, this is doubly advantageous if we are doing a forward bend.
If we also focus on the idea of reaching forwards in a forward bend (as opposed to downwards), the process of reaching forwards will gradually bring our chest towards our legs. For this to happen we have to tilt our pelvis forwards. For this to happen, our hamstrings have to lengthen and prior to that they have to relax.
The clear idea we can then focus on is reaching our torso and legs forwards (while pressing our pelvis back.) This clear idea holds all of the smaller ideas together. In the process we lengthen the hamstrings which is the big idea of what we are trying to do.
If we aren’t focused on that one clear idea, other ideas may be occupying our mind. “When will this be over…. I hate this stretch…. I can’t do this… this is so uncomfortable.” All of these are also clear ideas but they are also ideas that hinder what we are trying to do. If we want to lengthen a part of our body then that is what we can focus on doing. Our body is then more likely to follow.
Using Weight or Supporting It
When a muscle is “tense” it is more than likely working against some outside force. When we are stretching, a muscle may be tense because it is trying to prevent part of the body from falling or collapsing so as to not be overstretched. In fact, our body is working against what we are trying to do.
To help a “tense” muscle relax we can try to relax or negate any forces that it is acting against.
In a forward bend where we are trying to stretch the hamstrings, the hamstrings may actually be engaging to help support the weight of the upper body, to prevent it from moving forwards. So that we can negate this tendency we can support the weight of our upper body by using our arms. We can then wait for our hamstrings to relax and then we can lower our upper body slightly by bending the elbows. Our hamstrings then may engage again but here again if we support the weight of our body in this new position then our hamstrings may release again at which point we can lower our upper body further.
Once we’ve trained our hamstrings to stay relaxed we can use the weight of the ribcage that we were previously supporting to actually help stretch the hamstrings. We can slowly and smoothly reach our hands off of the floor so that our ribcage is unsupported and we can even add weight by reaching our arms slowly forwards.
If we do this slowly and smoothly we are less likely to cause our hamstrings to tense up in fear. If at the same time we reach our arms and ribcage forwards, the weight of our body can be used to gradually lengthen our hamstrings.
Practicing Relaxation and Activation
One final technique bears mentioning is using slow, rhythmic repeated movements to both stretch muscle tissue and activate it. Such movements can be done in time with the breath if we can breath slowly enough but they can also simply be done slowly enough and smoothly enough that we can feel our muscles and bones as we move our body.
As an example, in the forward bend we can support our upper body with our hands so that our hamstrings can relax, we can then smoothly take our hands off of the floor and then reach our arms, ribs and head forwards while inhaling. We can put our hands back down on the floor and relax and then repeat.
We can add “clear idea” practice to this by focusing on reaching forwards when inhaling (and making the lower legs stable at the same time since we want the pelvis to move relative to the legs) and focusing on relaxing while exhaling.
While inhaling our upper body reaches forwards and our pelvis tilts forwards. While exhaling we support our upper body and gradually allow it to relax downwards while relaxing the hamstrings at the same time.
As we practice this movement we may then find that we can keep our hamstrings relaxed even as we lift our upper body and reach it forwards. We thus help to lengthen the connective tissue that is within them.