How to quiet your muscles when they get rowdy

What do you do when your body feels locked up? There are different ways to treat areas of the body that have restricted movement or feel stiff. Some, like massage and stretching, you likely know about while other techniques such as foam rolling may be a little less familiar. Having yet another set of tools can be handy, too, especially when your muscles won’t relax on their own.

There are two ways to relax a muscle: 1) Choose to release it. 2) Intentionally use a technique designed to cause a muscle to relax. This is known as inhibiting, or blocking muscle activation. Inhibition is an automatic process controlled by reflexes in your spine, usually without your conscious thought. And there are some great practices to achieve this. Their names can be a mouthful: Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, Active Isolated Stretching, and Primal Reflex Release Technique. But if you’ve experienced these methods you’ll recognize their acronyms: PNF, AIS, and PRRT.

These techniques can be instrumental in your path to relief, but don’t mistake inhibition techniques for a silver bullet fix. To have a lasting effect they must be part of a sequence that retrains your body to work in balance. After all, it’s the muscle habits you assemble after wiping the slate clean that determine how your body will function going forward. Think of it as a reboot of your neurologic muscle memory.

The sequence of relief

So what do you do when your body feels all locked up? There’s a sequence of actions that will help. It looks like this:

  • Unload the body
  • Assume a neutral position
  • Relax muscles
  • Release muscle gunk
  • Lengthen muscles
  • Actively stabilize joints
  • Move with healthy, biomechanically correct motor patterns

If your body aches from overuse or misuse, the first thing you need to do is find a supported position that allows your body to let go. If any part of the body doesn’t feel stable, you won’t be able to overcome its protective muscle tension, or guarding.

Once your body is supported and you feel like the tug-of-war inside has subsided, breathe in slowly through your nose, and take twice as long to exhale from the mouth. It’s almost impossible to stay tense while doing this.

One of the most common positions we use involves lying supine with your lower legs resting on a chair, hips and knees at 90°. This is the only position that allows your core and back muscles to relax almost completely; as a result you’ll also relieve spinal compression.

 

 

 

Sometimes, however, the tug-of-war won’t let go no matter what positions you try. When you feel all locked up and supported positions don’t provide quick release, it can be handy to have techniques for inhibiting your muscles. The key thing to understand is that these techniques have a transient effect. So you’ll use them as a bridge to myofascial work, stretching, and corrective exercise.

Let me illustrate three inhibitory reflexes that are built into your neurologic wiring by describing how some inhibition techniques work.

PNF

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is a way to relax the muscles by turning them off. The fancy description: activate your Golgi (GOL-gee) tendon organs. Another mouthful, I know!

You have these sensors in your tendons that respond to force, and when force increases you get a reflex loop, inhibiting activation of the same muscles generating the force. It’s the body’s way to prevent tearing itself apart with its own strength (your muscles are strong enough to do that, by the way).

Here is how PNF works: You hold a muscle comfortably elongated and then contract it as hard as you can muster against an immovable object for seven seconds. When you let go, that muscle will be in a state of relative inhibition for a short period of time. This is your window of opportunity to disrupt the status quo in your muscles and fascia with massage, foam rolling, stretching, or other myofascial techniques.

 

 

AIS

Active Isolated Stretching makes use of your body’s reciprocal inhibition mechanism — more fancy words that mean, relax the muscle opposite the one in use. For example, when you pick up a bag of groceries (activate your biceps)  your body simultaneously sends an inhibitory signal to your triceps (back of the arm) to prevent them from fighting against your intended motion.

You can release and stretch the back of thighs using this method if you actively tighten the front of your thighs while straightening the knee. The key is to repeat the motion 10-20 times, only holding your stretch for a few seconds. Repetitively moving in and out of the stretch has the added benefit of improving circulatory flow through your stretched muscles. After just one minute, you may be surprised by how much improvement you can make in your range of motion.

Think about where else you might use this technique in your body. All you have to do is squeeze the muscles opposite to the ones you’re releasing and lengthening.

PRRT

PNF and AIS, above, are the easiest to learn and do on your own. There are other  techniques that use a mix of neurologic inhibition maneuvers. One of these, the Primal Reflex Release Technique, also makes use of the withdrawal reflex. Imagine your reaction when you touch a hot stove. Your reflexes jump into action. You quickly pull your hand away. Let’s break down what happens to your muscles in that pulling away movement. You reflexively inhibited the muscles responsible for reaching toward the stove and activated opposing muscles to withdraw from the pain source.

A trained practitioner can teach you how to use this withdrawl reflex to create intentional inhibition without actually hurting your body. One example: You could release muscle tension from jaw clenching by placing your tongue between your front teeth and lightly tapping upward under your chin. Your body will inhibit the muscles that close your jaw and activate the ones that open it.

 

There are more techniques that block muscle activation. I’ve chosen to highlight PNF, AIS, and PRRT because they’re easy to do on your own, people use them often, and they tend to be the most helpful when your body feels tight and won’t let go on its own.

Having different techniques ready to use makes it possible to gain and maintain mobility for most situations. Because these techniques work via different neurologic pathways, they give you numerous options for dealing with your body’s different issues with flexibility.