To activate or to release?

Whether you’re doing rehab or working out, a frequently asked question is “am I feeling this in the right spot?” The human body is obviously complex, so it is a completely legitimate question for someone who isn’t well versed in muscular anatomy. During my time training and watching others get trained, I have generally learned that activation in certain areas is good, and certain areas are bad. Over time, certain muscles become shortened such as your pectoralis major/minor, rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae (hip flexor) and upper abdominals. When your muscle is shortened, it basically becomes tight and restricts your movement. These shortened muscles contribute to poor posture. So when I feel these muscles get overworked when exercising I know it’s not good. Conversely, over time certain muscles get lengthened (which means they are not activating efficiently) such as your gluteus maximus, transverse abdominis and lower trapezius muscles. When I do a workout and feel these muscles sore I know it’s a good kind of sore that also helps me maintain better posture.

For example, whenever I feel my thoracic spine is sore (middle back but more specifically the LOWER trapezius muscles) after a Muay Thai session I am ecstatic. However, if my pectoralis muscles are extremely sore or if my shoulder is hurting after Muay Thai I know at some point my body was compensating in a sub-optimal manner. Likewise, if my posterior leg muscles are sore after doing squats I am content. However, if my quadriceps are the only thing that’s sore after doing squats I am not impressed by my performance. If I do ANYTHING and my inner unit core muscles are sore (primarily my TVA) I am happy. Conversely, if I do ANYTHING and my lower back is in pain I get extremely depressed and then must go back to the drawing board to examine how I performed my movements and find where exactly my lumbar went into compensation. I know I’m making myself sound crazy by implying that my mood is correlated to my muscle activation, but paying attention to your body and how it reacts to certain environments is imperative if you want to maximize your performance efficiently while simultaneously reducing chronic pain and susceptibility to injuries.

What brought on this blog post was watching a fighter who was dealing with a knee problem unknowingly put a TENS unit on his IT band thinking it would bring him relief. However, since the TENS unit stimulates a muscle, and his IT band was already extremely tight (which contributed to his knee problem), he should have released the muscle through either myofascial compression (lacrosse ball, foam roller) or myofascial decompression (cupping). Mistakes like these are all too common; I have had the chiropractor do electric stimulation on my lower back in hopes of helping my scoliosis. While this might have alleviated the pain a little, it is important to note that perceived solutions like this contain a misconception that tends to ignore the root of the problem. Fixing the symptoms is not necessarily the same as fixing the problem itself. Until the root of the problem is addressed, relief will only be temporary and brief. Yes having a chiropractor place a ESTIM on my lower back gave me brief relief, but regularly releasing my hip flexors, my quadriceps, my upper abdominals while activating my posterior leg muscles, my thoracic spine and my TVA have given me a more permanent, self-sufficient solution to my scoliosis back pain.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I'm happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously  a muscle that wasn't able to activate when I worked out.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I’m happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously a muscle that wasn’t able to activate when I worked out.

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

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MFR: Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That?

I remember the day I was first introduced to myofascial release. It was the day after a particularly difficult night of Randori (Judo sparring). I was unaware of this at the time, but my internally rotated shoulders caused an impingement in my shoulder which was exacerbated by the high intensity nature of Judo (gentle way my ass). Anyways, ever since I started Judo, I was used to having an excruciating pain in my right shoulder (which I brushed off due to the “no pain no gain” mentality). However, two days after that Randori session, the pain was still excruciating and I could not lift my arm. After skeptically trying myofascial release and learning how to (agonizingly) release my pectoralis minor&major, subscapularis and latissimus dorsi, I was surprised that I could lift my arms without pain simply after rubbing a $3 lacrosse ball on the right trigger points. This is when I converted to the religion of myofascial release.

Now I say myofascial release is my religion in a tongue in cheek way. I personally do not believe in blindly following dogma (live INTENTIONALLY, not habitually). HOWEVER, for the effects of myofascial release to be beneficial in the long run you need to do it religiously. This is especially important when first starting out since there will be a lot of internal restrictions in your body, and releasing them takes time. Your dysfunctions cannot be addressed through corrective exercise if there are internal restrictions present. This is why myofascial release is an important first step to any functional training regimen. Eventually, your body might not require as much time spent on myofascial release, but generally when starting out it’s imperative to dedicate time to it. Despite the fact that the trigger points are painful (I have witnessed huge, tattooed Mixed Martial Arts fighters scream like little girls when getting their trigger points released), it’s best to spend at least a couple of minutes on each trigger point. It’s funny how five minutes instantly seems like an hour when you are in excruciating pain. In general when starting out it takes AT LEAST an hour to get all the necessary trigger points released. I recommend focusing on myofascial release AT LEAST once a day when starting out. When I tell people this, their reaction is generally:
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It was honestly my reaction to myofascial release at first as well. Most of us are extremely busy, so adding one more regimen to our routine seems daunting. However, when looking at the cost benefit analysis, the physical benefits I received from doing myofascial release outweighed the time cost. I am not in pain and I am less susceptible to injury. Moreover, I feel like I get a lot more out of my workouts and training sessions if I do myofascial release before, since my body has less restrictions. Additionally, I found ways to multitask while doing myofascial release. I arrive at the gym 30 minutes early so I can myofascialize before training. I myofascialize when studying instead of sitting hunched over a desk. I myofascialize while watching tv instead of sprawling on the couch looking like Homer Simpson. And I am actually myofascializing my quadriceps on a PVC pipe while typing this blog up 🙂
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[PS: Before all you anatomy/grammar nazis get your panties in a bunch that I said myofascialize, I acknowledge that this is a word I made up and if you google search it all the links that come up are mine].

Whether you’re a UFC fighter who trains twice a day or an engineer who sits at a desk for 40 hours a week, myofascial release will be beneficial. It’s also beautiful that these techniques can be done by yourself utilizing tools such as the theracane, lacrosse ball, pvc pipe, foam roller etc. I believe that these are useful investments, especially since I hear injury rehab and pain pills usually cost money as well. Releasing the bound up fascial tissue in the body is important for pain management, optimizing movement when exercising and overall physical wellness (I’m 21 but I can only imagine what pain I would have felt at 41 if I never bothered to myofascialize). I am glad I implemented myofascial release into my training regimen, mainly because it allows me to keep training.