Shoulders sore? Stiff neck? Tension in your lower back? While the location of these aches and pains may be common, understanding why this discomfort occurs is a different story. Often, where pain is felt is entirely different than where the source originates (which is why sometimes your massage therapist may not be focusing on the area you think needs it). For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We've heard this theory since junior high science class, but you may not realize how it applies to our bodies.
Although we're generally unaware of the movement, our muscles continually work synergistically. Some work as synergists (helpers to the agonist, or contracting muscle) while others acts as antagonists (which counteract the primary agonist). All jobs are equally important, and all muscles play all roles at various times. However, over utilizing one group inevitably leads to tension and often injury.
A trainer will commonly ensure opposing muscle groups are effectively worked during a given session: triceps/biceps, quadriceps/hamstrings, back/abdomen. Exercising both groups not only strengthens the muscles, it provides greater support to the skeletal system and joints. As the agonist group contracts with the movement, the antagonistic muscle relaxes to allow freedom and stability.
Focusing on only one group (quadriceps and not hamstrings for example) will eventually create an imbalance on the tendons and ligaments supporting a given joint, in this case the knee. Frequently, injuries to the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) are a result of hypertonic muscle(s) in relation to the antagonistic muscle(s).
How does this translate outside of the gym? Even when we aren't exercising, our muscles are continually contracting and relaxing. Poor posture causes the pectoral muscles to contract for extended periods of time. In return, tension is placed on the "relaxed" trapezius muscles of the upper back and neck. Although the contraction is in the front of the body, we generally recognize the discomfort in the opposite or tensed muscles.
Similarly, excessive sitting leaves the gluteal muscles and IT band in a relaxed state while the hip flexors and hamstrings are contracted for the entire duration. Noticing lower back and/or knee pain? There may be a correlation to the amount of time you're sitting throughout the day.
Rebalancing synergistic muscle groups is imperative for reducing tension and pain. Try standing or stretching every 30-60 minutes if you spend several hours a day sitting. Incorporate opposing muscle groups into every workout, and focus on maintaining proper posture throughout the day. Massage therapy alleviates muscular adhesions in the contracted muscles and reduces pain and tension in the antagonistic muscles.
Utilize self-care techniques by massaging & stretching the muscles opposite the area of pain. Tension in your neck or shoulders? Focus on the pectoral muscles of the upper chest and sternocleidomastoid (SCM) on the side of the neck. Lower back pain? Take a few moments to stretch your hamstrings.
Life is all about balance. Our bodies are no different. Muscular tension is a good indication that your body needs attention to its balance. A strong body isn't simply the ability to lift heavy weight, it's the need to effectively stabilize our skeletal system to avoid injury and stress.