The human body is a miraculous system of checks, balances, and compensation mechanisms. These systems keep us functioning despite injury, abuse, aging, wear, and tear. The question I get asked by a lot of clients is: should I stretch and/or strengthen to keep my body working and pain free?

The answer, I believe, is yes—if it’s done correctly. But if it’s done the wrong way, you can set yourself up for some significant problems.

Muscles work in pairs—called agonist and antagonist. This setup operates when one muscle (like the biceps) contracts—the muscle on the opposite side of the arm (triceps) is shut off. The mechanism is called reciprocal inhibition. When the biceps become dominant (stronger and tighter), the triceps, in this case, cannot be strengthened until the bicep is normalized from its dominant state.

Stretching the tricep would make the relationship worse because it’s weak and probably overstretched. The bicep becomes dominate because, in our culture, we use it more—what we do in the gym is wrong, or we are stretching into that imbalance, making it worse.

How do we fix this problem?

First you have to assess that muscle pair (biceps/triceps) to find which side is tight and dominate. This can be done by checking the resting length of the muscle—and if it is abnormal, applying a specific stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. Continue to reapply the stretch until the muscle has been restored to a normal length. Before the stretch, the tricep in this case, would muscle-test weak. When the perfect amount of stretch is applied, the bicep would have a normal length in relationship to the tricep on the same side, and the same muscle group on the opposite side of the body.

If you work out at the gym, you can use the same weight to progressively strengthen the bicep and tricep on the right and left side of your body. This muscle group crosses two joints—the elbow and the shoulder. This balance will protect these joints and ensure optimal function.

Now, apply this concept to the whole body: quadriceps/hamstrings and other agonist/antagonist. It also works with the same muscles on the opposite side of the body, like psoas or piriformis. These have a lot to do with balance and function of the pelvis and lumbar spine—key contributors to back pain. When this type of global balance is achieved, your Pilates, yoga, and/or gym routine can become therapeutic and you can derive maximum benefit from these efforts.

There are specific bodywork systems that can assist you in this process. We are currently developing a program with Christa Mastrangelo Joyce of Jala Yoga (Shepherdstown) that teaches a way of accessing these muscle groups—applying a specific yoga stretch until this balance is achieved in many of the key muscle groups. That class should be available soon.

— ARTICLE BY: Chris Crawford and Lori Robertson

Crawford LMT, CMT (540.270.7601), and Robertson LMT, CMT (540.336.4737), operate Downstream to Wellness (Capstone Method)—with offices in Winchester (VA) and Shepherdstown (WV). They’re modern-day bonesetters specializing in manual therapy-based structural bodywork. Find out more at the above link and Capstone Method & Downstream to Wellness on Facebook.

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