No one is immune to injury, not even an athlete. Unless you’ve been an avid gym rat or naturally have a body that’s both strong and flexible, you and members of your family may be suffering from muscle imbalances without even knowing it. Consider this scenario. Ted, a hard-working father, spends hours each day sitting at his desk and commuting back and forth to Manhattan. Each year he and his family go on a one-week vacation to Naples, Florida. While Ted packs the car for the long drive, pain develops in one of his legs. Despite the pain, he continues full steam ahead, loading his car, then driving 21 hours straight. When the family reaches its destination, Ted realizes that his leg pain is worse, but figures a good night’s sleep and two aspirin will fix the problem. The next morning, though, Ted has trouble getting out of bed. For the entire vacation and almost a month afterwards, he has continuous pain and develops a walk that is reminiscent of a 90-year-old man. Ted could have prevented his troubles by preparing for the vacation with some stretching and resistance training. He suffered from muscle imbalances which, when his routine changed, pulled his pelvis out of alignment and brought on sciatica (pain along the large sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back down through the buttocks and along the back of each leg). While a relatively common form of back pain, sciatica and other muscle imbalances can have a detrimental effect on the nervous system’s ability to communicate effectively with muscles of the body. So how do you identify muscle imbalances? Since poor posture, repetitive motion and a lack of daily movement all contribute to muscle imbalance, you must first ask yourself a few questions. Do you do a lot of standing on hard surfaces with uncomfortable shoes? Do you sit for long periods of time? Do you lift and carry heavy items? Excessive sitting and standing can rob some muscles of strength and leave others too tight. Repeated lifting without activating core muscles can set you up for lower back pain. A good look in the mirror can help you locate muscle imbalances. From the feet up to the head, look for any part of your body that seems pulled forward or backward, inward or outward. Examine your feet and knees, your pelvis, your shoulders, your head. Are any of them angled or uneven? Once you establish which areas are out of alignment, you can begin to correct these muscle imbalances with simple stretching and resistance training as you progressively challenge your muscles through their natural, full range of motion. Frequent stretching throughout the day, no matter what your daily routine, will help lengthen tight muscles. When your muscles are stronger, they’re better able to resist and handle stress from various situations, such as unexpected movement and changing forces, and injury is less likely to occur. Here are few exercises to get you started on correcting muscle imbalances. For each stretch, hold the position for 20 seconds and repeat four to six times a day. Don’t ignore the signals your body sends, however. If an exercise is painful or feels too difficult, then ease into it or, if necessary, consult your specialist.
• To help remedy a tight upper body, stand in a doorway and put your hands at shoulder height on the doorframe. Keep your feet on one side of the doorway and try to lean your upper body into the other side of the doorway.
• To activate your inner core muscle, practice drawing your belly button towards your spine (especially before you lift your children or the laundry basket). A way to really identify this innermost core muscle is to sit on a stability ball. This causes that innermost muscle to activate and wrap around your lower spine like a belt.
• If you spend a majority of your day sitting, periodically stretch your hip flexors (the muscles that attach your lower back to your tailbone). Stand upright next to a table for support and take one step backwards, then dip the leg next to the table down towards the ground. Don’t touch the ground with your kneecap — keep it be an inch or two from the ground.
CHRIS CHILDS is the owner of PulseGym-SuperSlowTM Strength Training in Greenwich, CT. Visit www.PulseGym.com for more stretching and strengthening information.