Muscle Tension: Are You Standing In Your Own Way?

I didn’t always have an easygoing relationship with my body and my fitness routine. That’s putting it nicely. And I could feel the effects of my choice. Tension everywhere in my body. Recurring aches and pains.

Feeling like my back muscles were perpetually as tight as a guitar string. Fatigue that never seemed to dissipate. A constant whisper that whatever I did wasn’t enough.

I was trying really hard, forcing myself to tick all the boxes on the ‘fitness checklist’, and using high-tension movement strategies. This led to overuse injuries, chronic muscle tightness, fatigue, stress, and lackluster results.

If your experiences with fitness sound similar, read on. I will teach you why this happens and what you can do about it.

Why Do I Feel Stiff No Matter How Much I Workout?

Tension is not just feeling “tense” like when you’re stressed about work or school. Tension is also referring to the state of your soft tissue perpetually holding excessive tone or tightness in it. Soft tissue was not meant to be be held in an ongoing state of greater tone than is necessary for doing the task at hand.

A high-tension movement strategy is signified by having excessive muscular tone (tightness, tension) and contraction. These are used during movement, but also are noticeable at rest (holding tension even when just sitting). High-tension movers also have an inability to move slowly, they have difficulty relaxing, and they tend to have one setting, “on”.

cat stalking prey
Think of a cat: when the cat is stalking a bug or a mouse or its toy, picture how it walks as it stalks the “prey”. Now imagine the cat when it’s lounging in the mid-afternoon sun.

Is the cat lounging in the sun carrying the same tension as the cat stalking the prey? No, it’s not. If you spend your entire life walking around like you’re stalking prey, your body is going to be affected.

When you use high-tension strategies for movement and exercise, you ramp up your sympathetic nervous system, which is your “fight or flight” response that the nervous system engages in when trouble is afoot.

Having your sympathetic nervous system ramped up long-term contributes to:

  • Muscle rigidity
  • Feelings of stress
  • Stress chemicals perpetually flushing through the body
  • Decreased ability to self-regulate (handle emotions and states of being)

This is also what happens when you’re experiencing a high-stress lifestyle. And if you’re experiencing both a high-stress lifestyle and you’re engaging high-tension strategies in your workouts? That’s going to be tough for your body to make any headway against.

How Focusing On “Good Form”
Can Impact How Your Body Feels

When you’re told that you must get from point A to point B and you absolutely must take path X to get there (as is the case in much of fitness instruction), you diminish your nervous system’s ability to develop its own movement variability.

A better solution than saying “this is how this exercise must be done” would be to give a set of guidelines to work with, and then let the person explore the movement while being mindful of the guidelines.

Without movement variability, your injury risk goes up – for both overuse injury and seemingly “random” injuries from moving wrong.

In the case of overuse injuries, a lack of movement variability means you rely on just a few tissues repeatedly instead of spreading the work out over many tissues.

In the case of “random” injuries, since you lack movement variability, your body wasn’t ready to handle the slightly different organization of tissues and joints that occurred just prior to the injury happening.

How Do I Get Rid Of My Tension?

By now you may be thinking that you should never use tension ever because it’s a horrible monster. Don’t let the pendulum swing away like that! There’s a happy medium to be found here.

Tension is sneaky because you so rarely realize how much of it you’re using.

You become accustomed to holding low-level tension in your body for your entire workout, and throughout your day. And in fact, you become so accustomed to it that not holding that tension would feel weird at first, like you aren’t trying hard enough. (for more on holding tension, see this post by Dr. Seth Oberst)

The goal is to become someone capable of using varying degrees of tension based on the current situation you find yourself in. In other words, be adaptable.

look around you

Start to become aware.
Begin to notice yourself as you go through your workout and your day. You may not be able to notice your tension yet, but you can start to notice your breath.

See if you can notice when you’ve been holding your breath slightly. You’ll likely be surprised at just how often you aren’t fully exhaling or inhaling during your day. Once you notice, you’ll exhale. This is an excellent first step to letting go of unnecessary tension in your soft tissue. It also supports the parasympathetic nervous system (aka, your “rest and digest” system) which helps ease feelings of stress, reduces muscle rigidity, and reduces stress chemicals in your body.

Movement and fitness are not wars to be won. ‘Giving effort’ is doing enough work and not more. It’s listening to your body’s responses and adjusting accordingly.

It’s trusting in the work you’ve put in already and it’s patience that the journey is progressing in a timely and appropriate manner.

ten habits of an unbreakable human

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