Muscular Imbalance - a guest post from Katrina, The Fix Program

We're not talking about food today.

We're talking about pain-free and balanced bodies!

Meet Katrina, the founder and experienced Pilates instructor at The Fix Program.
She's sharing her expertise on body & balance for better health and wellbeing.

I think this topic is crucial because although food and diet plays a huge role in sustaining our health, it's also vital to maintain good muscular balance for better posture, healthier joints, and pain-free movement.

So I'll hand over to Katrina for her to help you achieve a better balanced body.

Walking the tightrope of good muscular balance

How Pilates can fight the battle of weak and tight muscles and improve your postures and pain.

Have you ever wondered why one leg always feels tighter than the other when you stretch, or why you have pain in only one side of your body?
 If you have been to a physio, osteo or chiro with an injury or pain, you would have possibly heard your practitioner say that your ‘muscles are imbalanced’ and this is a probable reason for your painful problem. Perhaps your personal trainer tells you this at the gym, or you have even felt it for yourself?
This asymmetry we feel is very usual for the human body, but often it gets somewhat out of hand. Why can this occur?
·       Poor daily postures and habits can load up these body asymmetries even further, causing joint stresses, poor muscle activities and tension.  Have you ever sat with your legs crossed or your chin rested on an elbow resting on your desk? We are all guilty of these habits!

·       Weakness and a general ‘deconditioning’ of our bodies as we age or as we become increasingly sedentary makes us even less likely to cope with these stresses on our bodies.

·       Pain itself can play a huge factor in making us adapt our postures. Have you noticed how your body is very smart when it comes to protecting you from a painful joint or body region?  These changes, if we are not aware of them, can become habits and cause further ‘imbalance’. Pain makes your muscles more tense at a physiological level also (But that’s another whole blog article in itself!)
·       Everyday stress and anxiety levels also can compound the imbalance of muscle tension and activity about our bodies. This is particularly so about the upper back and neck.

Back at your physio, osteo or chiro appointment, muscular imbalance was probably explained to be the cause of the pain you were having- whether it be postural pain, muscular injuries such as a strain or tendonitis, or joint irritation.

So, how does any of this start?
When you look at a child who is free of pain, and watch them move as they play or as they sit to eat, they have the most stunning poise and posture. The way they move is uninhibited and as it should be. Their posture is held with balance across all of the muscles that need to work to hold their little bodies up. They have not yet been affected by positions of sitting all day like we adults, or sedentary lifestyle or bad postural habits. Have you ever seen a child sitting cross legged at the table?
You could say that their muscles are ‘balanced.’
As we become accustomed to new ‘learned’ postures that are not ideal, muscles begin to work in altered ways. These slow insidious changes to our body become the new way we hold ourselves- the new habits. Some muscles will begin to work harder (or have increased tone) and others will become weaker.  Crossed legs, chins poked out to look at the monitor, rounded shoulder posture at the keyboard all day  - all perfect and very common examples of how muscles begin to work very differently than they were intended.
You could say that in this instance, muscles become ‘imbalanced’.

What is muscle tone?
Muscular tension and imbalance can be explained further by exploring ‘muscle tone’.  Muscles have a normal state of tension, even at rest. This is called tone. The muscles continuously ‘buzz away’ with an ongoing low intensity message from the nerves that connect to them. So in reality, muscles at rest really aren’t resting completely.  This tone of muscles is necessary to protect them from sudden injury form stretching, or to help maintain normal posture and support around the joints of the body.  

Why is muscle tone important for happy healthy bones, joints and postures?
The tone of each muscle around every joint of the body needs to be balanced for the alignment and movement of the joint to be optimal. In poor posture, in injury, in compensated or adapted movements, this becomes out of whack. Some muscles become spasmed or tight (you could say in ‘high tone’ or ‘over-active’), while other muscles nearby may become weakened or not activated (you could say in ‘low tone’ or ‘under-active’).
This ‘imbalance’ and can pull a joint into poorer alignment and encourage further weaknesses, less support for the joint, altered movement, stresses, loads and pain.
Take the image of the tightrope walker. You could imagine that the tightrope walker with the beautifully balanced pole is your painfree joint with the muscular balance from each side perfectly matched.  He remains centred, balanced, performing at his best.
Now if you could imagine the tightrope walker without the balanced pole - with too much pole length pulling him one way and not enough length from the other side to pull him back. This is the painful joint or posture with an imbalanced muscle system supporting it, all overloaded, stressed and painful.

Where does Pilates fit in with all of this?
Pilates can have you restoring better muscular balance in the body.  Through mindful and thoughtful movement and postural awareness, muscles will be forced almost to begin to work in balance.
It is a wonderful thing to understand, that with good skeletal and joint alignment, muscles will begin to work as they should. This makes the whole notion of restoring postural and muscular balance and easier job to do as you go throughout your day.
Pilates beautifully achieves this though multiple methods.

·       Through exploring the wonderful world of your deep postural muscles, you become more aware of muscles that you possibly have never thought of before. Your diaphragm, your deep abdominal corset, deep shoulder blade muscles and the pelvic floor hammock of muscles under the pelvis. Learning to subtly find and then engage and strengthen these very important muscles will open your eyes to the role of the deep postural muscles within the body.

·       With improving deep postural awareness and strength from Pilates based exercises, you can learn to replicate these feelings as you go about everyday movements and postures, from how you dance, move walk, run, carry, lift, stand and sit. 

·       Learning to harness the breath and feel its direct connection to posture and other muscles can make you less prone to tension, anxiety. Breathing well with the diaphragm not only makes you a more efficient breather, but it can reduce shoulder, chest and neck tension, and reset your emotional well being. It can switch you from a high stress drive to a relaxed one.   

·       Muscle imbalance usually occurs with an overactivity and heightened tension of the larger outer muscles of the body. Pilates can have these muscles ‘letting go’ as strength of the deeper postural muscles improves.  There is less need for the outer muscles to be engaged  to hold you up if your inner muscles are strong.

·       With a new mindfulness of your body, you will be able to feel yourself returning to a happier muscular balance in your shoulders, spines, hips and pelvises. You will feel able to switch on your weaker muscles and feel yourself letting go of the tight.

Pilates and your friendly physiotherapist can teach you about restoring the correct muscular balance and muscle tone around your painful joints and postures.  You can then achieve that perfect postural support, joint alignment and movement perfection.
You will be then on your way to walking that tightrope! 

To read more about Pilates and physiotherapy , visit The Fix Program.
Katrina Tarrant is the owner and principal physiotherapist of The Fix Program in Sydney’s CBD. The Fix Program, helping many since 2005, is a clinic and Pilates studio designed to heal, strengthen and protect bodies from injury and pain. Katrina is also a mother of two energetic boys and is passionate about achieving the physical and mental best in a woman throughout her childbearing years.

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