• Mark Austin

Healthy Muscles Know How to Relax

This topic has come up a few times during some recent appointments in my Calgary-based physiotherapy office! A healthy muscle isn't one that's just strong or flexible. Healthy muscles should also be supple and capable of fully relaxing and disengaging.

Many people, particularly those with histories of long-term stress or chronic pain (in one area or widespread), tend to lose some sensory awareness and motor control-- their muscular finesse, so to speak-- to voluntarily relax areas of chronic tension.

For example, those with chronic neck pain may not realize they aren't actually letting their neck muscles relax when they lay their head down on their pillow at night—their head rests on the pillow, but they don’t realize that their neck muscles aren't fully disengaging. I've experienced this in the past in overcoming my own neck injury.

We also all know someone who holds tension in their shoulders at work, never stopping to sigh and let them relax. They hold tension day in, day out, and do not even notice it because they become so used to it being their normal state.

Chronic back pain? Most people with back pain spend way more time tightening and engaging their core as they move around than they do letting go and allowing for freedom of movement throughout the entire spine. This is common in athletes such as Olympic lifters, power lifters, and those who enjoy CrossFit -- they usually show up as a new patient in my clinic, and when I ask them to bend forward to touch their toes, they instead perform a hip hinge! We have gotten a little too good at preaching neutral spine under load.

Sometimes this inability to voluntarily let go of muscle tension can even happen throughout the entire body, especially in those with widespread pain.

Mindful movement practices (such as yoga!) are not only great ways to improve strength and mobility-- they also help us develop a deeper awareness and sense of control over e muscle, big and small. So in yoga we don’t just wake up, 'activate', or strengthen muscles-- we also to teach our muscles to fully let go and relax. This is why savasana is so important at the end of your yoga session.

Progressive relaxation and body scan meditations are also great ways to learn to let each muscle group in your body let go and fully relax. These are especially helpful for people with chronic pain.

The deeper that this awareness and ability to 'let go' gets, the greater the potential for re-wiring of the entire body for less pain, and for more time to enjoy what really matters. If you are dealing with chronic pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, or an old sports injury that won't seem to fully resolve, learning how to employ these strategies can really help. Get in touch with me at or book in or learn more!


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