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Body Hack #3: How to keep your muscles happy

Updated: Feb 17, 2023



Muscle injuries make up a significant portion of the injuries I treat in my physio clinic every week. Fun fact: You don’t have to do exercise to injure muscles! Sitting still for long periods can cause just as much trouble! In this article I’ll discuss the best ways to avoid muscle tears, overuse muscle injuries and muscle pain caused by tension or inactivity.

Learn how to avoid muscle tears, overuse muscle injuries and muscle pain caused by stress or inactivity

In this article:

  • Muscle tears may not be preventable…or are they?

  • The key to avoiding overuse muscle injuries

  • How to avoid or treat tension muscle pains

I've also discussed this topic in this video.

Muscle tears may not be preventable…or are they?

There are plenty of reasons why someone may tear a muscle and I totally agree that it may sometimes not be your fault. For instance, a while back I did a good job of tearing my hip flexor when I crashed my mountain bike (yeah I know I could have gone slower, but I’m going to say that I couldn’t avoid it!).

However, most of the muscle tears that I see in practice happened when the athlete either did not warm up properly or when they were tired.

The importance of warming up

A good warm-up routine not only raises your core temperature but also wakes up your nervous system. Your nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) is in charge of every single thing in your body – including your muscles and how they contract.

Your muscles may be strong, but they can only work properly if the nervous system is fully awake and giving it clear and well timed signals. Have you ever misjudged the height of a step? It’s amazing how that miscalculation on the brain’s side can jolt you or even cause you to fall.

We don’t give it much thought but just think of all the calculations of exact muscle contraction speed, force and length the brain has to make with every step you give when you’re running in a straight line. Now imagine how this intensifies when you’re playing a game of football!

If you don’t wake your nervous system up properly before you do sport, you are at a greater risk of spraining or straining your muscles and joints.

Top tip: Warm-up properly before you exercise!

How being tired can cause muscle tears

Did you know that your nervous system can get tired? I never did. We often speak about our bodies feeling tired or our muscles feeling tired, but people don’t realise that their nervous system can also get exhausted and tired.

Remember how your nervous system controls the quality of your movements and muscle contractions? When your nervous system gets tired your muscles fibres may contract slightly out of sync with each other and that can cause muscles tears.

That’s why athletes are often at a higher risk of tearing a muscle when they train on tired legs or towards the end of a hard training session or match. It’s not only exercise that can tire your nervous system out. Mental fatigue has also been shown to increase your risk of sustaining injuries.

Top tip: Schedule your more complex training moves towards the start of a session so that your nervous system is still fresh and in full control. If you’re feeling mentally drained, choose an easy workout that does not involve complex movements and focus on relaxing and enjoying the session.

The key to avoiding overuse muscle injuries

Up your training intensity/volume gradually

Your muscle fibres are only strong enough to cope with a certain load. What do I mean with load? Depending on what sport you do, load can mean weight (e.g. lifting 50kg) or miles you can run (20 miles per week) or number of exercise classes you can do etc.

If you do an activity that’s a lot harder or more intense than what your muscles can cope with, you’ll likely end up straining them. If, however, over time you add little bits of extra load slowly and carefully your muscles become stronger.

This feels like common sense but it’s amazing how easy it is to overstep the mark when you’re on a training high.

Top tip: Keep a training diary so that you can look back and see if you’ve increased your training too quickly. For runners, the current advice is to stick to the 10% rule and not increase your training volume or intensity by more than 10% per week.

Recovery, recovery, recovery…..

When we exercise our bodies sustain micro-trauma and they fatigue. This micro-trauma is actually important as it acts as the stimulus to tell the brain that we need our muscles to be stronger.

During the hours immediately after training the body has to repair this micro-trauma. If you give your muscles enough recovery time before your next training session, they will be stronger than before. If, however, you train again too soon (before they’ve fully recovered) they may be weaker than before. If you do this too often, you may end up giving them an overuse injury.

How your body responds to exercise.

How much recovery time you need will depend on your level of fitness as well as the intensity of the exercise session you’ve done. As a rough guide the research suggests that you should allow at least 24 hours after a moderate training session and 48 hours after an intense exercise session.

Top tip: Your recovery is just as important as your training. You can read more about how to schedule your running training to avoid injury in this article. The article’s written for runners, but the general principles can be applied to any sport.

How to avoid or treat tension muscle pains

Hands up if you’ve ever ended up with a stiff neck or back from spending hours in front of the computer. Or do you perhaps find your neck muscles tighten up when you’re in a stressful situation?

One’s natural instinct is often to want to stretch the muscles that are tight or click your joints. This can provide some temporary relief but a much more effective and lasting solution is to exercise them.

By doing exercise that moves your whole body (especially the stiff bits) and that increases your heart rate you:

  • increase the blood flow through the tight muscles which makes them more flexible and provides them with the oxygen and nutrients they need;

  • your body produces endorphins (happy hormones!) that calms the nervous system down, improves your mood and decreases your stress levels.

Other modalities e.g. massage and dry needling are also very good at providing pain relief, but this usually doesn’t last very long. I find that active exercise provides more lasting relief from tension related muscle stiffness and pain for my patients. It’s also something that they can do without my help! It is, however, important to choose your exercise wisely. If you have a sensitive, painful neck, doing quick uncontrolled movements with arm weights may not be the best option.

Choosing more controlled activities that are set at the right level for you may be more appropriate. So speak with your physiotherapist before you dive in.

Top tip: Counter the effect of tension muscles aches and pains with active exercise.

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate


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