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  • Kim Brandt

Listening With Curiosity~By Kim Brandt, Registered Massage Therapist~

Something that has puzzled me for years is the persistence of body tension even when we sleep. Occasionally people fall asleep on my table while we work. I know they are sleeping because of their respiration. I am honored that people feel comfortable enough to drift into slumber so I know that the danger sensors in their brain feel safe and while they appear relaxed there is very little or no reduction in myofascial tension. It appears some tissue, even at rest, with no consideration for gravity hold tension and some cases considerable tension. My search of Google Scholar and the SFU Library revealed no scholarly studies about held muscular tension during sleep but mounds of studies about nocturnal movement and certainly bruxism or teeth grinding.

Full Catastrophe Living is the title of a book by Jon Cabot-Zinn, the well-known mindfulness teacher. That title may rightly sum up the state of life for many these days. The emotional onslaught of life lands on and “into” us every day. Little bits, day by day, sometimes huge dumps, the barrage continues and although we are highly adaptable it is impossible to avoid absorbing some “hits”.

The above paragraph is an article on its own, however there is one particular piece that is “up” for me these days and apparent on magazine racks everywhere. These objectified glossy images proliferate and feign health but insidiously focus on image. The covers and their possible retouched images tout health but shout “sex, weight loss, not enough, and on and on”.

Beyond the mass cultural hypnosis, which is upsetting enough, there is a technical reason for my ranting and that is why I write to you today. It’s about “six-pack or tight abs”. Below I will outline my concerns and theory.

In order for a joint to move, we need to contract a muscle while another reflexly releases. This automated system holds true throughout the body. Let me illustrate with the lower leg. If I straighten (extend) my lower leg I contract my quads and at the same time my hamstrings automatically release. When I bend (flex) my lower leg I contract my hamstrings and my quads release. A contractive activation of one stimulates the other to let go and is known as the agonist-antagonist relationship. The aspect to note here is the release of the muscle that is allowing the movement (the antagonist). The agonist initiates the action, the antagonist opposes the action.

Lower back pain is a common issue for many who visit our office. Powerful movement muscles connect to and through the pelvis and hips. The primary movers for pelvic flexion/extension on the anterior (front) are Abdominals and Obliques, while posteriorly (back) the Erectors and Obliques. (See attached images)

I have a theory and invite you to view it with a sense of open minded curiosity and healthy doubt.

Theories are essentially unproven hypothesis. Research may be inconclusive but the idea “makes sense”. If the proponents are influential people, their ideas are often believed as true thus becoming commonly held conventional beliefs. Recently I began to challenge what I was taught about myofascia discovering much of the research on how fascia impacts a moving body had been done on cadavers. That sure threw a wrench in what I thought I was doing.

In 1978 Dr Gabe Mirkin coined the acronym RICE: Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate. He was a trusted professor and people took him at his word. In 2015 he recanted his opinion citing absolutely no evidence to support his views. Current science has demonstrated the ineffectiveness and even impediment to recovery his beliefs promoted, yet RICE is become so ingrained in our culture coaches, athletes, and others still follow this unsupported and potentially deleterious protocol.

Here is a fact: There is an agonist/antagonist muscular relationship involved in movement.

I am curious about what happens when an antagonist muscle is consciously or unconsciously contracting/holding when it receives the neurologically auto-generated message to “let go” when the agonist contracts. That would be the message to relax as the agonist muscle creating the movement contracts. If you want to geek out on this here is research on Primal Reflex Release Technique.

This brings me to my “tight abs” gripe. Here is an everyday illustration of what I mean using a common movement. Let’s say I want to stand from sitting. I roll forward slightly from my chair and move into an upright position. Not complicated, right? It’s an action we do countless times daily. What I’d like you to consider is what facilitates that movement. There is a lot going on, but I’d like to focus on the erector muscles of the back. They assist you in standing upright. The antagonists to the erectors are the abdominals. If the abdominals are consciously held or hyper-toned due to over development (like a gazillion ab-crunches) your contracting spinal erectors will have to work harder to overcome the resistance. Make sense? To overcome abdominal muscle resistance you can work to strengthen your lower erectors but what about letting go of your belly? If we persist in overworking the agonist (mover) our miraculous brain will adapt a compensatory approach which usually becomes problematic over time. I would argue strengthening the lower back to overpower the restricted abs is also a form of compensation.

My Theory is that if we consciously contract our belly muscles it may interfere and inhibit the functioning of very powerful back musculature. This may contribute to overuse of the Hip Flexor (Iliopsoas) or other musculature in the low back contributing to low back pain.

My solution friends........lovingly let your belly hang lose.

Imagine your pelvis as a bowl that allows water to flow and pour over the pubic bone (in flexion). When you sit, try moving a bit close to the front of the chair to allow for pelvic flexion.

As for those magazines, I am not denigrating the fine recipes or articles but encourage you to reflect wisely on the objectified image laden portrayals culturally prescribed therein. They are created to get you to buy product. The sales pitch is specifically designed to effectively play on and magnify any negative body images you hold. With over two decades of experience in bodywork I’ve met many who harbour less than loving relationships with their bodies.

In closing, I’d encourage a sense of curiosity about your body, noticing the tightness and contractions of your muscles. They may be telling you about emotional discord or postural/compensatory issues. Please, notice them before they begin to call out to you in pain. We are designed to live pain free. Your body is continuously communicating with you, it only intensifies the messaging to pain under duress. Your body is doing its level best to support you.

I listen with curiosity to the inner conversation from held tension and tightness in myself and work toward releasing my own and facilitating that for others, as best I can. I attempt to offer long term solutions, but hunch that long term success often comes from within. In full catastrophe living, learning to release held tension requires more than just periodic massage. I will write again soon, as I have a few theories on “longer-term” solutions.

I invite your comments or questions.

Until then,

Kim Brandt, RMT

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