Many of us would benefit from finding better balance in our lives; whether that’s work-life balance or musculo-skeletal balance – although I’ll bet you give more thought to the former.
Finding time to exercise is a good place to start; exercise enhances mood and improves physical health. Having an awareness of how to counteract the negative physical effects of our work lives increases the benefits further.
First, let’s forget the concept of muscles working individually and envisage muscular chains running through our bodies, vertically and obliquely, which allow the phenomenal range of human movement. If a muscle in the chain is dysfunctional (strained, tight or weak, for example) then the whole chain is effected and movement impaired.
To create movement across a joint, muscles work together. Usually there is one “agonist” – the principle muscle whose contraction creates a movement, assisted by one or more “synergists” which assist the agonist and provide stability to the joint. There is also an “antagonist” which performs the opposite movement.
For example, bending the knee involves contraction of the hamstrings group, the agonist and synergists in this case. The antagonists here are the quadriceps muscles, which lengthen as the agonists contract. The opposite action of straightening the leg involves the two muscle groups swapping roles, and the quadriceps become the agonists and the hamstrings the antagonists.
The antagonist muscles also help control the action. For example, when kicking a football the quadriceps contract quickly to straighten the leg whilst the hamstrings stretch and act as a brake to the kicking action, preventing injury.
From this simple example you can begin to understand the complex balance of muscles’ roles in movement.
Unfortunately, our sedentary 21st century lifestyle encourages an imbalance between agonists and antagonists and confusion between agonists and synergists. One of the many negative effects of prolonged sitting is a classic example; the hip flexors get used to being a shortened position and are never fully “relaxed”, therefore their antagonist muscle, the gluteus maximus, is inhibited and becomes weak, lazy and dysfunctional. The gluteus maximus is the agonist in hip extension, but since it’s no longer functional, its synergists, the hamstrings and the muscles of the lower back, compensate, becoming overworked and prone to injury.
To make matters worse, when we work out we often choose to work on the muscles we see as we stand in front of the mirror; the abdominals, the biceps, the chest muscles (pectorals or pecs), the quadriceps, whilst neglecting their antagonists. Be honest; who hasn’t, even if only during their misguided youth, performed sit-ups until their abdominal muscles burn or bench-pressed heavy weights to exhaustion, without even stretching afterwards? Both activities exacerbate the imbalances that already exist from sitting at a desk for too long.
Even cycling, a great sport for cardio-vascular fitness, but whose forward posture entrenches the desk posture we’re trying to offset. Now, I’m not saying, don’t cycle, but I am saying that if cycling is your chosen sport, make sure you stretch the pecs and hip flexors thoroughly and don’t neglect the gluteals!
If you bench press, stretch the pecs afterwards and strengthen the muscles of the upper back to avoid the shoulders being pulled forwards – a frequent cause of neck and shoulder pain.
“The plank” is a great core strengthener but again focusses on muscles at the front of the body. Complement the plank with the posterior plank, which opens the chest whilst working hard the glutes and hamstrings.
Exercising is a positive thing, but giving some thought to how you can simultaneously counteract the negative effects of office work will double the reward and decrease the chance of injury.