Tag Archives: agonist

Better Bodywork: Muscle Tug-of-War

TL;DR Version: Know your anatomy, and always know (and carefully check) the antagonist if someone is coming to see you for pain and/or tight muscles. Pain and tension are often symptoms, not the cause of their issue.

KEY: People often feel pain/tension where tissue is overstretched or stretched tightly (often referred to as “locked long”). Think about this for a moment. Really…. think about the implications of digging in and stretching these tight muscles even more. This is often what clients ask us to do. RESIST THE URGE to dig in. Ultimately they want relief, but some clients (and some therapists) think it is to be done by digging into the tight tissue where clients are feeling the pain. This WILL provide temporary relief, but it will exacerbate the problem over time… remember, this tissue is stretched tight.

After seeing thousands of clients (I keep track, so I know that statement is accurate) I’ve seen this pattern again and again to the point where it has completely changed my approach to bodywork, and it is proving to be fast, effective, and unlike anything my clients or medical professionals I work with have seen or experienced before.

The body functions as a dance of opposites. Muscles rarely, if ever, pull in only one direction. In almost all instances when performing a movement, there are the agonists (muscle(s) performing an action), and antagonists (muscle(s) doing the opposite action). Examples of this would be Quadricepts vs. Hamstrings, Forearm Flexors vs. Forearm Extensors, Calves vs. Tibialis Anterior, etc.

This is an example and direct use (and simplified version) of the tensegrity principle, but hopefully one that will help your clients immediately if you aren’t already using it.

Put it to use immediately: Most clients will see a therapist for pain/tension in the shoulders, either on top of the shoulders, or between the scapulae.

Pain/tension at the top of the shoulder blades at the base of the neck: follow that line of tension to the other side of the shoulder blade (inferior lateral), and in about 90% of cases, there will be shortened, bound tissue. When you relieve this, the top of the shoulders relax. Remember: Long/tight is symptom; short/bound/immobile non-local tissue is often the underlying cause.

Pain/tension between the scapulae: AGAIN: RESIST THE URGE TO DIG IN between the blades. First: Check Pectoralis Minor, and release if tight. Second: If the scapulae have drifted laterally, work and release tissue on the lateral border to allow the scapula to move back into a more neutral position, thus relieving tension where the client’s pain area is located (the medial border).

When you address the underlying issue where the tissue is bound/short, get the blood moving through it, and give it an appropriate length, the tight/overstretched tissue should immediately relax/decrease in tension. Palpate to confirm this.
Will this fix the issue long term? Probably not, but the issue will not be exacerbated over time utilizing this style of bodywork.

What WILL fix the problem long term? This style of postural corrective bodywork COMBINED WITH conscious functional/postural improvements on the part of the client. If you stop doing the thing that puts you in compromised posture, longterm results are likely.  If your job or hobbies put you in compromised positions, see a therapist regularly for maintence.