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Tight, Taut, or Toned - The Scoop on Muscles

"We are to exercise to tighten and tone our muscles, but tightened muscles are our enemy - how can we have both?"

Read that again. Isn't it a great question? I think so.

I'd have to agree, it can get confusing. Yet there is a subtle difference between muscles that are tight, taut, or toned. Read on...

Owning toned, flexible muscles is the ideal you're working toward. The ideal state of muscle tissue is flexible, balanced, and toned. In this state, the muscle has the complete freedom to respond to your requests for movement, relaxation, or work output -- like lifting you up a flight of stairs -- an activity that opposes the natural pull of gravity!

A little background info will help. Muscles work in pairs. For example, the bicep muscle on the front of your arms works with the tricep muscle on the back of your arm. Your chest muscles, working as a group, work with the muscles of your upper back.

The key characteristic of this pairing is that when one muscle group contracts, the opposing muscles are supposed to relax. When everything's going well, both groups have equal ability to relax at what's known as their normal resting length.

Toned, flexible muscles use very little of your energy while you are at rest -- and they use your energy very efficiently when they're working. They also feel comfortable to live with.

Tight muscles, on the other hand, have lost some of their flexibility and their ability to relax. Using the bicep / tricep example, it's not unusual for a person to have tight biceps. This muscle is used when you pick things up or perform a "curl" movement lifting weights. It also remains in a shortened position when you do many of your daily activities, such as sitting at a desk typing on your computer. And, it's involved in a number of stress-based posture patterns.

You might think of tight muscles as being "addicted" to contraction. You can send the relax message all you want, but try as they might, they cannot return to their normal resting length on their own.

In fact, the longer your muscles remain overly tight, the worse things get. One of the reasons is your body thinks it's doing you a big favor by keeping the muscle just under the length that would cause it stress (the normal resting length -- which does stress it due to the muscle's new habit of being too short).

If you notice this situation early on, you may be able to remedy it by doing some specific stretching or movement therapy. After a while, though, little tiny adhesions will form. They'll respond better to mechanical therapy (massage therapy is one example) than stretching or movement.

Eventually, if you continue to leave a tight muscle situation unaddressed, your bones will re-shape themselves in response to the force your body has applied. These skeletal system changes are much more challenging to un-do, as you might imagine.

If your bicep muscle is chronically tight, the opposing muscle - your tricep - is taut, or over-stretched. A taut muscle is also "addicted" to contraction, but for a different reason.

You see, the tissue in your nerves only has about 15% freedom to elongate before it rips. This would be very bad news! So your muscular system has a built-in safety feature that tries to prevent this from happening. It "locks" over-stretched muscles in what's known as an eccentric contraction.

This situation will really get your attention, because from the inside, you'll be getting the "white flag." One way or another, this is the muscle whose job it is to communicate to you that something's wrong. Sometimes the communication comes through as a pain signal, other times it simply feels tight. A third option occurs when your muscles simply re-arrange your posture for you.

You'll try and stretch it out, but your relief will be short-lived. That's because the remedy it needs is found on the opposite side. The "bully" bicep muscle -- stuck in the shortened position we just described -- needs to learn to chill out.

By the way, tight and taut muscles both consume a lot more of your energy -- both at work and at rest. Ultimately, they can never really relax. Unfortunately, neither can you. Even simple daily activities can begin to feel like a big, exhausting drag.

To re-balance tight and taut muscles is simple, in theory. First, you normalize the contracted muscles using mechanical / manual therapy. Then, you restore flexibility through stretching. Often, at this point, muscle tone returns to normal on its own. If not, a specific light weight-training program may help.

Attempting to strength-train a muscle that's already too contracted or fatigued, of course, is unlikely to produce the result you want.

Check under the "holistic body" tab for related articles -- or the July 3, 2006 post for info on exercise for fitness.

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Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health — or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of — you!

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Comments (2)

George Lowther:

Thank you for explaining some science behind the behavior of muscles. I think I understand now why the combination of fitness classes I participate in and the neural-muscular therapy you provide is working so well for me. I am encouraged with this knowledge to keep both activities going to maintain my fitness level as I grow older.

80% of my practice is helping clients with this type of condition. They are so amazed at the improvment that they refer all thier frends.

Hans Albert Quistorff, LMP
Antalgic Posture Pain Specialist

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Elizabeth Eckert, Healthy Living & Wellness Coach

Elizabeth Eckert, PhD

I enjoy observing human nature and helping people be healthy. I'm author of Word Cures and creator of the WordCures.com healthy living website. (more)

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Note: The information and ideas offered here are personal opinions of a general nature. No opinion posted here constitutes medical advice, either general or personal. If you have a health concern, please consult with your medical doctor and follow his or her advice. The author disclaims responsibility for any misuse or misinterpretation of any opinion posted here.

(c) 2006-09 Elizabeth Eckert

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