Many of you know I have MS. I also have a lot of other things wrong with me. I’ll spare you the mental health ones (who would read a blog that long?), but suffice it to say, I have some physical issues:
- My pelvis is uneven
- I have foot drop on the left side and…
- Poor left side grip strength
- Collapsed arches
- Arthritis in my left ankle
- My feet pronate
- My wrists hurt in weight-bearing exercises
- I have a healing torn infraspinatus muscle and
- I have piriformis syndrome and resulting sciatica when it flares up
I’m a wreck.
However, I consider all of my problems my best teacher of the truth of movement science. I am my own guinea pig. All of the exercises I make up or discover and throw at students, I’ve tried on myself first. Therefore, I know when an exercise feels like it really, really works your triceps, shoulders, muffin top, glutes, upper back, etc., and I’m hyper-aware of when something doesn’t feel quite right.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that it’s gotten harder to walk long distances. So I’ve gone to physical therapy for my poorly functioning left ankle (twice). I’ve tried rolfing, massage, orthotics, acupuncture, chiropractic, kinesiotaping… and, of course exercise.
My current realization affirms why Pilates works therapeutically. My left leg isn’t as weak as I think it is, it just really needs to be stretched.
Tightness = weakness.
An overly tight muscle (or connective tissue) will inhibit its opposing muscle’s strength.
What was once the result of an MS-related weakness – from a flare up nearly ten years ago – has become a structural issue from walking not-quite-right for a couple of years to flat-out-wrong for a couple of years beyond that. I cannot reach zero degrees of dorsiflexion in my left ankle. (That means that unless I’m standing on it, my ankle doesn’t come up to a 90 degree angle towards my leg). And doing a calf stretch for 5 or 10 minutes twice a day at this point won’t cut it.
I should also point out for the ladies (and some of the more adventuresome gents… Prince comes to mind) that high heeled shoes, in addition to shifting your pelvis into an undesirable position and making your legs look awesome, will also cause shortening of your calf muscles and Achilles tendons. Those trendy heels I used to love aren’t so good for balanced leg muscles.
So, as much as I tried to strengthen the muscles that flex my foot, it wasn’t working because the tightness in the back of my leg wouldn’t allow it. Think about it like this: If your bicep is contracting, it shortens, so your tricep has to lengthen. If both contracted at the same time, your arm couldn’t bend.
Muscles become tight for several reasons. The simplest is that they aren’t stretched or taken through their range of motion sufficiently. There might be a neurological problem that causes it, or the reason could be a biomechanical problem. The body will tighten around a joint that it recognizes as unstable to protect from further injury. Other causes of tightness include overuse, which can produce micro tears in the muscles. Those tears result in the muscles tightening to protect themselves. You could also be overstretching – activating the stretch reflex where the muscle contracts to stop you from injuring it –
through overly ambitious stretches. Of course, it could be a combination of more than one thing.
What I’m counting on now (and working towards) is the reaction where a properly stretched muscle will cause its antagonist muscle (the one that does the opposite job – in this case flexing my foot) to spontaneously increase in strength.
Now I am the proud owner of a highly annoying (but I’m sure good for me) stretch brace that I wear for hours and hours and hours on end, all with the goal of stretching out the tight leg muscles that are making foot flexion difficult.
The ultimate goal? No pain in my ankle and walking with a better gait…even in those moments when I choose fashion over dorsiflexion and break out the high heels (I did just get back from Italy…)
The next time you feel weak in one body part, look at the one that does the opposite motion and ask yourself – are you weak or tight? Or maybe both?
Stay hard core,