After my long walk around Greenlake this morning, my quads felt tight and my knees sore. I did a little self-massage on my quads and I found that these muscles did feel quite tight, contracted, and ropey. The massage helped for sure, but I decided to pull another bodywork trick from my toolbox: muscle energy techniques. The two techniques that I employ the most (for myself as well as for my clients) are reciprocal inhibition and contract-relax. These two techniques help soften and lengthen tight, contracted muscles. And you can experiment with these two methods in the comfort of your own home or even at work.
So, today I started with a contract-relax exercise, which is basically the process of contracting the muscle that is already tight, holding the tension for about five slow breaths, and then releasing the tension. Whenever I do this exercise, I imagine that I am giving my muscles a little lesson on relaxation. It's as if I am saying to my quads, "This is what tense is. Feel it?" as I tense my muscles even more. When I relax, it's as if I am saying to my muscles, "See, this is what relaxed feels like." I do this exercise at least three times and then do a quad stretch to add more length to the muscle.
Reciprocal inhibition is the process of relaxing muscles on one side of a joint by contracting the muscles on the other side of the joint. So, for example, if I want to relax my quads, I need to tighten my hamstrings. If I want to relax my hamstrings, I must tighten my quads. I use the same technique of holding the contraction on the opposing muscle group for a good five breaths before stretching.
Try experimenting with this yourself to see which method your body seems to respond to the best. You can do either of these techniques with any muscle group. Here are some examples of common reciprocal inhibition exercises to give you an idea: contract your abdominals to relax your back muscles; flex your head to one side with resistance to soften the opposite side of your neck; for tight calves, hook your toe under a chair or couch to tighten your shin muscles, consequently loosening your calves.
Always remember to follow these techniques with gentle stretching. And remember to breathe. Breath is very important in sending the message to your body to let its guard down and relax.