In order for the musculoskeletal system to work at optimal levels, prevent injury, and be free of inflammation or pain, it is necessary for all the muscles surrounding our joints to be in balance with each other by maintaining an optimal length to work properly. Many joint movements work with pairs or groups of muscles that have equal and opposite functions. For example, the bicep flexes the elbow pulling the forearm toward the shoulder whereas the tricep muscle on the back of the upper arm extends the elbow pulling the forearm back toward the hip. In order for the elbow joint to function properly, both the bicep and tricep have to be able to produce forces that move the bones of the elbow with equal force, balance, and coordination.
Often times, the activities of daily living, repetitive occupational or athletic movement, incomplete exercise technique/programming, or poor posture, lead to one of the muscles surrounding a joint to become over-short and the other over-lengthened. In the case of the above example, it is the bicep that often becomes too short and the tricep too long. When this happens, the elbow is continually pulled into a flexed (bent) position as the bicep becomes too short and the tricep becomes too long allowing for the motion to continue. Once this occurs, the joint becomes unbalanced and more stress in put on certain parts of the joint. This can lead to injury, inflammation, and chronic pain as seen in conditions such as tennis elbow, golfers elbow, tendonitis, and arthritis.
The most effective way to maintain proper muscle length, muscle function, and joint health is to include flexibility activities SPECIFIC to the over-short muscles and strengthening activities for the over-lengthened muscles. A trained fitness professional or health care practitioner can assess and recommend which muscles need to be lengthened, which need to be activated or “shortened” and how injury can be prevented through correcting the imbalances.