Life can be crazy busy, and sometimes, it can be difficult to know if you’re doing the most effective workout for your body. There can also be the concern of nagging aches or pains that crop up. You don’t want them to turn into bigger issues that end up sidelining you from other life activities. But, you also need the stress relief and other health benefits you get from working out. Don’t give up. Let’s break down a few key principles that we can use to help build a program that is the most efficient while also addressing areas of concern.

We’ll cover…

  • Understanding the body tissues’ capacity to tolerate stress
  • Where muscle imbalances come from and why you should care
  • How to train efficiently without putting yourself at risk
  • How to make sure you’re getting enough physical activity

Understanding the Body Tissues’ Capacity for Stress

To understand how our bodies respond and adapt under physical load, we need to understand the Physical Stress Theory. This helps us to understand how we can train effectively while decreasing our risk for injuries. 

It states that “there are predictable changes when stress is applied to body tissues and those are dependent on the time, intensity, and direction of the stress.” Each body tissue has a maintenance level of stress that is required in order to maintain its current capacity or strength. If the stress applied to the tissues is higher than the maintenance level, then the tissues will increase their capacity and you get stronger. If the stress is lower than required to maintain, the tissue will decrease its capacity and you get weaker over time. 

This is why if you start a new workout program and do too much too fast, you can end up with an injury. The body’s tissues weren’t adapted enough to the stress to tolerate it. It also explains why if you spend too much time in one position, you can end up with an injury. The stress was less intense but occurred over a longer period of time. We have to take these factors into consideration when building our programs. 

Where Muscle Imbalances Come From and Why You Should Care

We hear the phrase muscle imbalances a lot. So, where do they come from? The truth is that most come from habitual postures that we are in throughout the day, or they can arise from past injuries. 

Habitual postures

For most of us, life occurs mostly in front of us. If we sit a lot for work, then the front of our hips will get tighter. This can cause a chain reaction with other muscles and change how active our glute muscles are. Let’s use another example. If you are constantly looking down at your phone because you are scrolling through social media or texting all the time, the muscles along the front of your neck get shortened and the ones along the back of your neck get stretched. Ever feel tension in your neck after looking at your phone for a while? It’s all part of the strain of the activity. 

Past injuries

When we have an injury, even something small, our brains and bodies go into protective mode. The brain stops sending as much output to the muscles in the area, so they tend to not get used as much. This can lead them to atrophy a bit. 

This is a necessary part of healing in the short term. The problem is research shows us that this decreased output and the changes in our movement patterns can stick around for the long haul. 

So why does it matter? 

Our bodies work best when the muscles are sharing the work during activities we do. If these muscle imbalances stay, then this is when the nagging pains can keep cropping up. It makes it difficult to train effectively when one area is getting overworked before the others. The result is usually pain in one area and disuse in another. This often leads to you stopping the activity without learning to train effectively. Over the long-term, this can predispose you to larger strains or even bigger injuries at the joint. It’s the equivalent of building a house from a crooked foundation. 

How To Train Effectively Without Putting Yourself At Risk

When you’re first starting out

When we begin any new exercise program or activity, we shouldn’t dive right into it without testing the waters. Like we mentioned above, we want to build from a solid foundation. We believe that having a higher rep count with a lighter weight is the ideal way to test how your body is responding to the new activity. This way, if your muscles are sore and achy, that means you did just enough but didn’t cause any damage. Now if the opposite happens where you feel you can’t walk the next day, or get out of bed or even cause damage on the skin, then that’s too much strain to your body and it’s time to adjust the program. Your body works in wonderful ways to send us signals when everything is okay to when it’s not. We just have to listen. 

Due to muscle imbalances that we talked about before, it is likely that there are certain muscle groups that are going to not work as well as others during your workouts. For instance, if you’re doing bigger movements like a squat and notice that you don’t feel your glutes at all but your quads are burning or you’re having knee pain, then that can be a sign that you need to do activities that work on the muscles on the back of the body, your extensor muscle groups. This is also known as your posterior chain. 

How To Train Effectively So You Get The Most Out of Your Workout

A well-rounded program is going to include the most opportunities for your body to adapt to higher loads and grow stronger so that you are more resilient and resistant to injury. 

Train in multiple planes

You want to be sure that you are training in multiple planes of movement. This is especially true if your work or workouts have you doing certain movements repetitively. Making sure that you are moving multi-directionally and working a variety of muscle groups will help to prevent imbalances from worsening.

When designing a strength program, it’s important to note that many of your muscles don’t just contract in one direction, so it’s important to train the full range. You can do this by adding rotational components to exercise, particularly ones that target the core. 

Having knowledge of the anatomy and direction of pull of the muscles in the area you are trying to work can help you train effectively and design a well-rounded program.

Train functional movements that you use daily

Another consideration is that you want to strengthen movement patterns that you use everyday. Incorporate larger functional movements like pushing, pulling, squatting, carrying, lifting, and lunging. Bonus if you can combine them with rotational movements as well to get even more efficient. However, we do want to warn if you feel you have overworked or are having difficulty with engaging bigger functional movements, it means that one of the areas involved might need some more strength work. Some simple exercises and extra TLC to get it up to par. Learning your body and how it responds to demand and stresses is the key factor here. If you notice pain or feel like an area is getting overworked and want some help determining how to fix it, consult with a movement specialist.

How To Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Physical Activity

The best way to keep your stress levels low is to allow for flexibility in your workout routine, but also know the minimal amount you want to accomplish daily. There will be days when you don’t sleep well, there is a lot going on with the family, or you are mentally drained. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Building the habit is what counts, and the next day is a new day of possibilities. 

How can you make it easier to get done in the first place?

Write it on your calendar.

30 min per day is the ideal amount of physical activity, but you can break it up over the course of the day. Think of it as prioritizing the time as part of “you time” so that you get your endorphin release and invest in your future health 

Habit stacking.

Recognize that exercise doesn’t have to be an all out sweat session, in workout clothes and done while throwing around weight equipment. It can be a quick exercise here or there. It all adds up. It gives your brain and body a power boost and shows that your body is capable of more than you think. It becomes easier if you pair it with an activity that you’re already doing. 

  • Squats while waiting on the microwave/switching over laundry 
  • Calf raises while brushing your teeth
  • Parking farther away from the store (even if its raining, haha we know you won’t melt)  
  • Carrying groceries inside while performing a few bicep curls with the bags
  • Unloading and putting dishes away on a shelf
  • Performing a stretching routine while sitting at your desk; set a timer every 30 mins for a short movement/stretch break. This will also help refresh you mentally so that you can be more efficient and productive. (If you move 250 steps every hour you will reach 10, 000 steps before the end of the day according to the American Heart Association) 
  • Taking a walk during lunch, getting those rays on your face from the sun and Vit D 

Having a good understanding about how your body responds to the stresses placed on it, how to correct muscle imbalances, and how to train effectively can help you manage your stress levels and stay injury-free. Getting into a solid workout routine without overtraining that also incorporates recovery elements is key. 

Many thanks to Megan McLain, PT, DPT and Ashley Irvin, PTA for this guest post!

Photo by Anupam Mahapatra on Unsplash