Updated: Jul 8
I still remember one of my little league coach’s favorite expressions when I was pitching. Any time I got into a situation that was stressful (runners on base, game on the line, etc.) he would yell, “Relax, just throw strikes.” I remember when he first said that I would look inward and say, “Alright I just need to relax and I will be fine”. Then I would be so focused on relaxing that the batter would hit a double and the runners would score. I eventually started tuning my coach out and performed much better. I figured that relaxing was the last thing that I needed to do for better results.
So naturally I am writing this to tell you that relaxation is one of the under-appreciated keys to moving better.
Funny how life comes full circle like that.
I won’t be talking about performance on the field, as that is a completely different beast that involves mental skills and practice, which is beyond the scope of this post. For reference, relaxation can be helpful on the field, as Alex Rodriguez talked about in this Sports Illustrated article.
What I want to focus on involves relaxation as it relates to movement quality and ease. It makes sense that relaxing can help with movement. Try flexing your biceps as hard as you can and, while flexing, extend your elbow. It is very hard to move a muscle that is tight and engaged. The questions becomes: how can we relax our muscles to allow for effective movement, without it becoming a no bones day?
There are three main strategies that I utilize with clients for improved mobility and relaxation: confronting fears, breathing patterns, and getting stronger. Let’s look at each one.
First there is confronting fears. This sounds dramatic, but what I mean is answering questions from clients that come to me in pain. When you are experiencing pain, it is natural to be fearful. After all, pain is uncomfortable for a reason. If you were a caveman and something wanted to eat you, then you should be afraid of it. Cavemen who weren’t afraid of things probably died. Unfortunately, our bodies can overreact to pain sometimes and have trouble turning off the nerves that are sending pain signals.
If you are interested, there is an excellent video by a researcher named Lorimer Moseley on Youtube about pain science. It is only 15 minutes and I would highly recommend it, as he is extremely entertaining and knowledgeable.
Moseley discusses the fear of a snake causes his body to react to a light brush as if he was bitten again. Now, I am guessing that you have not been bitten by a snake, but imagine that you bend over to pick something up and feel sharp pain in your back. Once you recover from your pain, you will be hesitant to pick something up again. After all, the last time you did that it hurt. Eventually you convince yourself to pick something up, but your back remembers the pain and when you bend at the exact angle where you were before then the pain reappears.
What do you do? Never pick something up again? You would be surprised how many people choose this option and are then surprised when their pain persists. Maybe you become “smarter” about your bending and start to squat down a lot more, keep your spine in neutral, and lift much more carefully. That seems like the smart thing to do, in fact a physical therapist may have told you to do that.
Let me throw a curveball at you. A study in 2020 looked at 8 other studies of people with low back pain and how they lifted. The studies showed that people with low back pain tend to “move slower, stiffer, and with a deeper knee bend than pain-free people”(1)
This makes no sense. Why do the people with “safer” lifting techniques have back pain?
Should we all start lifting with bad mechanics?
I would say maybe. I have worked with a lot of clients with chronic low back pain. It is fascinating to watch them move because many of them are incapable of lifting with poor mechanics. They maintain such stiffness and rigidity that they cannot move their back unless it is as one unit.
So, if proper mechanics does not matter as much as we thought, what can help these people have more mobility and move pain-free? It turns out educating them is very helpful. Giving examples like the video I linked to above can help. Also, it is important to understand the prevalence of low back pain. Did you know that 15-20% of adults have back pain in a given year? Did you also know that 50-80% experience it in their life? (2)
If I told you that approximately 80% of people experienced something, you would think that was normal. For instance, it is estimated that 90% of people are right handed. You don’t find it odd if someone is right handed, but if someone experiences low back pain, we forget that 80% of the population will experience it as an adult. This is not to discredit people going through pain, as I have worked with hundreds of people experiencing it. However, it is helpful to know that you are not alone. You never want to be the person suffering the condition that the doctor has never seen before, instead there is strength in numbers.
So, to wrap up this first section, if you want to move better, relax your thoughts. If 80% of people have low back pain, then a vast majority of them recover quickly and it is not serious. Having this information alone can be beneficial in allowing better mobility.
Next, let’s talk about breathing. Now, we can get deep into breathing mechanics and all of that (I kind of did that here). Instead, I want to talk briefly about the nervous system and how breathing affects it.
We have different parts to our nervous system: the autonomic and somatic. The somatic system is what we use when we contract muscles, feel something, etc. The autonomic nervous system is not under conscious control. Your autonomic system is made up of your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Your sympathetic nervous system can be thought of as fight or flight while your parasympathetic is more rest and digest.
Obviously your entire nervous system is crucial, but I want to talk about what happens when your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is overly stimulated. This can result in an inability to relax because your body is consistently excited. Interestingly, your sympathetic nervous system mostly originates from your thoracic spine.
Don’t worry about what each nerve does, it is not important for this. However, it is important that your sympathetic nerves mostly come from your thoracic spine. Do you know what else is involved with your thoracic spine?
That’s right, your ribs!
Now, what do we use our ribs for? If you guessed breathing, great job!
Imagine that you are taking a bunch of shallow breaths. Your ribs won’t expand very much and there is very little motion in your thoracic spine. This can lead to irritation and stiffness around those sympathetic nerves we just discussed. Nerves want to move. They need blood and motion to be healthy, and not moving our thoracic spine with breathing can limit their mobility. We take approximately 20,000 breaths per day, which is 20,000 chances to stretch those muscles and mobilize those nerves.
I will give you one exercise that I like to use to help clients feel their ribs move with breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose and then exhale gently through your mouth. You should exhale like you were trying to make a candle flicker in front of you, so some force but not a ton. As you exhale, you should feel your obliques kick on in your sides. Try to maintain that tension in your obliques while taking a breath in. You should feel less air into your stomach, but more into your ribs. You might feel a little stretch when you do so and that is a good thing.
This exercise is just to show you what stretching your ribs should feel like. You won’t breathe like this forever, but it shows you what is possible. If you take a few breaths like this, you may notice that you can rotate further because your thoracic spine and body are a little more relaxed!
So we have discussed how to relax your thoughts and breathing, which are very helpful. However, if you have to pick up a heavy box, there is only so much relaxation you can do. This leads me to my last way to increase relaxation and mobility: getting strong.
Imagine that this guy is lifting a 50 pound box off the ground:
He is probably not going to have much of a problem compared to someone who is much skinnier. Think of when you curled your biceps in the very beginning of this post. If you contract your biceps as hard as you can, it is tough to relax and move. However, if you only contract them 50% as hard, it is easier to move.
If a 50 pound box is the heaviest thing that you have lifted before, you will need all of your muscle to lift it. However, if you routinely deadlift 100 pounds, then 50 pounds is not so challenging. You will be able to relatively relax while lifting a weight that is easier for you.
We often get caught up in mobility and education, but at the end of the day strength is strength. You are much less likely to get hurt if you are stronger because your body is ready to handle the load. Also, you will be more confident in lifting it because you handle heavier weights all of the time. Strength is typically how we get long term improvements and paradoxically this leads to relaxation and increased mobility.
In summary, if you understand the science behind pain to decrease your fear, how to breathe properly to decrease your nerves, and get stronger to make lifting easier, then you can relax.
Did this help? Great! Do you have more questions or ideas for future posts? Even better! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested in working with me for physical therapy and are located near our office in Sterling, VA, reach out!
You can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter @drdannydpt
If you found this helpful, please share it so that we can continue to grow the knowledge and community. Thanks for reading!
1 Nolan D, O'Sullivan K, Newton C, Singh G, Smith BE. Are there differences in lifting technique between those with and without low back pain? A systematic review. Scand J Pain. 2020;20(2):215-227. doi:10.1515/sjpain-2019-0089
2 Rubin DI. Epidemiology and risk factors for spine pain. Neurol Clin. 2007;25(2):353-371. doi:10.1016/j.ncl.2007.01.004