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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Buyer

#85: Tight vs Weak Muscles

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

When I convinced myself to take a break from the gym, I made a point to mention that I would evaluate whether or not I miss the gym, and if I think it’s something I should continue prioritizing. Each day of our trip was so incredibly full that I wouldn’t have had the chance to go to the gym even if I had planned to. If I had planned to, I would have constantly been torn between going to the gym and seeing Italy, or anxious that I wasn’t in the gym. I’m glad I allowed myself to take a break so that I’d have a chance to miss the gym.

When I see other people working (by working, I mean in the gym or their day job), I get impostor syndrome. I feel as though I shouldn’t relax when others are working, because I’m being falling behind, and that I haven’t ‘earned’ my free time. I admit that it’s not entirely rational, but that’s exactly why I’m writing about it. I felt the impostor syndrome this week as we traveled around Italy, passing various fitness centers and people with gym bags. I felt like I should’ve been at the gym, just like them. I felt weak walking past guys with gym bags and muscles, until I looked in the mirror and reminded myself of what I look like as a result of the regular hours I spend lifting. Just because I’m not in the gym for 5 days (okay, 10 days), doesn’t mean that I’m not muscular. I felt like such an impostor as I made my way through the streets of Italy, eating my fill of pasta, gelato, and whole milk coffee. I was hesitant to wear the outfits that I packed on some days, knowing that my stomach was a little more pronounced than usual. Despite this, I’m proud that this round of not feeling myself wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it used to be. I stretched when we had a few moments of waiting, such as on a boat in Lake Como, at the train station in Venice, on the train on the way back from Rome, etc. I made a point to enjoy all the food I wanted but not to overindulge, and give myself a break on how my clothes fit, but not to overindulge for the sake of it. (Except the night that I ate an entire box of double chocolate milk cookies.) Allowing myself to indulge as much as I want without being gluttonous teaches me that I can appreciate food while traveling, and be excited to return to my normal eating habits and appearance. Indulging also teaches me how much better I feel when I don’t consume added sugar – and how much better I look, too. I managed not to seriously think about the gym until a week or so into the trip when the impostor syndrome set in from seeing men with gym bags. I make a point to appreciate time away from regular routines, and remind myself that it’s a privilege.

On our last night, after back-to-back tours and a 3.5-hour train ride from Rome to Milan, I found myself wandering around our hotel. Before I knew it, I was in the fitness center. It was clean, with treadmills, ellipticals, a large fitness floor and a rack of dumbbells with weight in kilos. Instinctively, I grabbed the heaviest dumbbells (only 18 KG or 30lbs, which is the lightest I’ve seen for the heaviest set of weights in the gym), and began benching. As crazy as it sounds, I felt immediate calmness as my pecs and triceps contracted and I pushed out each rep. As much as I enjoyed using the dumbbells, I craved the feeling of a heavy bar above me. It was nearly midnight. I challenged myself to 10mins of abs (my least favorite by far) and stretching, before resolving to come back in the morning, since there wasn’t much else I could do before leaving for the airport, anyway.

Before an intimidating set of a workout, I take a breath to remind myself that I’m exactly where I want to be. Healthy body, healthy mind, as the Romans said. The weight room is my safe space. I’m proud of myself for my decision to take the week off. As much I felt the impostor syndrome here and there, I allowed myself to make the most of my time traveling without being anxious while giving my body a break. Most importantly, I re-affirmed the how in love with the gym I am. When I stare at myself in the mirror, I’m not doing it to be shallow. I’m staring at myself to evaluate the results of my efforts, and understand where I have room for improvement to continue to build strength and longevity. To me, fitness is an art.

All that being said, I need to choose my accessory exercises more carefully, with the goal of targeting my weakest muscles. I have room to mature by accepting that I’m hitting the major muscle groups in my compound lifts, but that I’m perpetuating muscle weakness by worrying about missing large muscles rather than prioritizing weak muscles.

Over the last few years, I’ve work to develop an acute sense of which muscles in my body are tight, and which are weak through a combination of research, trial and error, and general curiosity. And by that, I mean extensive time rolling around on the floor at all hours of the day and night. This isn’t the first time that I Googled a diagram of the human body to pinpoint weak muscles and seek out exercises to strengthen them. I can’t imagine what the couple sitting next to me on this plane thinks, as they glance over at my screen and see me Googling and highlighting a completely non-sexual diagram of the human body. Anything for the gains.

I’m a firm believer that issues in the body are connected to one another just as much as tissues are connected. Wherever possible, I look for patterns of weak and tight muscles, and try to brainstorm how these issues may be correlated. There’s an important distinction between weakness and tightness. When a muscle is tight, we need to understand if it’s tight because it needs to be mobilized, or if it it’s tight because it’s weak and therefore underactive. If you stretch regularly and repeatedly experience tightness, it’s highly likely that the muscle is tight because it is weak. My primary focus of stretching is mobility and active stretching, rather than the static stretching, since static stretching only lengthens the muscle temporarily. I haven’t found clear research on whether or not isolated stretching leads to reductions in injuries and increases in strength, although there is evidence that this is true for mobility. I’ve posted about this previously, but I credit the splits to mobility practice, as I stretched consistently several periods over the years with little results, but have been able to maintain the flexibility to do the splits with semi-consistent mobility practice. (Disclaimer: This is not official advice. This is a walkthrough of my constantly evolving thought-process.)

I learned to enjoy the process of committing 15-20 minutes several times per week (ideally) to moving without a plan, and exploring where my body takes me. Through this process recently, I’ve discovered:

· Extreme muscle tightness in the rhomboid area due to weak lower trapezius, which subsequently causes tightness in the sternocleidomastoid. This feeds into a cycle of poor posture that I’ve failed to dedicate the energy to fix, and is visible in my rounded shoulders.

o I believe that by increasing focus on strengthening my lower trapezius and rear deltoid through isolation exercises, I can build up strength and reduce muscle tightness, which can enable me to work towards improved posture.

o We carry stress in our neck and traps. My traps are overactive, which could be a cause or effect of stress. It does not matter if tight and overactive traps are a cause or effect, since this does not change the solution.

· Persistent sciatica tightness. This may be driven by weak and underactive glute medius, weak lower back (erector spinae), weak external obliques and other abdominal muscles. This is likely connected to tight sartorius and gracilis, and contributes to recurring tight hips.

o My lower back is often the rate limiting factor in deadlift recovery. The muscles become sore for several days, which is likely delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). I’m confident that it’s soreness, as opposed to pain due to poor form. It is difficult to train lower back, although I will invest time to find adequate exercises such as good mornings and lower back focused glute-ham raises to explore if this is the root issue.

o I’m adding Cossack squats and full-depth goblet squats as accessories. Cossack squats are for the glute medius, while goblet squats are to ensure persistent ankle mobility.

o I need to find an exercise for the most inner quad muscle, adductors and abductors, and stop making excuses not to train core.

· Balance: I have strong balance, but there is always room for improvement, and this is the most important aspect of fitness to maintain with age. I should be in the habit of regular balance practice, which can include bosu ball training and box jumps.

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