For more than 35 years, I have spent time with many different sports, many age ranges from elementary school through the 4th decade, at pretty much every level of competition from AYSO soccer up through every school age, Olympic and professional levels. The one thing that all athletes are susceptible to is muscle cramping.
Earlier in my career, after I had learned of a physiological principle known as reciprocal inhibition, I was treating several muscle cramps in an early season football scrimmage. It was during my inward reflection of how to get these cramps to relax that it dawned on me to find a way to incorporate this principle.
Now we know that many things can trigger a muscle cramp. They include:
- Poor blood circulation in your legs
- Working calf muscles too hard while exercising
- Not stretching enough
- Being active in hot temperatures
- Muscle fatigue
- Magnesium and/or potassium deficiency
- A problem such as a spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in your neck
This term describes the neurologic process of muscles on one side of a joint relaxing to accommodate contraction on the other side of that joint. Joints are controlled by two opposing sets of muscles, extensors and flexors, which must work in synchrony for smooth movement. When a muscle spindle is stretched and the stretch reflex is activated, the opposing muscle group must be inhibited to prevent it from working against the resulting contraction of the opposite muscle. This provides for optimum joint function and longevity. Reciprocal inhibition is accomplished by the actions of an inhibitory interneuron in the spinal cord. (Wikipedia)
Our muscles primarily operate in pairs; when one contracts (the agonist) its partner (the antagonist) relaxes. Or you may think of joints having flexing and extending muscles. This is an automatic mechanism during activities like running, where muscles opposing each other are engaged and disengaged sequentially to produce coordinated movement. This action of having one muscle relax while its’ counterpart contracts is critical for efficient movement and to prevent injuries.
Now in a situation such as an athletic event or workout, if a muscle becomes engaged for an extended period, the chronic tension or responses like cramping and spasms may occur. When that occurs, the opposite muscle will become correspondingly inhibited. In the example of when a football player gets a cramp in their calf muscle, the cramp will prevent normal ankle motion along with pain. Whenever the agonist (gastroc muscle in this case) is much stronger than the antagonist (anterior tibialis muscle in this case), the agonist can overpower and injure the antagonist. This relationship is why most strength training programs revolve around balanced muscle pair exercises.
Some common agonist-antagonist muscle pairs that can assist a practitioner when using reciprocal inhibition techniques:
- Biceps – Triceps
- Deltoids – Latissimus Dorsi
- Pectoralis Major – Trapezius/Rhomboids
- Quadriceps – Hamstrings
- Hip Adductor – Gluteus Medius
- Tibialis Anterior – Gastrocnemius
- Anterior Deltiod – Levator Scapula
- Forearm Flexors – Forearm Extensors
Activation of an opposing muscle group with resisted tension forces the contracted muscle to relax. For example, a cramp in the posterior, lower leg can be relieved by applying resisted tension to the anterior, lower leg muscles.
I have utilized this technique for many years with good results for various joints.
An example of how to apply this treatment to a cramp in the calf muscle is as follows:
An athlete goes down on the field with a cramp in their calf muscle. The opposite muscle is the tibialis anterior (ankle dorsi-flexors), on the front of your shin.
Activate the anterior tibialis muscle by applying resistance with your hand to the top of the foot and instruct the athlete to “pull their toes toward their head”.
- Once they actively pull their foot back against light-moderate resistance, instruct them to relax and allow the foot to return to the neutral position and the repeat while instructing the athlete to actively pull back – relax – pull – relax for a minimum of 10 repetitions.
- Once the cramp seems to be decreasing, then you may switch to passive stretching of the gastroc with 30 – 60 sec hold.
Even with a stretching program, it is easier to stretch a muscle that is relaxed than to stretch a contracted muscle. For stretching the calf by inducing the muscle to relax during a stretch due to contraction of the anterior tibialis, athletic trainers and therapists can leverage the mechanism of reciprocal inhibition to achieve a more effective stretch.
Reciprocal inhibition is a wonderful natural principle to incorporate into your programing next time you come across a cramp or even as a strategy to help create flexibility and mobility.