Managing Aches & Pains

How To Fix Your Sore Office Back Part 1: Making Muscle Tension a Thing of The Past

By Danny Wallis Personal Trainer & Online Fitness Coach

February 2, 2015

Back in November I wrote a post called ‘An Introduction To Office Back’.  The article explained why a lot of the back, shoulder and knee pain that we get can be largely caused by the huge amount of sitting that we do.

What Causes ‘Office Back’?

We sit to eat breakfast, we sit on the train to work. We sit at our desks while we work then we sit on the train again on the way home. We sit and eat dinner, then we sit and watch TV to relax. At night we curl up into a foetal position while we sleep to get comfortable which essentially is the sitting position while lying on your side.

All of this sitting based behaviour causes bio mechanical adjustments in the body, the outcome of which can leave us injured and in chronic pain.

Poor Posture

If you imagine the brain being a stereo system and the muscles are the speakers. When we sit for long periods and the joints are in a permanently flexed state, the stereo turns up the volume on the speakers making them louder, or in the muscles case, making them contract much more tightly. This creates an effect called hypertonicity.

In the office back scenario, this mostly affects the muscles on the front of the body; specifically the front of the hips (the hip flexors), the front of the thighs (the quadriceps), the chest (the pec muscles) and front of the shoulders (the deltoids, particularly the anterior deltoid) are all affected the most.

Muscles work in pairs, moving the joints in opposing directions. If one of the pair is permanently contracted, it has a very obvious effect on the other muscle in the pair (the antagonist).

The opposing muscles become weak, lengthened and stretched. As an effect of this constant stretching, the brain causes the muscles to contract to prevent an over stretch and an injury. This is called reciprocal inhibition.

The outcome is weak, lengthened yet contracted muscles that often ache and in some causes can be quite painful.  The muscles become tight, tense and adhesions or ‘knots’ are often formed, which further weaken the muscle and limit its flexibility.

This largely affects the back of the body; shoulders and upper back (the trapezius and rhomboids), the spinal muscles the lower back area (there are lots of muscles here but the erector spinae and multifidus muscles are  the main areas impacted), the backside muscles (glutes) and the back of the legs (the hamstrings and calves).  In other words, all the bits of you that ache, the majority of the time.

The Remedy For Postural Pain

The remedy of the back and shoulder discomfort that our office backs cause is set into three areas.  Myofascial release, stretching and strengthening, which need to be completed in that order.

This post is to help you with myofascial release, to help reduce the tension in the muscles to make them more relaxed.

Foam Rolling

Myofascial release is more commonly known as foam rolling or trigger pointing. This is one of the best ways to release tension in the muscles and can have an immediate effect.

Most gyms have foam rolls these days and if you are not a gym member you can buy them cheaply enough online.  You can also get great results in harder to reach areas, (like the shoulders for example), with a simple tennis ball.

The rolling of the muscles stimulates the nerve receptors causing the muscles to relax and release their tension. The process can be quite uncomfortable at first which is normal and will get easier as the muscle tension releases over time.

Please remember if you have any constant excessive pain in the lower back, or pain that refers into the legs, do seek medical advice before you start this type of programme.

Using Myofascial Release / Trigger Pointing To Help The Muscles Relax

foam roll and tennis ballYou will need a tennis ball and a foam-roll to continue. This tutorial covers how to reduce the stress and tension in the back of the body to help release the knots and stress tension to improve your posture and reduce your discomfort.

I will warn you before you start. If you have been experiencing pain, stress tension, knotted muscles, etc, this WILL be uncomfortable. The areas we are working on are referred to as trigger points. They will feel nervy, sharp, and may refer pain around the body to other areas.

All of this is normal and will subside with time as your muscles relax.  As a word of safety, you should never roll across bone or your joints, especially the spine. Keep it on the muscles people.

How To Perform Self-Myofascial Release

You can trigger point the muscles in two ways. You can find the spot and hold it; this will hurt and will initially feel sharp and uncomfortable.  With practice it will stimulate the nervous system to relax and in time the discomfort will subside, leaving your muscles feeling lighter and more mobile.

The second option is to move the ball or foam roll over the area dynamically. This replicates a sports-massage and promotes elasticity in the muscles. This may help if you are especially tight as the ball or foam roll will be working over the area and not directly on it if it’s to painful to bear to hold it statically.

Use the diagrams below as a guide to locate and work on your tight spots.  Remember  – stay away from the spine and stay on the ‘belly’ of the muscles.  I have included some pictures to give you an idea of the position that you should be in when doing the exercises to get the best results.

The Shoulders & Upper Back – use the tennis ball.

Myofascial Release - Upper Back

Place the tennis ball into the large ‘meaty’ area of the shoulder. The diagram that I have provided shows where you should be aiming to feel the trigger point areas. You will notice the shape here is like a capital L, turned upside down.

Start at the top of the muscle, work the ball into the tender spot until it subsides. This could be seconds or several minutes, it depends on how much tension your muscles are holding. Either hold the trigger point areas statically or move the ball around them. Try leaning back into the ball to increase the intensity of needed. Ideally hold the sensation until the tenderness subsides and then move on to the next area.

IMG_0002To increase the area that you can work on, place one hand across the chest and hold the hand on the opposite side shoulder. This will cause the shoulder-blade to move outward and will allow you access to trigger point the muscles in the area between the should blade and spine a little more deeply.

Remember, this experience may be a little tender, but please don’t be put off.  It will subside with time and practice and will leave your muscles feeling lighter and more relaxed.

Lower Back Muscles  – Use the foam roll.

Myofascial Release - Lower back Dw Foam Rolling Lower back
Lay with the foam roll across your lower back as in the picture opposite. Turn to one side slightly so you are off the vertebrae in the spine. Curve your back slightly into the foam roll and move it up your body towards your mid back using your legs to control your movement.

Again you can hold the tender spots statically or you can roll over them and repeat. Work back down again, lean-to the other side and repeat. Keep changing sides and repeat ideally around 20 repetitions or until the tenderness in the muscle subsides.

The Front of the Thighs (Quadriceps and Hip Flexors)  – use the foam roll.

Myofascial release - Front of thighsDanny Foam Rolling Quadriceps
The hip-flexor muscles are one of the primary sitting muscles. The are located on the front of the upper legs and hip-joint and are linked to the quadricep muscles, which are the front of the thighs. You will generally find it is the outer upper part of the leg that feels tightest.
Lay on the foam roll like the picture opposite. Turn the body slightly so you are trigger pointing the outer thigh. Start just above the knee and work your way up toward the hip. You may have to move around a little to find the right spots. Work from the knee upward towards the hip and roll the tender areas until the tension subsides.  When you have completed one leg, change sides.

Buttock Muscles (Glutes) – Use the foam roll.

Myofascial release - GlutesDanny Foam Rolling Glutes
Your glutes are your back side muscles and are one of the strongest, most powerful muscles in the body. They also attach directly into the lower back.  This means if your lower back is stiff, your glutes will almost definitely be painful and tight.
Sit on the foam roll as in the picture opposite. Turn your body so you are leaning your body weight into the ‘meaty’ part of your backside muscle. You may find the whole area sore, or just part of it.

The glutes are big muscles so you may have to move around a little. Aim to roll toward the top of the glutes near the lower back, being careful to stay away from the spine and bones. Remember you can hold the trigger point statically or you can roll around slowly on it, around the sore spots.

Back of The Thighs (Hamstrings and Calf Muscles) – Use the foam roll.

Myofascial release - Hamstrings and CalvesDW Foam Rollling calves
Sit on the foam roll with one leg pressed onto the roll at the middle of the back of the lower calf. Keep the foot off the floor and work your way upward toward the knee being careful not to roll the knee-joint itself.
The hamstrings and calves are big muscles so you may want to rotate your foot slightly to get the best angles. Again, hold or roll over the tender spots until you feel the discomfort dissipate. Move on to the hamstring muscle on the back of the upper thigh and follow the same idea, rotating the knee so as to get all the tight spots.

You can rest your other leg on top of the one (as in the picture) you are rolling to add extra weight and to increase the pressure if needed.

To get the most out of these exercises I would advise investing a minimum of at least 10 – 30 minutes daily to work on all of these exercises, until your muscle tension subsides. Please remember everyone is different and your needs may differ from others.

I would love to hear how you get on with this so please fill out my comment section below with your feedback. I will be covering the next step of fixing your office back with stretches and strengthening exercises that you need to do as part of the next phase over the next few weeks. Don’t forget to subscribe to have my posts emailed to you directly so you don’t miss anything.

Happy trigger pointing!

About the author

Danny Wallis is a Personal Trainer, Sports Therapist, NLP Life Coach and Nutrition Advisor, with over 20 years experience in helping people achieve their goals.

Danny Wallis

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    1. Hi Darren, thanks for the message. Foam rolling is about reducing the tightness and tension in the muscles. Stretching facilitates the de-stressed muscle to then become longer to improve flexibility. Ideally they should compliment each other. If for example you are foam rolling your hip flexors, you should then stretch them afterward for best results. You can continue foam rolling once your initial discomfort has passed as a means of maintenance. The benefit is it won’t hurt as much as you wont need to do it for as long.

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