Carlos’s Tip #247: The SKILL of RELAXATION

Good coordination with regard to a certain movement can be defined as the right muscles tensing the right amount at the right speed at the right time. Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles. But there is a flip side to the coin of good coordination which is equally important and often ignored. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that all the other muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.

Imagine a pianist playing the piano. Each time she strikes a key with a certain finger, that finger must be tensed but the others must be relaxed so the wrong key isn’t struck at the same time. The skill of relaxation is inseparable from her skill as a pianist. If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing. The pianist’s skill is an example of differentiated movement – the ability to move one segment of the body while keeping a nearby segment still. Belly dancers have excellent differentiated movement, with the ability to isolate small movements in their torso and hips while keeping other areas still or moving other areas in an opposite direction. By contrast, most Americans, especially white male Americans, tend to move their hips and low back as one big block. This is a major reason for the disgraceful dance performance of many white males. You can think of this epidemic as being partly caused by insufficient skill in relaxation.

Quick and accurate relaxation is also essential to good sports performance. Take the example of a sprinter. Elite sprinters have an unusual ability to maximally contract their muscles very quickly. Research shows that elite sprinters are even more unusual in their ability to quickly relax their muscles. Why is the skill of relaxation important to sprinting? The simple reason is that any muscle that contracts to push a sprinter forward will in the next phase of the gait cycle be asked to lengthen (relax). If the muscle is slow to lengthen, it essentially put the brakes on forward movement. Charlie Francis, possibly the most famous sprint coach in the world states that:

“the number one secret to greater speed is relaxation! It allows a faster and more complete shutdown of antagonists, quickening alternation cycles and permitting more force to be delivered in the desired direction with less energy consumption. Relaxation must become second nature in every drill you do and every run you take. You may feel that you aren’t generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble in big races), but remember, only the net force counts! The net force is the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the force generated by the antagonist muscle at the same moment.”

Golfers, tennis players, and baseball pitchers would give similar advice about executing maximum power. This is why any great athlete makes it look easy, and has the ability to generate enormous power even while looking very relaxed and smooth.

Relaxation of muscles is also important to prevent muscle fatigue and resulting pain in everyday life. A person working at a computer needs to move only their fingers and wrists. However, the intensity or stress of the work will often cause unwanted and unnecessary muscle contraction in many other places in the body, particularly around the shoulders, neck, face and jaw. The sustained contractions of these muscles will inevitably cause fatigue and soreness. The ability to keep these muscles relaxed while typing is a skill, and can be developed like any other skill.

Despite the enormous importance of relaxation in pain reduction and performance, most people never think to train it, instead favoring exercises that develop their ability to contract their muscles. One excellent way to train relaxation during movement is to do some slow coordination training like The Feldenkrais Method or Z-Health. These exercises all have a primary intention of ensuring that the motion happens with greatest amount of differentiation, ease and smoothness and the least possible amount of effort and strain. After only a few minutes doing exercises like this you might feel a flow and smoothness to movements that previously felt choppy, effortful and strained. You may even start to glimpse how the great athletes make it look easy.

To sum up, consider the analogy of a car. Imagine trying to drive faster with a foot that is so clumsy that it steps on the brake every time it steps on the gas. Not only will you not get anywhere very fast, you will tear up your car in the process. It takes the skill of relaxation and differentiation to ensure that you when you step on the gas you do not also step on the brake. So, next time you train, think about whether time is better spent by flooring it or learning to keep your foot off the brake.

Thanks to Tood hardrove

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