Do You Grip?
Updated: Aug 10
Today we are going to have a look at how overdoing something good can potentially lead to problems with your movement. That something is gripping or "holding a muscle or a group of muscles in a constant 'on' state".
Gripping is a really common issue that can occur for avid gym-goers, and sportspeople. It is a habit that is more likely to develop in people that are used to training and have had some education about their anatomy. They have an understanding of how to engage their muscles and can potentially over engage them.
What exactly is gripping?
Gripping is basically the constant activation or holding/squeezing of certain muscles in our body.
Why would we grip?
It could start off as a conscious attempt to alter our posture in some way. For example, having been told something like ‘you have lazy glutes,’ so attempting to correct that by just keeping them permanently squeezed as you move around or perform a specific exercise or go for a run. There are many examples of this type of conscious correction that eventually become a habit.
Previous injury can also be a cause of gripping. Your body senses a loss of stability at an injured joint and can respond by holding with a group of muscles in order to keep the joint safe.
Why is gripping a problem?
Gripping often starts off as an attempt to engage certain muscles better. That is why it is a problem more typical of those that have had some education about their posture. But what happens is that this idea of engaging muscles is taken too far and in an attempt to make a muscle stronger or our position more correct, we start to squeeze and hold ourselves in ways that actually prevent our joints from being able to move properly and as a result, the stability of that joint is compromised rather than improved. Joints need to remain centered and balanced in order to be stable and gripping prevents this.
What areas do we tend to grip with and what damage can we cause?
A common correction we are told is to ‘pull your shoulders back.’ This idea is not wrong; often we do slouch and hunch our shoulders but it can be taken too far if someone is then walking around constantly pinning their shoulders back. Often this type of gripping is a contributing factor to problems like neck pain and shoulder impingement, not the solution.
Shoulder gripping is a strategy seen with dancers and gymnasts for example, who are often told to stick their chests out and slide their shoulder blades back and down. Unfortunately, the consequence of taking the idea of ‘shoulders back’ too far is that the joints of your spine are forced closer together which can lead to a mid-back ache. Your anterior abdominal muscles are also stuck in a lengthened position and less able to support you.
Drawing your shoulder blades together is a normal phase in any pulling exercise you perform; like a bent-over row, but by consciously squeezing the blades together, all the time, you can completely disrupt the timing and sequence of movements at your shoulder joint.
What needs to be learned is how to keep the shoulder blade and the mid-back correctly attached and relating to each other harmoniously during movement. Often the key to this is learning how to push correctly (rather than pull all the time), and lift the rib cage into a better position to support the shoulder.
Gripping in your midsection can often become a habit for reasons like wanting to keep your tummy looking flat or from receiving instruction to keep your back flat to the floor when you’re performing core exercises.
The main muscles we engage to hold our bellies in are our external obliques. The problem with this is that the external obliques are being held tight and this means that the pelvis is tucked under and the low back is stuck in flexion. This can put a lot of pressure on the discs in the spine and is a major contributor to lower back pain.
This gripping also starts to have a major effect on your breathing pattern. Your diaphragm will not be able to function effectively when the obliques are pinning your ribcage down and your belly cannot rise as it should do on a breath in. (See our breathing video for more info) When performing exercises for the core and in general, the aim should be to keep the pelvis in a neutral position that maintains the natural curvature of the spine.
Otherwise known as ‘butt gripping,’ this strategy will end up meaning that the head of your thigh bone is pushed forward in its socket and can often lead to impingement. It will be hard to perform movements like squats and deadlifts because constantly tensing your backside will mean you can’t maintain the natural curves of your spine and keep your pelvis and hips in a neutral position where they can move freely.
Piriformis Syndrome is a common problem that develops from this type of gripping. Most of us need to work on the strength of our glutes, but just holding them tense all the time will only create more instability in the hip region.
So what is a better alternative to gripping for stability?
Remember that your body is very clever! Our muscles naturally respond to movement and act accordingly, we really don’t need to be micromanaging them. When you overthink your movement you can end up disrupting the natural movements that your body innately knows how to do. Not to mention, this can also create a lot of unnecessary tightness and pain.
What needs to be learned is the ability to manage tension. A good 'mover' can effectively create and then let go of tension during the different phases of a movement they’re performing. They are not concentrating on squeezing individual muscles but instead the overall picture of how they want their skeleton to move through space.
Movement should be like taking a breath, an effortless experience that happens without needing to think really hard about it!
Muscle Medicine has a range of exercise videos, so check them out to make sure you are doing your exercises properly.