stretching spotlight

Muscle Pain: Causes, Stretches, and Strength Exercises

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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Most people experience some type of muscle pain at some point in their lives. 60-85% of the population has had some type of nonspecific muscle pain in their back at some point in their lives (Krismer and van Tulder 2007).

Even though muscle pain is common, it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to live with it. When you get to the bottom of what is causing your muscle pain, you can take control of finding the right treatment plan to eliminate it. 

Causes

The first step in addressing muscle pain is identifying the problem. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the most common causes of localized muscle pain:

• Tension

• Stress

• Overuse

• Minor injuries 

If your muscle pain is throughout your whole body, you could be dealing with some type of infection, illness, or a side effect of a medication. Rather than self-diagnosing the cause of your muscle pain, you must seek the input of a licensed healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis of what’s causing your muscle pain. Additionally, if your muscle pain persists for more than 3 days, it’s time to go see your doc.  

Another major cause of muscle pain is a sedentary lifestyle. The average American spends 7.7 hours seated per day Park, J.H. et al. 2020). Think about it- that’s longer than some people sleep! Spending most of your time in one position can cause muscle imbalances that lead to muscle pain (like low back pain and muscle tension in the neck and shoulders). By stretching the muscles that are overworked and strengthening the underworked muscles, you can improve your overall movement and help decrease muscle pain.  

5 Stretches to Ease Muscle Pain

Here’s a list of common stretches to help you lengthen the muscles that tend to be shortened in a seated position. Hold a comfortable stretch in each position for 30 seconds to 1 minute. 

Standing Calf Stretch

• Stand facing a wall with one foot in front, and one foot behind. 

• Keep your toes pointed straight ahead, with the back foot turned inward slightly.

• Bend the front knee and press the back heel down to feel a stretch in the back leg. 

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

• Kneel in a ½ kneeling position, with both knees bent at 90 degrees.

• Tuck your hips under and squeeze the glutes of the kneeling leg.

• You should feel a stretch in the front of the thigh and hip flexor of the kneeling leg.

Standing Lat Stretch

• Place one or both hands on a countertop or the back of a sturdy chair, and bend at the waist while pressing your chest down toward the ground.

• Keep the hips tucked under, and the abs tight to lengthen the lats.

Standing Chest Stretch

• Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and place your forearm on a doorway or wall with the elbow at or just below shoulder height.

• Step forward slightly to feel a stretch across your chest and the shoulder of the arm on the wall.

Traps Stretch

• Start with good posture- shoulders down and back, and the head stacked on top of the shoulders.

• Place one hand on the top of your head and very gently pull your ear toward your shoulder until you begin to feel the stretch in the neck. 

For a personalized corrective exercise program, you can hire a NASM Certified Personal Trainer who holds the CES credential. 

Strength Exercises

Include these exercises in your workout routine to help reverse the effects of sitting in a chair all day. Perform 12-20 repetitions at a slow tempo for 1-3 sets. 

Strengthen your core:

Glute Bridge

• Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Turn your palms up toward the ceiling and pull your shoulders down.
• Squeeze your glutes tightly as you raise your hips as high as you can go without arching your back.
• Keep tension in your glutes as you slowly lower and repeat right as your glutes touch the ground.

Plank

• Get on your forearms and toes with your elbows under the shoulders, feet hip-width apart, and body in a straight line. 
• Squeeze the glutes and abs as tightly as you can and hold the plank for 10-20 seconds. Repeat for 1-3 sets.

Bird Dog

• Get on all fours with your knees underneath your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders.

• Keep your abs tight and spine neutral as you extend the opposite arm and leg. 

• Hold the point position to balance, and then slowly return to where you started and switch sides.

Strengthen your back:

Rows

• Using a cable machine, resistance band, or suspension trainer, stand with your feet hip-width apart, facing the anchor. If you’re using a suspension trainer, walk your feet forward until you’re leaning back slightly, with your body straight.

• Row your wrist toward your ribcage, squeezing the shoulder blades together. You should feel your back and biceps working. 

• Slowly return to the starting position.

Reverse Flies

• Using a cable machine, resistance band, or suspension trainer, stand with your feet hip-width apart, facing the anchor. If you’re using a suspension trainer, walk your feet forward until you’re leaning back slightly, with your body straight.

• Keep your arms mostly straight, with just a slight bend in the elbow. Pull the band apart as you open the arms, squeezing the shoulder blades together.

• Keep the shoulders down so that you feel the resistance in your upper back, not your neck.

• Slowly return to the starting position.

You can perform the stretches daily, even twice per day if your schedule allows it. Pair them up with the strengthening exercises 2-4 days per week for 4-6 weeks and you’ll notice a difference within a few weeks.

Bottom Line:

There are many causes for acute muscle pain, and your doctor can help you correctly diagnose the root cause of your pain. If a sedentary lifestyle is becoming a real ‘pain in the neck (or back!)’, incorporate these exercises into your workouts and take a regular stretch and walk breaks throughout the day to help your body stay pain-free. 

References:

Krismer, M. & van Tulder, M (2007). Low back pain (non-specific). Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 21(1), 77–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.berh.2006.08.004

Mayo Clinic. (2021, December 21). Muscle pain. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/muscle-pain/basics/causes/sym-20050866#:~:text=The%20most%20common%20causes%20of,small%20part%20of%20your%20body

Park, J.H. et al. (2020). Sedentary lifestyle: Overview of updated evidence of potential health risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 41(6), 365-373. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.20.0165

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.