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HOW TO RELAX MUSCLES - THE 5 MOST EFFECTIVE WAYS

relaxing muscles

Whether you're feeling tight after a long flight or a rigorous workout, there are several straightforward ways to relax muscles.

Muscle relaxation techniques may take time to learn and feel uncomfortable initially, but they can become quite enjoyable with time. It's also important to avoid overworking the affected muscle, get lots of sleep and drink plenty of fluids.

From deep-muscle methods to a warm compress, let's get to it by looking at 5 effective ways to relax your muscles.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

PMR is a relaxation technique American physician Edmund Jacobson developed in the 1920s. It involves a systematic process of tensing and slowly releasing different muscle groups to promote physical and mental relaxation. The primary goal of PMR is to increase awareness of tension and teach individuals how to release that tightness deliberately.

Here's a basic outline of how people typically practice PMR:

  • Find a quiet space: Choose a relaxing and comfortable space where you won't be disturbed.
  • Get in a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Loosen any tight clothing.
  • Start with deep breathing: Take a few deep breaths to help relax and focus.
  • Tense and release: Begin with a specific group, such as the muscles in your toes. Inhale, slowly tensing the muscles in that group for a few seconds. (Make sure you're not straining too hard.) Exhale and suddenly release the tension, allowing the group to relax completely.
  • Focus on the sensation: Pay attention to the difference between contraction and relaxation. Notice how your muscles feel.
  • Repeat: Move systematically through various groups from your toes to your head, tensing and relaxing. Common areas include the calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, neck, and face.
  • Maintain a relaxing breath: Breathe deeply and slowly throughout the process. Sync your breathing with the contraction and release of each group.
  • Practice regularly:  PMR is most effective with regular practice. Aim for at least 10 to 20 minutes per session.

PMR is often used as a part of stress management programs and can be helpful for individuals dealing with anxiety, insomnia, or chronic pain. It helps release physical tension and promotes a sense of calm and well-being. Consult a healthcare professional before starting any relaxation technique if you have specific health concerns or conditions.

2. Stretching to relieve muscle tension

Stretching is an effective way to loosen tight muscles, increase range of motion and improve flexibility. You can tailor many different stretching exercises to target specific muscles. Stretching slowly and gently and avoiding bouncing or forcing yourself into uncomfortable or painful positions is essential. 

Static stretching, which involves holding a stretch in a stationary position for at least 30 seconds, is one of the most effective ways to loosen your muscles.

General tips for stretching to ease muscle pain

  • Warm up: Before stretching, warm up with light aerobic activity like walking or jogging. Warm muscles are more pliable and less prone to injury.
  • Consistency: Make stretching a regular part of your routine. Aim for at least 2 to 3 days a week to maintain flexibility.
  • Hold each stretch: Hold every posture for 15 to 30 seconds. Avoid bouncing, as this can lead to injury. Gradually increase the intensity during the hold if it feels comfortable.
  • Breathe: Breathe deeply and regularly. Exhale as you move into a stretch, and inhale as you hold it. Taking a deep breath can help your muscles relax.
  • Don't push too hard: Stretch until you feel mild tautness, not pain. If you feel pain, you may be taking the stretch too far and should ease off.
  • Focus on major muscle groups: Include stretches for all groups, including calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders.
  • Balance: Stretch both sides equally to prevent imbalances.

Different types of stretches

Static stretching

Slowly stretch a muscle group and hold the position—for example, forward bends, hamstring, or shoulder stretches.

Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching involves continuous movement—for example, leg swings, arm circles, or walking lunges.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)

PNF combines stretching with contracting and relaxing targeted muscle groups. You often do this with a partner.

Yoga and Pilates

These disciplines incorporate static and dynamic stretches focusing on balance and core strength.

Sample stretches

Try these stretches to reduce tightness and the risk of muscle pain:

Hamstring stretch

Sit on the floor with one leg extended and the other foot against the inner thigh. Reach forward toward your toes, keeping your back straight.

Quad stretch

Stand on one leg, moving your other foot toward your buttocks. Hold your ankle with your hand, keeping your knees close together.

Chest opener

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, clasp your hands behind your back, and straighten your arms, lifting them slightly to open your chest.

Neck stretch

Tilt your head gently to one side, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Hold and then switch sides.

Calf stretch

Stand facing a wall, place one foot forward, and lean against the wall with your hands. Keep your back leg straight and your heel on the floor.

Always listen to yourself; if you have any existing health conditions or concerns, consult a healthcare professional or certified fitness expert before starting a new stretching routine.

3. Massage

There's scientific evidence supporting what you may have already experienced for yourself. Massage has many benefits and is an effective way to help relax muscles for several physiological and psychological reasons.

There are a range of massage types that are beneficial to loosening your muscles, including sports massage, deep tissue massage, remedial massage, Thai massage, and various others. Here are some of the health benefits of massage and why it is effective in promoting relaxation:

Increased blood flow

Massage helps improve blood circulation in the targeted area. This increased flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles while aiding in removing waste products. Improved circulation can help reduce soreness and stress.

Reduced muscle tightness

Physically manipulating muscles during a massage helps release stress and knots. Massage therapists use techniques such as kneading and compression to target specific muscle groups and alleviate tightness.

Stimulation of the 'rest and digest' division

Massage triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a "rest and digest" relaxation response. This action counteracts the effects of its sympathetic counterpart, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. As the parasympathetic system is activated, the body relaxes.

Release of endorphins

Massage stimulates the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood enhancers. Endorphins help reduce pain and increase well-being, contributing to muscle relaxation.

Improved joint flexibility

Massage can enhance joint flexibility by working on the soft tissues surrounding the joints. This increased flexibility contributes to reduced muscle stiffness and enhanced range of motion.

Breakdown of scar tissue

Massage can help break down adhesions and scar tissue that may have formed in muscles due to injury or overuse. This action can improve the elasticity of the muscle and reduce stiffness.

Enhanced lymphatic drainage

Massage stimulates the lymphatic system, helping to eliminate waste products and reduce swelling or inflammation, contributing to muscle relaxation and overall wellness.

Mind-body connection

Massage's tactile and soothing nature also has psychological benefits. It provides a sense of comfort and relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety. The mind-body connection plays a crucial role in muscle relaxation.

Increased body awareness

Massage promotes body awareness and helps individuals recognize areas of tightness and stress. This awareness can contribute to better self-care practices and a proactive approach to muscle health.

Note: The effectiveness of massage may vary from person to person, and the type of massage technique used can also influence the outcomes. Consult a qualified massage therapist or healthcare professional with specific concerns.

4. Heat therapy

Heat therapy is a common and effective method for soothing muscles, helping to reduce muscle tension and promoting relaxation, whether with a hot water bottle, heating pad, or warm shower or bath.

Here are some reasons why heat therapy is beneficial:

Increased blood flow

Heat causes blood vessels to dilate, improving blood circulation to the heated area. This increased flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, facilitating the removal of waste products. Improved circulation helps relax tense muscles and reduces stiffness.

Relaxation

Heat has a soothing effect on muscles by promoting the release of tension and reducing stiffness. It helps to soothe spasms and cramps and ease discomfort.

Enhanced tissue extensibility

Heat therapy increases the extensibility of collagen tissues, making tendons and muscles more pliable, improving flexibility and range of motion, and contributing to relaxation.

Pain reduction

Heat can help alleviate pain by decreasing the sensitivity of pain receptors. It also promotes the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, contributing to relaxation.

Improved joint function

Heat therapy can benefit joints by reducing stiffness and improving their range of motion, which is particularly beneficial for individuals with conditions like arthritis.

Relief from muscle spasms

Heat can help reduce spasms by promoting the flow of blood and relaxing the muscles, which is especially useful for individuals experiencing spasms or cramps.

Mental relaxation

The soothing warmth of heat can have a calming effect, leading to mental relaxation, which can help with muscle aches.

Facilitation of healing

Heat therapy can promote the healing process by increasing the metabolic rate of cells, helping to accelerate the repair of damaged tissues, making it beneficial for certain types of injuries.

Use heat therapy with caution if you have a medical condition, such as inflammation, acute injuries, or circulatory issues. If you need help determining whether heat therapy suits your situation, consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice.

5. Natural muscle relaxers

Various natural ways to help alleviate tightness include cherries (such as tart cherry juice), blueberries, protein, magnesium, and curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is an active component in turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger. Adequate protein intake after exercise could help reduce muscle inflammation, and magnesium is vital for nearly all bodily functions, especially proper muscle contractions.

What are the benefits of loosening your muscles?

Loosening your muscles through stretching, massage, or other relaxation techniques can offer a range of benefits for your physical and mental well-being. Here are some key advantages:

Physical benefits

There are many physical benefits to relaxing your muscles. It helps improve flexibility, allowing for a greater range of motion in joints, enhancing athletic performance and reducing the risk of injuries.

Relaxing muscles promotes increased circulation, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, aiding recovery and reducing cramps. It can also improve posture by addressing imbalances and reducing tightness that may pull the body out of alignment.

Flexible muscles are less prone to injury. Loosening muscles through warm-ups, stretching, and other techniques can prepare the body for physical activities and reduce the risk of strains, sprains, or further muscle damage. It can also help accelerate recovery by removing waste products and reducing soreness.

It's also beneficial for joint health. Loosening the muscles around joints can improve joint function and reduce stiffness, contributing to overall joint health.

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Mental and emotional benefits

Techniques like PMR or massage can help reduce stress. Relaxation techniques before bedtime can help you fall asleep, promote more restful sleep, and enhance the mind-body connection.

Activities like yoga and meditation, which involve relaxation, promote a stronger link between the mind and body. This increased awareness can contribute to better overall well-being.

Anxiety and muscle tension often go hand in hand. Loosening muscles through techniques like deep breathing or massage can help alleviate anxiety and calm the stress response. The release of endorphins, often associated with physical activity and relaxation, can contribute to an improved mood.

Relaxation can positively affect cognitive function, including improved focus, concentration, and mental clarity, and help balance energy levels, preventing feelings of fatigue and promoting a sense of vitality.

Incorporating activities and practices that focus on loosening and relaxing your muscles into your routine can contribute to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. It's essential to find a combination of techniques that work for you and to listen to your body's signals to avoid overexertion or injury.

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