Originally used by osteopaths, athletic trainers, physical therapists, kinesiologists and physiotherapists, reciprocal inhibition is a simply learned stretching principle capable of amplifying the benefits of massage therapy treatment. Defined as a muscle’s automatic relaxation response to accommodate the contraction of its opposing muscle, reciprocal inhibition provides for optimum joint function and longevity. Commonly used in sports massage, reciprocal inhibition is the application of resisted tension to the opposing muscle group.
The symbolism of yin yang is akin to human muscular anatomy, where a healthy functioning unit is comprised of two contrasting forces. Just as there could be no concept of dark without light, flexor muscles need their opposing extensors to function properly. Our muscles primarily operate in pairs; when one contracts (the agonist) its partner (the antagonist) relaxes. The body naturally and brilliantly orchestrates this mechanism during activities like running, where muscles opposing each other are engaged and disengaged sequentially to produce coordinated movement. This alternation of contraction facilitates movement ease and safeguards against injury. Classic examples of opposing muscle group partnerships include the biceps and triceps, as well as the hamstrings and quadriceps.
If a muscle becomes engaged for a prolonged period, such as a cramp, spasm or chronic tension, the opposite muscle becomes correspondingly inhibited. This response to dysfunction inhibits normal joint performance, which can result in deterioration of muscle, tendon and joint tissues. In the case of affected upper arm musculature, spasms in the biceps will likely lead to a discovery of weakened triceps. Whenever the agonist is much stronger than the antagonist, the agonist can overpower and injure the antagonist. This relationship is why most strength training programs revolve around balanced muscle pair exercises. While not exhaustive, the following list comprises nine common agonist-antagonist muscle pairs that can assist a practitioner when using reciprocal inhibition techniques:
- Biceps – Triceps
- Deltoids – Latissimus Dorsi
- Pectoralis Major – Trapezius/Rhomboids
- Iliopsoas – Gluteus Maximus
- Quadriceps – Hamstrings
- Hip Adductor – Gluteus Medius
- Tibialis Anterior – Gastrocnemius
- Anterior Deltiod – Levator Scapula
- Forearm Flexors – Forearm Extensors
Inhibition of the antagonistic muscles is not required for every muscular contraction. In fact, co-contraction can sometimes occur. This can be observed during a sit-up, where one might assume that the stomach muscles inhibit the contraction of the muscles in the lumbar region of the back. However, sit-ups engage contraction of both the spinal erectors as well as the abdominal muscles. This reciprocal inhibition exception is one reason why sit-ups are good for strengthening both the back and stomach muscles. Thus, careful evaluation of the musculature involved is a precursor to choosing reciprocal inhibition stretching techniques.
Activation of an opposing muscle group with resisted tension forces the contracted muscle to relax. For example, a cramp in the posterior, lower leg can be relieved by applying resisted tension to the anterior, lower leg muscles. When stretching, it is easier to stretch a muscle that is relaxed than to stretch a contracted muscle. By inducing the antagonists to relax during a stretch due to contraction of the agonist, massage therapists can take advantage of reciprocal inhibition by getting a more effective stretch.
An additional key to maximizing stretching is to have the client consciously relax any muscles used as synergists by the muscle attempting to be stretched. For example, a gastrocnemius stretch can be accomplished by contracting the tibialis anterior through foot flexion. However, since the hamstrings use the gastrocnemius as a synergist, have the client also relax the hamstrings with quadriceps contraction by keeping their leg straight.
The principle behind reciprocal inhibition stretching is that the muscle not contracting is inhibited because the stretch suppresses contractibility. Prior to working with a muscle, initiating the reciprocal inhibition response will enhance the results of any stretching regimen. Applying reciprocal inhibition to the appropriate muscle groups can stop a muscle spasm, build strength and flexibility in opposing muscle pairs, prevent re-injury to a vulnerable area and dramatically increase your client’s flexibility. Learning to perform this specific type of stretching allows massage therapists to utilize their knowledge of anatomy and physiology for maximizing their therapeutic effectiveness.