Do You Have Efficient Muscle Play?

Red muscle fibers teased apart show connective tissue fascia

Muscle play can be defined as the ability of a muscle in your body to be mobile and move separately from surrounding structures such as other muscles, adjacent bones, and even your skin. Perform this little test to experience one of the ways muscles move. Grasp your bicep between the thumb and fingers of your opposite hand and feel how wide it is. Now do a bicep curl type of movement by tensing your bicep while bending your elbow. Can you feel the muscle getting wider? Now straighten your elbow and see if you can feel your bicep becoming narrower.  In a healthy state, your muscles need to broaden when they shorten and draw narrower when they lengthen. Muscles are wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called fascia that contains and separates from surrounding structures, but should be fluid and elastic to allow such movement.

Many people perceive that they need more flexibility. Our patients often feel tense and tight in areas such as the hamstrings, calves, hips, low back, neck, and shoulders. It then follows that a common solution is to perform stretching exercises that actually can build cells within a muscle to cause it to grow longer much like adding links to a chain to make it longer. The links in a muscle are called sarcomeres and adding sarcomeres will make a muscle longer. Stretching on a regular basis applies a controlled stress to your body that will actually result in longer muscles over several months of time. More length, however, does not restore the healthy muscle play described above. Many times muscles can stretch to a length that is adequate but is still adhered and hardened along its length within the substance of the muscle. These tight bands or knots can be the result of holding tension subconsciously in muscles due to bad posture, overuse, or past injury where there were slight tears in the muscle repaired by what is now inelastic scar tissue. Stretching the muscle lengthwise will pull on the tissue around the knots, but will not typically release them. In fact overstretching can even add to the problem if one pulls too hard and causes more microscopic tears.


A key is to have the trained hands of a manual physical therapist locate the exact depth and angle of the tight band or restriction and employ any number of methods to mobilize it or create a release of tension and restore normal elasticity. The first method is a sustained pressure at just the right depth and direction and following through as the tissue releases. There are various methods we use to localize the force of our pressure in just the right way to free the tissues. Self-treatment with a foam roller is an excellent method but sometimes is not localized enough for complete resolution and may work better for maintenance after the tissue have been manually released.

Trigger point dry needling

Trigger point dry needling

Another treatment strategy can be stimulating the specific point with a solid filament, sterile, small diameter needle which can cause a “twitch response” in the muscle and stimulate sensory and motor nerves in such a way that the tight band is relaxed more quickly. This is called dry needling and can help resolve these issues more quickly than manual mobilization alone.


As mentioned above, we sometimes have habits that cause us to hold tension unnecessarily in our muscles. Learning about and feeling your posture and alignment can help you to explore ways to stack your body’s segments more naturally and use less effort for posture and movement. Creating more efficient posture in sitting and standing, and moving with less effort is partially trained by way of repetition and experience with a physical therapist that trains efficient motor control and body mechanics as part of treatment plan. Wonderful stretching and skilled body work cannot cause a lasting change if our habits of stress and strain persist.

An effective treatment plan can include 3-6 one hour visits to mobilize identified areas of restriction, train efficient posture and movement patterns, and develop some home exercises or activities that will reinforce what is gained. Often our clients enter a bout of multiple physical therapy sessions over a 4-6 week time period to make bigger and more rapid changes, and then see us once every 4-8 weeks to re-mobilize what may be needed and make further gains. Call for appointments in Pewaukee at 262-695-3057, Downtown Milwaukee at 414-224-8219, or email

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bodymechanics locations

807 N. Jefferson
Milwaukee, WI 53202  (map)

1177 Quail Court | Suite 200
Pewaukee, WI 53072  (map)