By Jeff Alexander
Muscles are complicated. Made up of countless fibers that should seamlessly slide back and forth as you contract and extend them, muscles are like any complex machine that gets overused: They get junk in them.
Sure, “junk” isn’t a highly clinical phrase, but it’s actually the perfect description for the various metabolic waste products, scar tissue, adhesions or trigger points that accumulate in muscles and gum up motions that should be pliable and comfortable. You change the oil in our cars, you blow out your computers with compressed air. It’s time to do the same kind of maintenance for your muscles.
Junk that builds up in the pecs, and especially the pectoralis minor, can lock your shoulders and arms so that your range of motion (ROM) is compromised. Restoring proper ROM means that more actual muscle fibers are stimulated during exercise and your pecs can experience greater growth. Your rhomboids do the opposite of the pecs since they are attached between your shoulder blades and pull your scapula toward your spine. It’s important to work the junk out of them, too. Packing these two techniques together can really open up the shoulders and help you better stabilize heavy loads.
In athletes, junk usually results from overtraining and dehydration. Regular stretching, adequate fluid intake and Epsom-salt baths can stave off the buildup and inhibited movement, but there’s a good chance you’re already experiencing some grinding gears in your muscles. These strategies can help.
Pec Wall Press
Begin by standing with your chest pressed against a ball that’s pinned to a solid wall. (I like the Beastie ball.) If your pecs are highly developed, you can use a yoga block to add a little additional leverage.
Experiment with the exact spot you need to apply pressure to. It may take a few pick-up-and-place attempts before you find the spot that needs attention. You’ll know it when you press on it.
When you find that spot of increased tension (it’ll probably hurt a little), apply heavy pressure to it for 20 to 30 seconds by leaning in and using your legs. Breathe deeply and slowly and relax so you can really sink into the ball. Use your legs and hips to regulate and manipulate the pressure you apply.
Decrease the pressure slightly while you take a couple recovery breaths.
Repeat Steps 1 through 4 for four to six rounds for each side. You should notice decreased tension in your pecs with each successive round.
Slowly remove the ball and take your arm through a full range of motion to test improvements in stabilization and ROM. Perform these steps up to three times a day to improve chest function and strength.
Lie flat on your back with a ball under your rhomboids, the muscles between your shoulder blade and your spine.
Flex your shoulders and elbows 90 degrees so your upper arms are straight out to the side of your shoulders and your forearms are off the floor. Make sure that your elbows and head are resting on the floor, because lifting either one activates the very muscles you are trying to massage.
Bring your wrists and elbows as close together as possible over your face and then slowly return them to the floor. Breathe deeply and regularly as you relax into the pressure.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 for five to 10 rounds, then test the ROM in the side you just worked. Repeat for the other side.
A little daily maintenance work goes a long way. If you spend five to 10 minutes once or twice a day addressing your tight pecs and rhomboids with focused SMR and stretching, your bench press numbers and your recovery will show it.
Jeff Alexander is an expert on self-myofascial release who teaches his style of functional therapy all over the world. He and his wife own Network Fitness in Irvine, Calif.