No matter what type of activity, whether it’s a cardiovascular exercise like running or an anaerobic exercise like weightlifting, skeletal muscles are constantly being contracted.
Serving several purposes, muscle contractions are a necessary function of human movement, offering stability, postural support, and even body temperature regulation. Similarly, exercise, no matter the type, has the ability to aid in any fitness goal of choice, whether weight loss, strength, muscle gain, or otherwise.
When a muscle is overexerted during exercise, however, muscle contractions can result in injury or some type of temporary discomfort.
In what follows, we’ll be diving into the world of exercise, detailing the many things that happen during a given activity and how it can aid in any fitness goal of your choosing. More specifically, we’ll discuss what a muscle contraction is, what types of contractions there are, and what occurs when muscles are overexerted.
Defined by the shortening, lengthening, and tightening of a given muscle or muscles, a muscle contraction is the activation of tension-generating muscle cells triggered when a certain stimulus occurs.
The type of stimulus or action that triggers a contraction will determine what type of contraction occurs. Some examples of common actions that trigger a specific muscle contraction include a bicep curl, a squat, and a leg raise.
No matter the type, however, all different muscle contractions serve the same purpose. They move certain parts of the body and act to provide stability and maintain proper posture. In addition, muscle contractions will also serve the function of body temperature regulation.
Types of Muscle Contractions
There are three primary types of muscle contractions: Concentric Contraction, Eccentric Contraction, and Isometric Contraction. Though independent in their location and activity, certain muscle contractions often occur at the same time other muscles are contracting. Thus, a given movement will usually lead to multiple muscle contractions. Concentric contractions are when a muscle shortens and generates a force. Eccentric contractions describe a muscle that is lengthening and generating tension. Finally, isometric contractions occur when there is no change in length of the muscle. The different types of contractions occur based on the technique and location of the contracted muscle.
During a bicep curl, for example, there’s a concentric and eccentric contraction that occurs. In addition, depending on whether or not you decide to hold the weight in a position for a specified duration, there also may be an isometric contraction involved.
How a Muscle Contracts
The contracting portion of the muscle is otherwise known as the muscle fibers. The building blocks of the muscle fibers are proteins named actin and myosin, and when muscle contracts, these fibers either shorten and tighten or lengthen and loosen.
The cause of fiber contraction is a nervous system signal, otherwise known as an “action potential.” Through this nerve signal, the impulse reaches the end plate of the muscle and affects the muscle cells producing a contraction.
A muscle contraction is largely regulated by calcium. For those seeking to improve the efficiency of the action potential generated during a given contraction, it’s important to optimize calcium levels in the body through a healthy, nutritious, and well-rounded diet.
Muscle Spasms and Cramps
Otherwise known as muscle cramps or “Charley horses,” muscle spasms occur when the muscle involuntarily and forcefully contracts in an uncontrolled fashion. This occurs because the muscle is unable to relax due to muscle fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, or perhaps the reason is unknown.
Muscle spasms can involve the entirety of a muscle or simply a portion of it. In the most severe cases, a muscle spasm can occur in numerous muscles simultaneously.
The most common muscles that experience muscle spasms include the thighs, hands, arms, abdomen, and calves. Though extremely common, it’s best to make efforts to avoid muscle spasms by frequent stretching via warming up and cooling down, as well as regular hydration.
Common Goals of Exercise
Most individuals are interested in learning how exercise can help them attain a specific goal. Depending on which exercise or fitness methodology used, almost any given goal can be achieved. Whether it be athletic performance, weight loss, fat burning, strength gains, muscle building, or simply an overall improvement to your health, there is an efficient exercise that can be utilized that is best suited for the desired goal.
Someone seeking to lose weight and burn fat, for example, would likely seek out a cardiovascular-based exercise that produces high caloric expenditure. Similarly, someone seeking to build muscle will likely partake in a weight training exercise that maximizes muscle contraction and stimulus.
Once the goal and exercise have been decided, it’s important also to learn how to maximize efforts. An example of a key component of effort is intensity, which can be measured by perceived excursion or, more accurately, by heart rate.
It has been understood that an increase in heart rate translates greatly to an improvement in performance, ultimately improving the overall quality of the workout.
Exercise is a lifestyle component that should be part of any healthy lifestyle. Not only is it beneficial for performance and athletic improvements but for one’s general mental and physical health and well-being.
It’s important to understand the basic actions of exercise, such as muscle contractions, and learn how to improve efficiency of these contractions to achieve the goals of exercise.
For both athletes and non-athletes, hip flexors are among the most injured regions of the body. Unfortunately, they also happen to be among the most neglected muscle groups during exercise.
Yet, interestingly, the hip flexors play several vital roles in athletic performance and general day-to-day activities. Even though these muscles tend to be almost ignored, they maintain an important purpose in preventing other injuries and improving overall physiological health.
In what follows, we’ll define the hip flexor muscles, their roles in physiology and movement, and why they are so important to physiological health and performance. We’ll also touch on hip flexor injuries, their causes, and what can be done to treat these injuries and prevent them.
Defined as a group of synergistic muscles located toward the front of the hip, hip flexors primarily aid in the fluid movement and flexion of the hip and knee while also providing balance and posture to the pelvis.
Comprising several muscles, the hip flexors include five major muscle groups, otherwise known as prime movers and synergists for hip flexion. The two prime movers are the psoas and iliacus muscles, and the three synergists are the rectus femoris, pectineus, and sartorius muscles.
Extending through the pelvis all the way to the femur, the primary function of the psoas muscle is to contract during hip flexion, allowing the upper legs to lift towards to upper body.
Anatomically proximal to the psoas muscle, the iliacus muscle allows for muscle flexion and rotation of the femur. Its primary function is to aid in the postural alignment of the spine such that the entirety of the body maintains proper posture.
Performing two major functions of the quadriceps and hips, the rectus femoris runs down the entirety of the thigh and aids in the function of hip flexion and knee extension.
The rectus femoris is also the most commonly injured hip flexor muscle, responsible for over half of all hip flexor injuries.
The pectineus is located in the inner thigh and primarily promotes general balance and spinal alignment for postural purposes. Its main function as a hip flexor muscle is to aid in the adduction of the thigh.
Notably, the longest muscle in the body spanning through the hip and knee joints, the sartorius, too, functions as a hip flexor while also allowing for external rotation of the leg and adduction of the thigh.
Hip Flexor Injuries
Like most injuries, hip flexor injuries can range from mild to severe and will be more likely with specific activities or sports. The hip flexors are often the easiest regions of the body to injure, especially in kicking sports.
At its most mild, hip flexor issues can occur secondary to long days spent sitting, which leads to general stiffness and tightness throughout these muscles. At its most severe, however, hip flexor injuries can be the result of traumatic events in competitive sport or from general overuse in certain activities, ultimately causing strains, tears, tendon injury, or bursitis.
The most common symptoms involved with hip flexor injuries include groin pain, hip pain, and back pain, as well as swelling in the area of the injury.
While prevention is the best medicine, physiotherapy is an excellent solution for those who’ve already suffered such an injury.
During such a regimen, a physiotherapist is likely to initiate the treatment with a knee and hip assessment to understand its existing mechanics and identify where to improve, whether via mobility exercises, strength exercises, or both. Other types of physiotherapy can include soft tissue mobilization, electrotherapy, or cryotherapy.
Other potential hip flexor injury treatment regimens may include over-the-counter medication, home remedies such as contrast therapy, and stretching. With some injuries, surgery to repair the injury may be necessary.
The Importance of Hip Flexors
Evident in the particular location of these muscles, the hip flexors are of primary importance in the natural movement and flexion of the hip and knee while also providing balance, stability, and steady posture throughout.
Similar to that of the core, the hip flexors, when fully functioning, work to protect the lower back and spine from injury. A clear method to avoid lower back pain is to avoid hip flexor injuries.
Critical elements of the simple acts of walking, running, bending, and squatting, the hip flexors allow for optimal physiological function in everyday life, not to mention elite athletic performance.
It’s important to maintain good function of the hip flexors for normal activities. In addition, if you want to improve your health with exercise, improving optimal function of the hip flexors will improve overall efficiency of any exercise and help prevent many injuries.
Among the most common causes of preventable injuries and poor posture, hip flexor injuries, too, can be prevented. This can be accomplished through diligent and proactive preventative exercises that target hip mobility, knee flexion, and overall hip strength.
The importance of strong and mobile hip flexors, then, can’t be denied and must be prioritized, both for longevity purposes and athletic performance purposes.
During and after exercise, whether leisurely or intense, the muscle undergoes a disruption that consists of muscular tears and cell activation. Through the maturation and growth processes, such muscle damage begins to repair, ultimately developing into larger, stronger, and more resilient muscles.
However, this maturation and growth process is only optimized when proper recovery techniques are implemented before, during, and after a given exercise period.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing the best ways to improve and optimize recovery times from exercise. Though similar in its tactics, we’ll also share a few effective strategies for managing delayed onset muscle soreness.
How to Improve Muscle Recovery Time
With several tools, tips, and tactics available to deal with muscle soreness and improve recovery time, it’s important to choose and prioritize efficient methods. This is much better than randomly choosing any method and expecting the same outcome of optimized recovery time.
While some of the following tips might seem simple, it’s clear that the implementation of these tips will help the process of recovery.
Hydration doesn’t just comprise water consumption but also sodium and electrolytes. Contrary to popular belief, water alone won’t optimize hydration. Instead, the body requires a certain level of sodium to retain the water being consumed throughout each day.
Ensuring adequate hydration will result in the promotion of peak performance, joint lubrication, injury prevention, and, ultimately, recovery time optimization.
Primarily consumed as a means of energy prior to a given workout, carbohydrates also work to restore glycogen levels following a workout so as to recharge energy stores.
Thus, in order to optimize for performance and recovery, carbohydrate consumption pre-workout and post-workout should be included. Pre-workout consumption helps performance, and post-workout consumption helps recovery.
Often referred to as the building blocks of life, protein has several important roles, both for physical and athletic performance as well as overall health and well-being. Regarding exercise, protein aids primarily in muscular recovery and repair.
Protein consumption promotes muscular recovery and acts as a defense against muscle soreness from exercise while providing the necessary energy and physiological requirements for peak performance.
While everyone’s nutritional demands are different, based on age, activity level, height, weight, and sex, the most active individuals should consume upwards of 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Managing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
The amount of soreness experienced after exercise depends on several factors, such as exercise intensity, duration, recovery or lack thereof, and experience level of the individual. There is, however, an amount of soreness to be expected from physical activity.
Although soreness can be a sign of overtraining, it may also be a sign of muscular growth, repair, and progress. As such, it’s important to learn how to listen to your body, understanding when it’s time to rest and when it’s time to continue.
Movement is also a great recovery management technique because it promotes blood flow, circulation, mobility, and thus recovery. Below are three tips for managing delayed onset muscle soreness and fatigue from exercise.
Follow a Stretching Regimen
Mobility and flexibility are critical for overall health, wellness, and performance. To ensure that the muscles and joints move fluidly, without pain, and without limitation from muscular soreness, it’s important to stretch consistently.
Though it doesn’t need to be complex, stretching is an imperative part of living an active lifestyle. To reduce or prevent muscle soreness from exercise, it’s important to warm up dynamically pre-workout, stretch intermittently during the workout, and statically cool down post-workout.
Use Contrast Therapy
Otherwise referred to as hot & cold therapy, contrast therapy is an effective recovery tool, particularly for its ability to reduce, manage, and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness.
Contrast therapy, which is often the method of taking a sauna followed by a cold plunge, has shown to provide several health benefits. In addition, contrast therapy is very effective in promoting muscle recovery, reducing soreness, and improving future performance.
Rest and Recover
While it’s important to learn to listen to your body and follow the advice of your own coach or trainer, rest and recovery are essential components of any active lifestyle.
The most effective method follows a multifaceted approach comprised of scheduled rest days and active recovery days. These active recovery days include low-intensity, leisurely physical activity such that the period doesn’t comprise complete inactivity.
Finally, sleep is not to be ignored, and it can be argued that it is the most effective tool for recovery and soreness prevention.
There are also some alternative strategies for recovery and soreness management, including massage therapy and other techniques such as acupuncture, and these can be investigated and considered by each individual.
Regular exercise that includes proper recovery techniques is the most efficient. A recovery regimen is the best way to prevent future injury, improve performance, speed up recovery times, and manage muscle soreness from exercise.
More and more research is being released on the benefits of protein consumption. While it’s long been known that protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, only in recent years has it become popularized for its abundance of other health benefits.
Yet, some controversy exists over the idea of protein supplementation and its function in helping achieve adequate amounts of protein. While some view protein supplementation as an inferior and all-but-ineffective sales gimmick, other experts view protein supplementation as an effective alternative for consumption.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing protein as a macronutrient, its primary functions, and its many potential health benefits. Further, we’ll discuss protein supplementation and detail the advantages of protein powder and its many variations. Lastly, we’ll explore how dietary protein smoothies and shakes can aid as a healthy alternative in many dietary regimens.
Protein is one of three macronutrients essential to the function and survival of the human body, and more specifically, the bones, muscles, skin, and blood. This key macronutrient is often referred to as being the building block of life.
Protein is composed of chemical compounds known as amino acids, and it is broken down and absorbed efficiently during the normal digestive process. The end result of this digestive process boosts the immune system, improves cellular health, builds lean muscle tissue, improves athletic performance, and provides energy.
Studies of protein have identified that when consumed in optimal amounts, it may aid in reducing risk factors for osteoporosis, heart disease, and other major health complications.
While protein can and should be consumed primarily through whole foods, sometimes supplementation may be necessary, especially for athletes or extremely active individuals whose protein requirements are greater than that of less active individuals.
Potential Health Benefits of Protein Powder
When the body isn’t provided with adequate amounts of protein on a daily basis, optimal functioning of the human body diminishes. Thus, for all individuals, striving for optimal protein consumption is essential. For those who have difficulty consuming sufficient amounts of whole foods, protein supplementation is necessary to reach adequate levels.
The following are some of the most commonly reported and researched health benefits of protein and protein powder supplementation.
While protein is often thought of as an alternative fuel source to carbohydrates and fats, it also acts as an effective appetite suppressant, increasing satiety and reducing food cravings for longer periods of time. Thus, protein aids in weight loss by influencing the number of calories consumed throughout each day, and it also boosts metabolism.
Combined with consistent resistance training, protein powder supplementation also aids primarily in lean muscle growth via a process known as muscle protein synthesis. Through muscular repair and recovery, protein also allows for maximal effort and athletic performance, reducing the risk of injury, and allowing for consistent and intense efforts during the resistance training regimen.
As suggested in a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, protein supplementation resulted in less fatigue during exercise compared to those who didn’t supplement with protein. Thus, those who consumed protein shakes experienced greater energy and output.
Research also suggests that consuming adequate amounts of protein, whether through whole food or powdered supplementation, boosts immunity and provides a means of both illness prevention and management.
Finally, protein powder supplementation acts as a natural moisturizer for dry skin and an alternative solution for acne-prone skin and other skin imperfections.
Common Types of Protein Powder
According to the FDA, dietary supplements are those products that provide nutrients external to a whole foods diet, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, probiotics, prebiotics, and other beneficial enzymes.
By definition, protein powder is a dietary supplement that provides the body with essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, allowing optimal recovery, repair, and function of the body.
The most commonly consumed protein powders are those derived from animal-based sources. These sources include whey protein, casein, and collagen, found in dairy products such as milk and cheese and animal tissue. Other animal-based protein powders include beef protein powder, egg-white protein powder, and other grass-fed powders.
In addition to the more popular animal-based powders, protein powder can also be derived from plants. Some common types of plant-based protein powders include soy protein and pea protein. These plant-based proteins tend to be less expensive and contain less protein, overall calories, and fats than that of animal-based protein powders.
Pea protein powder, unlike other plant-based protein powders, is a complete protein source that contains all nine essential amino acids. Both digestible and good tasting, pea protein is the superior option for those looking for an alternative to animal-based products. In addition, it produces similar recovery and repair benefits to whey protein and has been highlighted in research to help prevent chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Whether the goal is weight loss, muscle gain, or improving overall health, high protein diets have proven integral to achieving this goal. Though a whole foods diet is the optimal path, protein powder shakes are an effective and convenient alternative source of protein.
Though the practice of fasting has been around for centuries primarily for religious and ceremonial purposes, it’s only become a popular health and wellness practice in recent years.
Simple in its explanation but difficult in its execution, fasting is the act of restraint from consumption for a given period of time. In the most extreme of circumstances, fasting can last days, with no food and only limited drink allowed to be consumed. Among the most popular fasting protocols is intermittent fasting.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing what intermittent fasting is, how it works, what types there are, and how the body responds to this process. Further, we’ll share strategies for managing hunger while in a fasting state. Finally, we’ll discuss its many benefits, including weight loss.
Intermittent fasting is a popularized fasting protocol whereby there’s a window of allowable time for consumption and a window of restriction where no consumption is to take place.
The idea of using fasting in this protocol is based on the fact that by prohibiting the consumption of food for several hours, the body eventually exhausts itself of glucose, using it all for energy during the fasting session.
As a result, the body then begins to burn fat for fuel and, in the process, switches the body’s natural metabolic process to a weight-loss-promoting process.
Though it’s yet to be determined which method of fasting is most effective, the majority of the research has been done on the 16:8 method of intermittent fasting.
The following are the most common types of intermittent fasting.
The 16:8 Method
Offering a window of 8 hours for consumption and 16 hours for restraint, the 16:8 method is likely the most practiced of fasting protocols, not only for its low barrier to entry but for its proven benefits. The typical schedule for this protocol is beginning the eating window at noon and ending it at 8 p.m., and then running the restriction window from 8 p.m. to noon the following day.
The 5:2 Method
While the 16:8 method is a way of breaking down a 24-hour period, the 5:2 method is a way of breaking down a one-week period. In the protocol, five days are to be carried out with usual consumption, and two days are to involve a 500-calorie consumption limit.
Whether for 24, 48, or 72 hours, or anything in between, a prolonged fast is an intermittent fast that lasts up to several days without consumption of food and/or water.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Although the research on intermittent fasting has yet to show that its benefits are superior to that of other dietary protocols, it’s an undeniably valuable tool, particularly for those seeking to lose weight, reduce body fat, or simply live a more conscious and intentional lifestyle.
Similarly, while it might sound counterintuitive to ignore the lack of research on the subject, the anecdotal evidence is quite convincing in considering the validity of the method.
It is a superior strategy for those who’d prefer to avoid the tedious practice of calorie counting during weight loss, and it’s also an excellent natural appetite suppressant. In addition, it’s a very efficient strategy for energy production. While it might take 1-2 weeks for the body to adjust, the results can be profound once adjusted.
Intermittent fasting also has several other health and wellness benefits, and these vary from person to person and depend on the consistency of the fast. The following are some benefits seen.
Mental Sharpness and Acuity
Focus and Cognition
Reduction in Inflammation
Cellular Generation and Cleansing
Boosted Hormonal Health
Improved Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Levels
In order to benefit from intermittent fasting, however, the fasting period must be adhered to strictly and successfully. This requires managing hunger during the fast. Strategically, it’s imperative to stay hydrated via water and electrolytes, reduce stress, and find healthy distractions. Other hunger management tactics include coffee consumption, meditation, and being strategic with food choices during windows of consumption.
Though weight loss is likely the most common and obvious benefit, the concept of improved cellular and hormonal health is quite interesting.
How Intermittent Fasting Affects Cells and Hormones
Physiologically, intermittent fasting plays a major role at the cellular level that likely has an impact on hormonal health and beyond.
Not only does human growth hormone increase during a prolonged fasting period, but insulin levels go down, and cellular regeneration and repair are triggered.
The following are some of the biological and physiological changes that occur.
Human Growth Hormone
The levels of growth hormone skyrocket, increasing by as much as five-fold. This has benefits for both fat loss and muscle gain.
The sensitivity of circulating insulin improves, and levels of insulin drop dramatically. Lower insulin levels make stored body fat more accessible to burn.
When fasted, the cellular repair process is triggered. This includes autophagy, a process whereby old cells are removed and new cells are generated.
Intermittent fasting is a popular method of weight loss, and it can produce excellent results. However, it’s recommended for most individuals to use the more popular 16:8 intermittent fasting protocol.
Not only is this the easiest method to adopt as a beginner due to its simplicity and attainability, but it might just be the most effective strategy out there. Yet, more research will be necessary to draw more specific conclusions about this protocol.