Uncovering the Formula for Strengthening

To strengthen a muscle, let it do its job repeatedly against resistance. For example, to bring strength back to your weakened neck and upper back muscles, and to strengthen them a little further to meet the demands of a bent-forward posture, you must not only use these muscles, but also make them work harder than normal. Merely standing in an upright position and bending backwards - this muscle's job - does not cut it, because it does not provide enough resistance for the muscles to work against. But you can add resistance, for example, using gravity. If you lie on your stomach on a bed and lift your neck and head, you are providing resistance. Don't start with a full workout program, because these muscles are often both weakened and overly tense. Therefore, it is good to start with small movements and observe how the muscles contract. This helps you know when to add more power to the contractions.

How do you know that you are strengthening the right muscles?

The benefit of knowing the jobs and exact locations of your muscles is that this way you can isolate a muscle, which means you will know when and how to limit a contraction to the exact muscle you want to work on. This reduces the use of unrelated muscles because all strengthening activity is happening exactly where you want it. The neck muscles lie right between the shoulders and move upwards. Therefore, you can scoot forward on the bed so that the area between the shoulders is on the edge while your head/neck is hanging over the edge. Now when you lift your neck backward and up, you make these precise muscles work. To isolate the upper back muscles, scoot forward a little more so the shoulders and upper back also hang over the edge. Now when you lift your chest and shoulders back up as far as they go, you are strengthening exactly those muscles that need help so desperately. Doing this exercise according to the principles of increasing muscle strength  will give your upper back the strength is needs.

What is Needed to Increase Strength?
As with stretching, there are many theories about how best to strengthen muscles, but most experts agree on certain basic elements. A muscle must be used (contracted), and it must be pushed beyond the normal daily level of usage. There is an important difference, however, between stretching and strengthening. Stretching a painful muscle contributes to its healing, while strengthening a painful muscle can add to its problem. Therefore, if a muscle is painful when you do strengthening exercises, you should stop. The fibers need to heal before they are able to handle the extra load of strengthening.


During strengthening work you must:

  • Contract the muscle as far as it goes. Each time, lift or bend as far as you can, to the full available pain-free range of motion.

  • Repeat the movement enough times. You should do two or three sets of from 3 to 10 repetitions, depending on the weight used and the kind of muscle contraction used. Often you will have to determine the ideal number of repetitions for your body based on how your muscles feel and respond.

  • Strengthen the muscles often enough. A set of repetitions three times a week is the minimum needed for strengthening to succeed.

Even a single strengthening contraction does a ton of good for your muscle. The tissue between the fibers is pushed and shoved, which helps to prevent it from adhering, or gluing together. Blood flow gets a jump start, the message communication system is awakened, and the fibers get exercised. All of this contributes to making you feel better for much the same reasons that stretching does.


There are several ways to work a muscle. Therefore, you can choose to use one strengthening technique, or you can add complexity step-by-step as you go. Here are some strengthening technique:

  • Tense the muscle by contracting it as tightly as you can without moving your body (isometric contraction: iso = same, metro = length). This is a very good exercise to help you retain or regain muscle strength if you are sick in bed and cannot move around. In fact, it is also great to do while you are sitting still at work during the day.

  • Contract the muscle by letting the muscle do its job (concentric contraction.) This is how you use the muscles in normal daily movement, but a muscle will strengthen only if you contract it all the way to full range!


Contract and Stretch at the same time
Eccentric contraction is the most effective workout for your muscles. To do it, hold a weight in your hand with your elbow bent to 90 degrees, then slowly lower the weight toward the floor. The front upper arm muscles must contract all the time to prevent the weight from dropping and are being stretched at the same time as you lower the weight.

Your daily activities are always a combination of these different ways of using the muscles. When you deliberately want to strengthen a muscle, however, it is helpful to know that you have options. You may need to work in different ways, depending on your situation.

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