The Cumulative Injury Cycle: How and Why Flexibility Training Prevents Injury
If you’re like many exercisers out there, you may have a “problem area” that repeatedly gives you issues, annoyingly interrupting your training routine. This could be your lower back, your knee, your shoulder, your ankle…the list goes on and on. You’re not sure why, but the tension and pain subsides for a while, so you resume your training routine, and BAM, you’re in the middle of another flare-up before you know it. The worst part is that these types of injuries tend to get worse with each occurrence.
The reason behind these annoying repetitive injuries is termed the Cumulative Injury Cycle. It’s a vicious circle that reinforces itself with each repetition. If you fail to recognize the warning signs, you may eventually face a much more serious injury. The way to break the cycle is through corrective flexibility training, which you can work on yourself or enlist the help of a trainer, chiropractor, physician, or other professional. Read on to learn how the Cumulative Injury Cycle works and how you can break it.
Steps of the Cumulative Injury Cycle
Step 1: Tissue Trauma
Tissue trauma can result from an injury such as a strain, or it can simply refer to the micro-tears and contractive tension in a muscle which are normal results of strength training. The body treats this stress on the tissue as an injury and initiates the repair process. The only way muscles get bigger and stronger is when the body undertakes this healthy, normal repair process on these micro-tears. Excessive tension, however, is NOT normal and healthy. It interferes with the healthy growth of the muscles by allowing them to remain in a shortened, contracted state.
Step 2: Inflammation
Any trauma to tissues leads to inflammation of the traumatized area. Inflammation triggers the body’s pain response system, which activates protective mechanisms meant to prevent further damage. At the microscopic level, we are talking about activation of tiny receptor sites called muscle spindles that sense the level of tension in the muscle and attempt to protect it by initiating contraction.
Step 3: Muscle Spasm
When the muscle spindles are stimulated, microspasms begin to echo throughout the muscle, creating further tension and shortening.
Step 4: Adhesions
Also known as “knots”, adhesions are the result of the microspasms in step 3. These adhesions can be described as tight nodules within the soft muscle tissues. They reshape the muscle itself, creating an inelastic matrix of roadblocks which prevent the muscle from contracting and releasing as it should. Untreated adhesions can become permanent features of the soft tissue as the tissue repairs itself to cope with the demands of strength training. Inflexible tissue causes postural compensations as the body attempts to find ways to move itself in spite of its new limitations.
Step 5: Altered Neuromuscular Control
These permanent adhesions cause the body to move in fundamentally different ways. The body wants to move, and it will find a way to do so even if it means using muscles and joints in suboptimal ways which deviate from their intended functions.
Step 6: Muscle Imbalance
Repeated patterns of movement model the body in their image. If the body moves in a suboptimal manner over time, the faulty patterns will be built into the muscles and joints themselves.
And Then the Vicious Cycle Repeats and Reinforces Itself
As the first iteration of the cumulative injury cycle draws to a close, you can see that the muscles are left in an odd position in which their optimal functions are distorted in an attempt to cope with its new structural limitations. As you continue to exercise, you place stress on the body in its new compensated position. The compensations are further cemented in place by repetitions of the cycle.
Pattern Overload and the Cumulative Injury Cycle
The cumulative injury cycle is directly tied to the concept of pattern overload, which means placing repeated stress on the body through performing the same motions. Poor posture combined with pattern overload is the recipe for repetitive stress injuries, including but not limited to bursitis, tendonitis, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel, and more.
How to Break the Cumulative Injury Cycle: Flexibility and Variety
The keys to breaking the cumulative injury cycle lie in flexibility training and mixing up your fitness routines.
First, let’s go over flexibility training. If you have (or suspect you have) current postural problems, it’s best to enlist the assistance of a personal trainer, chiropractor, physician, or other professional. They will prescribe a corrective flexibility routine which will address any current postural issues that are feeding into the cumulative injury cycle.
If you are generally healthy with no known posture problems, be sure to keep it that way through giving flexibility training its due emphasis in your fitness routine! Warm up with some light activity for 5-10 minutes such as a walk or job, then stretch BEFORE beginning your actual workout. This will warm up your joints, muscles, and connective tissue and avoid inducing the cumulative injury cycle.
Even more important is stretching AFTER your workout. This restores your muscles to their optimal resting lengths, decreasing excessive tension so the cumulative injury cycle can’t get started.
Important areas to stretch and ways to stretch them are covered in the articles Upper Body Stretches and Leg Stretches – Static and Dynamic Stretching Exercises. Read these articles to discover the flexibility exercises you must add to your fitness routine to avoid falling prey to the cumulative injury cycle.
Also, be sure to vary your routine so you aren’t performing the same exercises all the time. Doing the same motions time after time initiates the problems associated with pattern overload, leading to an increased risk of repetitive stress injuries. Changing up your routine also has the added benefit of avoiding the dreaded plateau, where you stop seeing results even though you are working out just as hard as always.
It’s no fun to develop problem areas which keep you from your favorite fitness activities! You’ll thank yourself later if you do what you can NOW to nip the cumulative injury cycle in the bud through incorporating flexibility training into your workouts.
The Cumulative Injury Cycle: References
1.) Action Cycling, (2012). Biomechanics and physiology of injury. Action Cycling Newsletter, www.actioncycling.org
2.) Behar, J. (2013). The cumulative injury cycle: What you need to know to avoid injuries in the gym. Muscle Mag Fitness, http://www.musclemagfitness.com/fitness-and-exercises/weight-lifting/the-cumulative-injury-cycle.-what-you-need-to-know-to-avoid-injuries-in-the-gym.html
3.) Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Sutton, B.G., (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
4.) Lasnier, D. (2010) Top 3 soft tissue work tools. Athletic Development, http://davidlasnier.com/tag/muscle-adhesion