Posted in Fit basics

Muscles vs Tendons

Training hard in gym means pushing yourself beyond the limits of the comfort zone. But that is Ok. We all love it. That’s the very reason we all exercise in the first place. Without making those little excursions into the unknown, our bodies would never want to improve and get stronger.

A smart athlete would not want to push themselves too far on any given training day, but to gradually improve abilities until the body gets ready to reach higher goals. But even if you are reasonable and patient, there are still some not so obvious traps that might catch you and slow your progress. One of the most common is caused by the difference in responsiveness to stress by muscles on one side and tendons on the other.

Muscle tissue is one of the most dynamic in human body. It is very quick to recover from small injuries and as a consequence it becomes even stronger than it was before. This is not a quirk of nature – muscles are expected to sustain microscopic traumas by simply doing what they are supposed to do. While it is not necessary for your muscles to feel sore after a workout in order to grow, it should not bother you either; you know that everything will be back to normal in only a day or two.

But unfortunately the same doesn’t hold truth for tendons. They are made of connective tissue (collagen strands) so they are much slower to adapt to increased demands. Worse yet, they are far slower to recover if stressed beyond the current capacity.

The exact causes of this problem are still debatable, but at least part of it arises from the fact that connective tissue typically has much weaker blood circulation in comparison to muscle tissue. Consequently, it is less able to flush metabolic waste and to receive nutrients. This is not a flaw in design of our bodies, it is just mechanically impossible for blood vessels to reach all the dynamical structures within joint area without being exposed to the risk of being compressed or crushed.

There are two important observations that you should be aware of:

  • If you make constant progress in your training, as you should, tendons will be lagging behind muscles in terms of strength and durability.

  • If injured, your tendons will heal much more slowly than muscles.

The more knowledgeable and efficient you become in exercising, the more able you will become to stimulate muscle and tendon growth. But because muscles tend to grow faster, the more accentuated the discrepancy between muscle and tendon strength will be. So if after approximately a year of regular going to the gym you start experiencing strange aches or pains in your body, you should suspect tendon overuse possibility.

It might be the case that there is nothing wrong with your body, but you simply became so proficient in training your muscles that your tendons can’t catch up. A typical issue of this sort is stubborn pain felt around the elbow when exercising triceps, some people get it no matter how perfect their exercising technique is. The reason is that elbow joint and triceps tendon are simply not designed to be stressed as much as we might want them to be. Or perhaps, your exercising technique might be less than perfect so you tend to chronically over stress your tendons; which was not obvious before you gained significant strength but now it is.

The only way to prevent such nuisances is to periodically review your technique and to constantly listen to what your body is telling you. If it says that something starts to hurt, then you should refrain from being too obsessive with it and check whether you are doing everything right.

You’ve probably heard that old “No pain = No gain” bro proverb. But honestly, that is a soothing chant unwise lifters repeat to themselves while rubbing a sore spot that doesn’t let them sleep for nights. It is true that occasionally something will hurt a bit, and you won’t dye from it, but that should only be the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is, if you wouldn’t push someone you love so much that they hurt themselves while doing it, and you wouldn’t be celebrating if that happens, then you shouldn’t do it to yourself either. Be smart = Be strong.