by Craig Williamson

Muscle tension can come from a number of different causes, including poor body alignment, or as a protective reaction to injury and stress. Another significant cause of muscle tension is how we move. Many people habitually move in inefficient ways, causing muscles to become chronically tense. In this article, we will look at how muscle habits are learned and how to unlearn them.

Learning a new movement skill can take a lot of attention at first, but after the learning takes place you can do it without thinking. Remember how you learned to ride a bicycle? In the process of learning to ride, you acquired memories of how it felt, such as the sensations of using your arms, pedaling and losing and regaining balance. Your nervous system used the information from your successes and your errors to develop ways of riding.

After a certain amount of practice, at some point you were suddenly able to balance on the bicycle. The neurological and muscular processes related to bicycling have consolidated into a memory of the action as a whole. This consolidated memory is known as a movement pattern. A movement pattern allows you to automatically perform an action you were once unable to perform.

Since movement patterns work automatically, you don’t need to think about the activity for which you have established a movement pattern in order to perform the activity successfully. The movement pattern for bicycling, for example, automatically takes care of the complex neuromuscular coordination required for balancing. You can put your attention elsewhere. You can look at the scenery without being concerned about your balance.

Generally speaking, the point at which you automatically use a movement pattern for an activity is when we say you have learned that activity. In actuality, however, learning is not an end point at which you eventually arrive, but rather a series of stages that are part of an ongoing process of acquiring information and using that information to refine your skills and improve performance.

The fact that movement patterns work automatically is an advantage. You use movement patterns every day. In fact, you could not even begin to function without movement patterns.When you stand up, you don’t need to remind your leg muscles to engage. Thanks to your movement patterns, the leg muscles automatically engage when you are standing, even if you are busy watching the yellow finches at your bird feeder.Otherwise you would fall down.

I discussed movement patterns with Kathleen Porter, alignment teacher, yoga teacher, massage therapist and
author of Ageless Spine, Lasting Health: The Open Secret to Pain-Free Living and Comfortable Aging. She pointed out it can be difficult to differentiate between movement patterns and what she calls body-use patterns. Body-use
patterns involve skeletal alignment guided by muscle activity.According to Porter, “There is a process of imprinting that begins in childhood, in which we develop patterns of use from what we see in people around us. Even children’s furniture, such as car seats and strollers, create a pattern in how the lumbar spine is used. Children take on patterns of use from their environment.”

Dysfunctional movement patterns
Ideally, a movement pattern’s development will be based on the most efficient use of your muscles, using the least amount of energy necessary to accomplish the task with good body alignment. In actuality, however, many movement patterns develop with inefficient use of the body.When this occurs, I refer to it as a dysfunctional movement pattern.

A dysfunctional movement pattern is a poor habit of using muscles. Such a pattern can be caused when the person
who is learning a movement is compensating for pain or injury, or has diminished kinesthetic awareness, distorted alignment or emotional stress. Because it’s a habit, a dysfunctional movement pattern is a memory that continues to be activated each time a certain movement is called upon.

The problem with dysfunctional movement patterns is they inevitably result in chronic muscular tension. An example of a dysfunctional movement pattern is when a person tenses his neck muscles during inhalation, an action that does not improve breathing and creates chronic neck tension. Another example of a dysfunctional movement pattern is when a person limps to avoid pain for two months, while an ankle injury is healing, and thereafter continues to unconsciously contract her hip muscles even though the ankle pain is gone. The tension from a dysfunctional movement pattern can be greatly relieved by a massage, but unless the pattern is changed, the tension will return when the person returns to his habitual and unconscious ways of using his muscles.

A fundamental dysfunctional movement pattern, according to Porter, involves compressing the spine in one way or the other. “With every movement we have the option to open and lengthen the spine or to compress and shorten the spine,” she explains. When we use the spine in a compressed way, we “are disconnected with our natural alignment, and therefore disconnected with our own nature.”

Repatterning patterns
Why do dysfunctional movement patterns stay in place if they are inefficient, tiring and often the cause of pain? They remain mainly because they feel familiar, and often they feel right. I have worked with countless people who,
when I help them find good standing alignment, say they feel like they are either leaning too far forward or slouching their shoulders—or both. Initially, the aligned position does not feel right to them. I ask them to look in
the mirror, and they are usually surprised to see they are standing nicely upright.

To get a better idea of what is functional and dysfunctional muscle use, a few generalizations can be made about
how the body moves:
• Muscles closer to the center of the body are generally larger and stronger than muscles farther from the center of
the body.
• If muscle use and skeletal alignment near the center of the body (the waist, or “core” muscles) is not efficient, some muscles near the extremities (legs, arms, neck) will need to compensate for that inefficiency by overworking. This results in chronic muscle tension.
• When muscle tone (tension) is balanced throughout the body, movement occurs with less effort overall. Porter has further suggestions for fundamentals of how the body moves, in terms of bones and alignment:
• The primary function of muscles is to move bones.
• In terms of the architecture of the body, the muscles are pulleys and bones are levers.When the bones are where they need to be, the muscles are free to make movement happen, rather being completely engaged in holding us up.
• We have all the strength we need naturally, without needing complex strengthening routines. Strength comes
from interplay between aligned bones and elastic muscles.

Help clients identify movement patterns
When your client is lying prone on your table, there are two simple and helpful ways you can help her become
aware of movement patterns.

With her arms at her side, ask her to very slowly raise one arm off the table, keeping the elbow straight. Ask her to notice if, as soon as she begins to raise her arm, the front of the shoulder pushes down into the table or lifts off
the table. If the shoulder pushes down, ask her to repeat raising the arm while consciously lifting up the front of the shoulder and relaxing the anterior shoulder muscles.

Have your client place her hand under the front of the pelvis (ASIS). Ask her to very slowly raise that leg up about five inches, with the knee straight, while noticing if the front of her pelvis pushes down into her hand or lifts up away from her hand. If it pushes down, ask her to repeat raising the leg while intentionally lifting it up. This involves a stronger use of the lower back and hip muscles and also compresses the lumbar spine less than when the pelvis presses down.

Intentional repetition
To change a dysfunctional movement pattern, a new movement pattern needs to be intentionally repeated until it feels right and the dysfunctional movement pattern feels incorrect. Kinesthetic awareness, particularly your awareness of muscle effort and relaxation, is the key to repatterning a dysfunctional movement pattern. The clearer your kinesthetic awareness is, the more easily you can change a dysfunctional movement pattern.

Essentially, you can repattern a dysfunctional movement pattern through muscular retraining by moving in a new way. The trick is to combine kinesthetic awareness with comfortable, nonforceful movements. Repatterning involves moving as easily as possible, by observing and avoiding the use
of any unnecessary muscles.

To learn how to work more safely as a massage therapist, visit to read
“How to Correct 2 Movement Patterns While You Work.” Also read, “3 Techniques to Change Dysfunctional Movement Patterns.”

Craig Williamson has been a massage therapist since 1980 and is also an occupational therapist. He developed Williamson Somatic Integration, an awareness-based method of muscular retraining used for musculoskeletal pain issues. He is the author of Muscular Retraining for Pain-Free Living (Shambhala Publications, 2007). For more information, visit

1. The neck muscles shorten when the arm is raised.
2. The neck and lower back muscles shorten when the arms push or pull.
3. The upper back muscles halt the rotation of the scapula when the arm is
reached overhead.
4. The chest muscles shorten when the arms pull.
5. The abdominal muscles contract during inhalation.
6. The lower back is excessively compressed when the hip is extended.
7. In walking, the foot dorsiflexes when the leg is raised.
8. In walking, the lower back muscles shorten when the hip flexes.
—Craig Williamson