All About Muscle Pulls

April 3, 2013 | Joe Giandonato

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A pulled muscle will bring a productive workout or practice to a screeching halt. Plus, it can sideline you for an undetermined length of time. (See Get Back in the Game After Pulling a Muscle.)  Fortunately, the majority of muscle pulls (a.k.a. muscle strains) are preventable. Understanding the basics of muscle strains can help you avoid them.

Muscle pulls are caused by overstretching or tearing individual muscle fibers. There are three degrees of severity:

First-Degree Strain. This is considered a mild injury, where only a slight overstretching or minor tearing of tissue occurs. Typical symptoms are moderate tenderness and slight reduction in range of motion, but not severe swelling.

Second-Degree Strain. To be classified as a second-degree strain, there must be a partial tearing of tissue. Symptoms include greater loss of range of motion, swelling, pain and possible spasms.

Third-Degree Strain. The most severe form. Those who suffer a third-degree strain typically require immediate medical attention, as they experience a total loss in function, extreme swelling and discoloration.

What Causes Muscle Pulls?

  • Eccentric phase of a movement. The majority of sprains occur during the eccentric phase of a movement. For example, a hamstring pull can occur during the late swing phase of a sprint, when the foot makes contact with the ground immediately before pushing off.
  • Tight muscles. If muscles are tight prior to a workout or become tight during the workout, they will be more susceptible to injury. This is because movement may force the muscle to stretch beyond its capacity. Forcing a muscle to stretch too far may cause it to spasm, or tear, especially if it's under tension from a load.
  • Uncontrolled forceful movements. Twisting and jerking motions subject muscles to rapid stretching forces that can trigger a strain.
  • Overuse. Repetitive activities performed without adequate recovery can precipitate pulls, since fatigued muscles are more prone to injury.
  • Poor nutrition and hydration. When an athlete is malnourished or improperly hydrated, he or she won't be able to tolerate exercise as well, further taxing his/her muscles.

How to Prevent Muscle Pulls

Employ the following strategies to ward off muscle injuries and keep you in the gym and on the court longer. (See also Preventing and Treating Common Muscle Strains.)

  • Perform self-myofascial release and stretch regularly to enhance the extensibility and flexibility of your muscles.
  • Begin each workout with a thorough warm-up to raise your body temperature, enhance blood flow, excite your nervous system (helping to activate muscles properly), stretch your muscles and move your joints through their  full range of motion.
  • To prevent overuse and sudden injuries, make gradual, or incremental, increases in the weight you lift, the number of sets and reps (volume) you perform and the intensity of your workouts.
Joe Giandonato
- Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is the head strength and conditioning coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa. He has authored numerous articles on a...
Joe Giandonato
- Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is the head strength and conditioning coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa. He has authored numerous articles on a...
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