How to Get the Most Out of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Your body houses some of the most remarkable machinery found on our planet. Supported by over 650 muscles throughout your body, you can jump, run, read, walk, eat, react to danger, and move to the beat of your favorite song.

Muscles work by receiving signals from your brain. In return, your muscles send signals back to your brain in a two-way communication loop. Because of this communication loop, what happens in your brain can affect what happens with your muscles and vice versa. When you feel afraid, you might feel your shoulders rise, your lower back tense, and tension increase in your jaw or forehead. When you feel angry, you might feel your hands clench and your chest tighten. If you feel sad, your posture might collapse, putting strain on your back or hips. Most of the reactions in your body happen automatically and may differ from person to person. For example, how you experience tension may be different from how someone else experiences it.

Sometimes you may not realize how much tension you’ve been carrying around because of how subtle the communication loop can be between your brain and body. It may not be until days after feeling stressed or anxious that you might notice headaches from shoulder tension or insomnia from a stiff posture. Tension may also become difficult to spot if, especially after years of chronic stress, “tense” has become your body’s new baseline. Long-term, the side effects of chronic muscle tension can wreak havoc on your body.

One of the most magnificent things about your muscles, however, is that while they are able to cause tension and discomfort, they can also be turned into tools you can use for relaxation. You can learn to intentionally relax them through greater awareness of tense versus relaxed modes. And, because your mind and muscles share a communication loop, you can utilize muscle relaxation to help relax your mind when you notice you’re feeling stressed or anxious. The mindfulness of this process connects you to your body, leads you to discover tension you may not have recognized, and enables you to spot potential problems faster.

Imagine your muscles are like a bow and arrow. When you pull back the string with an arrow, you are prepping the bow for action. When your body preps for action (as part of a fight, flight, or freeze response, for example), it creates tension in your muscles like the bow. If a bow is never released and is held taut for long periods of time, it will wear out faster because of the additional strain. The same is true for your muscles. By releasing the excess strain you may be carrying around, your body can be more effective during times when you need to take action.

A simple way you can train yourself to manage stress-induced muscle tension is through an exercise called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).1

Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation exercise where you sequentially tense and release your major muscle groups in order to learn how to notice and relax your muscles. This process relieves excess tension and improves your ability to relax.

PMR has been shown to be a useful aid in helping to treat a wide range of disorders, including tension headaches, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and many others.2,3,4 Because many disorders and illnesses can worsen with stress, learning to reduce stress and tension can take you a step closer to overall wellness. Naturally, if you have medical concerns you should talk to your medical provider first and ask if progressive muscle relaxation would be helpful to include in your treatment plan.

Optimally, PMR is done twice a day for about 15–20 minutes5 and can be done in three simple steps:

1. Settle into a comfortable position either sitting or lying down.
2. Tense a muscle or muscle group for 5–7 seconds, then relax for 20–30 seconds. Repeat the process up to five times if tension still remains in a muscle group.
3. Give yourself a moment at the end to fully embrace relaxation and notice changes in your body.

Be cautious while tensing sensitive areas like your neck and spine, and also with your feet and toes to avoid cramping. Tensing each muscle group at least twice can help warm up the muscle first before releasing more tension the second time. The beauty of PMR is that you don’t have to tense very hard in order to learn the difference between tense and relaxed states.

To get more out of your practice, there are a number of ways you can modify approaching PMR.

Create safety.

The safer your surroundings feel, the more easily you’ll be able to release tension because you’re giving your body’s on-guard system a chance to relax. While we don’t always have full control of our environments, try to create as much safety as possible in the space around you while you do the exercises.5If it’s helpful, you may choose to add calming background music or choose to do the activity in peaceful quiet. 6

Look for other causes of stress and tension.

PMR won’t be as effective if there are other causes of stress that could be taken care of first.5 For example, say Liz is having trouble concentrating. If it’s because she’s in a noisy environment, PMR may not be as effective as finding a quieter space. However, if she’s having trouble concentrating because she feels anxious about doing her work, then PMR will more likely be helpful.

Set an intention.

Having an intention in mind as you go through your exercise can give you guidance in what you’d like to achieve. For example, an intention might be that you’d like to build focus, reconnect with your body, or that you’d simply like to relax.

Combine with other strategies.

Combining PMR with other types of stress-management strategies can help stretch the benefits of the exercise. To push these benefits even further, try pairing PMR with activities that match your main concern. For example, if your main concern is muscle-based (like tension headaches or stiff posture), you might consider pairing PMR with yoga or stretching exercises. If the concern has more to do with autonomic or nervous system functioning (like hypertension or migraine headaches), consider pairing PMR with nervous system-related activities like breathing exercises. And finally, if your concerns are primarily about your emotional experience, consider pairing PMR with meditation, guided imagery, or therapy. Again, be sure to consult with your medical provider for medical advice and concerns.

Listen to guided PMR.

It can be difficult to know where to get started with PMR, but a therapist or utilizing PMR recordings online or in an app can help guide you through. If it feels more comfortable, you can also record yourself reading your own PMR script. Here is an example of a guided PMR video:

Alter the number of muscle groups.

PMR can be practiced with tensing as few as four different muscle groups or as many as sixteen. If you are short on time, you might choose to focus on broad groups of muscles. If you are interested in building awareness within each muscle, you may consider slowing down and getting more specific with the muscle groups you tense. Below are three different muscle groupings that can help you get more broad or specific with the muscles you tense.1

Broad

1. Arms and hands
2. Face, neck, and shoulders
3. Chest, back, and belly
4. Legs and feet

Mid

1. Right hand and arm
2. Left hand and arm
3. Face
4. Shoulders and neck
5. Chest, back, and belly
6. Right leg
7. Left leg

Specific

1. Dominant hand and forearm
2. Dominant biceps
3. Nondominant hand and forearm
4. Nondominant biceps
5. Forehead
6. Upper cheeks and nose
7. Lower cheeks and jaws
8. Neck and throat
9. Chest, shoulders, and upper back
10. Abdominal or stomach region
11. Dominant thigh
12. Dominant calf
13. Dominant foot
14. Nondominant thigh
15. Nondominant calf
16. Nondominant foot

You know your body best.

The ultimate goal of PMR is to connect you with you. If PMR doesn’t feel good for you, it’s okay to listen to your body and try something else. If you feel you don’t really know your body, PMR can help you develop a stronger relationship and connection.

PMR is an easy, relaxing way to release tension from your mind and your body. For more strategies to aid you in your healing journey, click here.

  1. Bernstein, D. A., & Borkovec, T. D. (1973). Progressive relaxation training: A manual for the helping professions. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
  2. McCallie, M. S., Blum, C. M., & Hood, C. J. (2006). Progressive muscle relaxation. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 13(3), 51-66.
  3. Manzoni, G. M., Pagnini, F., Castelnuovo, G., & Molinari, E. (2008). Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry, 8(1), 41.
  4. Carlson, C. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (1993). Efficacy of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation training: A quantitative review of behavioral medicine research. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 61(6), 1059.
  5. Harris, G. E. (2003). Progressive muscle relaxation: Highly effective and often neglected. Guidance and Counselling, 18, 142-148.
  6. Robb, S. L. (2000). Music assisted progressive muscle relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, music listening, and silence: A comparison of relaxation techniques. Journal of Music Therapy, 37(1), 2-21.