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January 30, 2015
Is Stretching Overrated?
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Stretching is NOT the Best Way to Become Flexible!

Let it sink in – the premise that you need to stretch if you want to become flexible is wrong. The idea that muscles and connective tissues need to be physically stretched in order for you to become flexible is incorrect.

We’ll come back to this is a minute, but I want to start off with addressing the idea of why we lose our mobility before we look into how we regain it. We need to do as much as we can to address the cause before we treat the symptom. One of the main culprits responsible for our loss of mobility is our sedentary lifestyle and work demands that cause us to be seated at our desk in front of the computer for hours on end.

Our bodies are incredibly efficient and it continually adapts to what we do. This constant adaptation can work for us or against us. In strength training it’s a good thing. When we lift heavy weights, our nervous system will become more efficient in recruiting our muscles to increase our strength. This idea of adaptation is prevalent in how mobile or immobile we become as well. It can be directly related to our lifestyle. Due to common positions we stay in, like being seated at the desk, or frequently repeated movement patterns, like sport, exercise, or job demands – your nervous system, due to your habits, has picked its new favorite length for each one of your muscles and unfortunately it prefers to keep it that way.

While seated at the desk, your pecs, lats, upper traps and hip flexors are in a shortened position. This position is held so frequently over time, the muscles will eventually adapt to this perpetually shortened position. Once your nervous system gets ‘comfortable’ with the muscles at this length, it won’t be too keen on allowing them lengthen any meaningful amount. In addition to that, a lifetime of movement builds up micro-traumas in our muscles, tendons and fascia. When it heals, a scar is formed. The scar pulls the wound together, further shortening the muscles.

If it couldn’t get any worse, we’re at even more of a disadvantage with how our body changes with age. We’re born with a ratio of collagen and elastin in our ligaments and tendons. The collagen in our muscles will give them strength, while the elastin will give them elasticity. As you age, the collagen:elastin ratio changes in favor of collagen, or ‘scar tissue’. So if you relied on tissue elasticity for flexibility, you can kiss your mobility goodbye. If you try to fight it solely through stretching, what you’re really doing is trying to change the mechanical properties of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Attempting to restore your mobility this way will produce limited to no results, and likely result in the pain and injuries you were originally trying to prevent.

In a lot of cases when we do try to stretch out our muscles, we’re going outside of what our nervous system thinks is best (and safe). When you stretch anywhere near what your nervous system thinks is dangerous something called a stretch reflex kicks in and reins your muscles back in to its desired length. The controlling factor here is the nervous system, not the muscles themselves.

Let’s look at this concept in a beautifully simple example: You probably can’t do the splits, right? Why is this? Tight muscles? They just can’t get long enough? Try this – post up one of your legs on a stool so your hip is at 90 degrees. Your leg should be close to parallel to the floor. Can you do it? Good. Try the other leg. Can you do that one too? Good! Now, why can’t you do both at the same time? Before you answer, know this – no muscles run from one leg to the other. No tendons, no ligaments, no nothing, except your skin. (Spoiler alert – your skin is not the limiting factor here). So why can’t you do it? 

Ready for the answer? It’s fear. Tension. The muscles tighten up and resist lengthening – this is known as ‘antagonist passive insufficiency’. You’ve proved that the muscles in each individual leg have the mobility to get your body into the splits, but when you drop down with both legs lengthening at the same time your nervous system starts to freak out and tightens up your muscles in fear of injury. Remove the fear and you remove the ‘stretch reflex’. With the stretch reflex out of the picture you’ll see an immediate increase in your mobility. 

Now that we know it’s the nervous system we need to change, and not the muscles themselves, we can figure out how to let your muscles slide out to their true full length. The good news is, regardless of your history and how much scar tissue and damage you have in your tissues, you can restore your mobility. 

There are countless proven techniques that aid in increasing mobility, each person is unique and will respond differently to different methods. Success has been found in using repositioning techniques, altering respiration, corrective exercises, joint mobility drills, and soft tissue techniques. Seeking out a personal trainer to help coach and educate you on your specific needs will make the endeavor much easier. Don’t put yourself in a box by employing the same static stretches we’ve seen for 30 years: take action to prevent a loss of mobility through your lifestyle and restore it with the proper techniques. 

Repositioning Techniques: Your body works as a single piece. If one region falls out of position it’s going to affect the surrounding regions and their ability to function as they should. If you’re out of position you’re likely unable to move as well and as freely as you should. This would fall under the category of a very specific type of corrective exercise where we can turn on a specific set of muscles in order to shut off another set that allows your body to ‘reset’ into the correct position and restore your lost mobility.

Respiration: When we breathe incorrectly we’re using our ‘accessory breathing muscles’ (upper chest, neck, and traps) to pull air into our lungs. These muscles weren’t meant to draw in air apart from emergency situations. When we get into this habit, the muscles function improperly, become over worked, and get short and weak. Additionally, it will affect the mechanics of our neck and shoulder, restricting movement and likely resulting in pain. When we learn to breathe properly we’re able to pull air into our lungs through our diaphragm which will shut off our accessory breathing muscles (freeing up the shoulder) and act as a stabilizer of the core, allowing the hips to move more freely as well.

Corrective Exercises: There are reasons we can’t move into certain positions. It could be a lack of mobility, motor control (stability), or a dysfunctional movement pattern. It’s possible you can’t squat low or move at your hips because your muscle tissue won’t allow it, or it might be that you can’t move in that position because you simply can’t stabilize there and your nervous system won’t allow you to move in a potentially dangerous position. Through a brief assessment (Functional Movement Screen) we can identify the weak link and address it. It may not even be a mobility issue at all, it could be a stability issue disguised as a mobility issue. 

Joint Mobility Drills: This has nothing to do with your muscle tissue, but the freedom of motion at the joint. You may not be able to move at the shoulder or ankle not because the joint itself just needs to be ‘oiled’. There are specific drills designed to open up these joints and all the mobility you dream of. A great reference for this would be Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Super Joints that outlines a number of great drills.

Soft Tissue Techniques: Foam rolling has a number of great benefits, one of them being preserving the quality of your muscle tissue. Think of a poor quality tissue looking like beef jerky, and a high quality muscle tissue like a raw piece of meat. The jerky doesn’t move around much and has virtually no elasticity, whereas the raw meat is malleable and able to move with ease. Foam rolling will help increase the quality of your muscle tissue as well as remove ‘trigger points’. If we try to stretch or move without addressing these ‘trigger points’ it’s only going to aggravate the nervous system further and cause things to get even more tight. Releasing these trigger points through foam rolling will allow your nervous system to relax and your muscle to return to its normal, appropriate length.

As you can see, there are a number of different, proven techniques. Which one is best? Well, the one that works for you. If you have any questions ask the closest trainer!

Written by Justin Perun

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