“That which does not bend breaks” -Author Unknown
I wanted to add this quote, as my mentor, Dr. Spina of FRC has done in the past, as a point of reference, representing the misinformation in the health and fitness industry. It is not true that tissues that are able to bend more are more resilient to injury. Historically, sports medicine professionals have promoted stretching as a way to decrease the likelihood of injury, however, these claims have largely been made in the absence of any verifiable research. Recent modern research has led us to question this line of thinking.
The real cause of musculoskeletal injuries has more to do with the force absorption capability of tissue, not the bendability. In fact, there is an inverse correlation between the flexibility of a tissue and its ability to absorb force, especially if the stretching being done is passive in nature. Further, injury tends to occur within normal ranges of motion, most often during eccentric contraction.
Historically, stretching was believed to increase range of motion (ROM) by decreasing viscoelasticity and/or decreasing muscle compliance. Viscous means the “substance is such that applied force will produce permanent changes in shape.” Elastic means the “substance that exhibits a change in length for a given force and will return to the original length when said force is removed. Compliance refers to how easily a substance's shape will be altered under a given load; a more compliant tissue will undergo length change at a lesser force compared to a stiffer tissue.
Muscles act both viscous and elastic. During stretching, the viscous component leads to increased motion over time, then the elastic component returns the muscle to resting length. Thus the immediate effect of stretching does affect the viscoelasticity of the muscle, however, these effects are extremely short lived. (1) (Magnusson; 1996&2006) Studies looking at long-term stretching (4 weeks+) reveal improvements in ROM, but no change in viscoelasticity. Therefore, flexibility had improved, but without change to the structure of the muscles. What changed was the amount of “stretch tolerance” allowed by the central nervous system. Essentially, with traditional stretching methods, it is not a change in the structural makeup or capability of the muscle but rather an alteration in the way the Central Nervous System (CNS) controls the tissue being stretched. If we have not changed the structure of the muscle, then we have effectively trained nothing in regards to its ability to better absorb force. In fact this potentially increases the risk of injury by changing the CNS’s interaction with the lengthened tissue and not changing the biological ability to control said ranges and the spaces in between.
This brings us to the difference between active and passive inputs, aka the difference between mobility and flexibility. Flexibility (passive) is how far one can manipulate a muscle to a given range. Mobility (active) is how far into that range the muscle can actually move. Thus mobility is the controlled effort put forth by the brain and body. This is why passive inputs, such as massage or typical chiropractic visits, are such short-lived temporary alleviations. If the brain is not being challenged, adaptation will not occur in the actual muscle. We want a convergence rather than a divergence in regards to these contrasting ranges. Active inputs are typically harder, more uncomfortable, and require high amounts of effort to create changes. A coach's goal is to close the gap between one's passive and active range of motion. Not just increase ROM but muscular control of that range. Typically breakdowns occur in regards to an individual’s motor control,soft-tissue restriction, and/or capsular restriction, and because every individual is different, each one of these restrictions requires a specific approach. These approaches include typical methods that one would find in strength training protocols such as isometric training, eccentric training, kinetics, end range loading, and isotonic training. The difference is that the inputs and efforts are highly specific and targeted to the individual and isolated weak point.
As you can see, the levels of what someone has, versus what someone can work into, are extremely varied and impossible to know without an in depth assessment with a coach. It’s important to be very specific in what is being assessed so the coach is able to prescribe work that will actually address the issues of each individual.
Jimmy came in with a goal to optimize his squat. His movement quality seemed sufficient globally but not until we looked at his joints individually did we find the real issue in the tissue. We could passively manipulate his hips to a high level of internal rotation (the most necessary hip prerequisite for squatting), however when we actively had him attempt to replicate the motion, he was able to achieve ¼ of his passive range. From this encounter, it would appear his motor control was his first restriction and that drills around building a better connection between his brain and the specific tissues we want to fire would take priority. Passive stretching for this person would do literally nothing and potentially make things worse by further widening the gap between his flexibility (passive) and mobility (active). This was just one hypothetical example but it’s important to demonstrate how “stretching” so very often does not address the mobility issue one may be facing.
To clarify, this is not an anti-stretching rant. In fact, if one does not have the resiliency to hold a passive stretch for 2 minutes, it would be best to start there in order to create the mental conditioning needed before moving into the spicier stuff. Just like with all prescriptions, it needs to be specific, and just like with strength training, mobility training requires discipline, consistency, and a heaping amount of brainpower. Turn off the autopilot, it will save you a tremendous amount of time.
My top 3 nonspecific drills:
- Segmented Spine CARs(everything falls in behind the spine)
- Quadruped Hip CARs (being functionally bipedal is something I wish for all)
- Shoulder CARs(having healthy, happy shoulders will keep you reaching for your goals as long as you live
If you are struggling with your range of motion, ability to move without pain, or chronic injuries then it’s time to get specific with your intervention. Reach out to a Central Athlete coach today who can help you diagnose where the exact limitations are, why and what they are, and how to properly address and bulletproof the issue in the tissues. At Central Athlete a team of professionals is here to help assess and prescribe a plan for you based on your individual prerequisites and aspirations to put an end to the unnecessary struggle.