The prevailing remedy in the fitness world to improve flexibility over the last several decades has been to consistently stretch the body. This remedy has been adopted by millions without asking the questions; why, when, and what are we stretching. The purpose of this article is to give educated reasons for all of these questions.
First, we must state with the anatomy of the “stuff” we are stretching. Essentially, we are trying to increase range of motion (ROM) or flexibility of our joints. Ligaments do not create motion, but they are a very important last resort to protect us from severely injuring ourselves. Ligaments are supposed to be very “tight”. The last thing an individual needs is to have stretchy ligaments.
Ligaments are very important to the body in that they will send the nervous system information very quickly if the body is being forced into a position of danger, and the more sturdy the ligaments are, the faster they can send that information. Once that information is sent, the body will respond by trying to get the body out of the position. This is performed by the muscles and their tendons.
[Muscle Activation Fitness exists to increase the ability of your muscles to protect your body and allow for a greater utilization of freedom in your life]
The only thing in our bodies that drives the joints to move or not to move are the muscles. Muscles can do only one thing, and that is contract. The fitness industry has tried to make it seem like muscles are like elastic tubing when healthy, or they are like really tight ropes that need to be stretched to be turned into stretchy tubes again. The truth is they are not like stretchy tubes, and they are not like ropes. They also cannot be changed from one thing to another. A muscle’s physiology does not lend itself to be stretched. A muscle can only lengthen to each individual muscles length and no farther or they develop strains, sprains, or tears. The goal with personal training is to improve a muscle’s ability to contract.
There is a common link between decreased flexibility or decreased ROM and muscle weakness. As our muscles lose their efficiency to contract (shorten) we also lose our ability to move through greater ROM. This occurs because our nervous system was designed in a way to protect us from danger. If the nervous system did not decrease our ROM, we would injure ourselves much more frequently because our ligaments would not be able to stop us from moving. Our ability to contract our muscles on demand (stabilize) is what tells our nervous system to increase or decrease ROM.
Then why do we feel “tight”? Why, when we lean over to touch our toes we can’t go as far and we get that burning down the backs of our legs? That sensation is driven from the nervous system telling you something about the state of your body. Could it be possible that the sensation you are feeling is not that the muscles have become tight ropes, but that those muscles are trying to stop you from going into a position that is potentially harmful for you to be in? It is a protective mechanism! The goal with Muscle Activation Techniques is to improve muscle contraction so the tightness, the protective mechanism can relax and your body is fully stable.
Is this sensation harmful or helpful in increasing ROM? There are countless people who have adopted a stretching program and increased their flexibility, and there are also countless people out there who have been on stretching programs and lost ROM and increased how “tight” they feel. How do we know if what we are doing is helping or “hurting” us in our pursuit of increased ROM?
The difference between the two people is a proper progression to being able to tolerate the stress of a stretching program. Every person has a different ability to tolerate stress. The thing is, most people consider stretching very low on the stress scale. The truth is, it if very stressful. I consider stretching as one of the highest progressions of muscular health for my clients. Research has shown that stretching can decrease the ability of muscles ability to contract. We learned earlier that our ability to move through more ROM is determined by our ability to contract our muscles. So, if we stretch, and we lose the ability to contract, then we will also lose ROM after a very short time period. Wasn’t the goal of stretching to increase ROM?
Most people stretch because, well, it feels good. This does not mean it is always good for you. I wouldn’t eat ice cream every day just because it tastes amazing.
So, it is very important to find out how each individual responds to their stretching program! There is a very powerful tool in our assessment that can show each individual those stretches are potentially harming them, or helping them in their pursuit of increased flexibility. There are several testimonials that when a person stopped stretching their body was able to heal and their pain went away. At the end of the day, we cannot guarantee your pain will be healed. What we can do is promise that your muscle function will improve as you go through muscle activation technique program. Feel, Move and Perform Better!