For this article, I would like to discuss a subject that regardless of your age, is vitally important in achieving many of your life goals. Whether you are interested in athletic enhancement, pain reduction, injury prevention or joint health, this one thing truly matters.
What is it then? Flexibility; that’s it!! The majority of my patients tell me they stretch somewhat regularly, but somehow, they remain tight and inflexible. In fact, the way most people stretch is ineffective at best, and in some cases can lead to even shorter muscles.
Impossible you say, how can stretching make my muscles shorter? The truth is, the muscle has nothing to do with the length of the muscle. Huh?? That’s right, the length of the muscle is 100% dictated by the central nervous system. Don’t believe me, try stretching someone who is under general anesthesia; they are more flexible than Gumby and Pokee (now I’m dating myself). Tight muscles are really just acting like an “emergency brake” for your body, compensating and protecting other areas from damage during the movement. The most obvious example would be someone who is constantly trying to stretch their hamstrings, but after years of trying can’t even touch the floor with their legs locked straight. Odds are they have underactive core musculature, weak adductors, weak gluteal muscles and a few other things going on.
After one month of correcting the weak links, they are now able to bend forward and place their palms on the floor-every time. Fixing the real problems enables the nervous system to tell the muscle it’s OK to be long and flexible and no one is going to get hurt. In some cases, I’ve witnessed patients trying to stretch too aggressively and ultimately ended up with even less flexibility. Davis’s Law states that soft tissue remodels along imposed demands, and applying the “stretch-hypertrophy rule”, intermittently overstretching causes collagen hypertrophy which then results in decreased elongation and even tighter muscles. Another truth about muscle flexibility as stated by Katy Bowman in her book “Move your DNA”, is that, what we do most of the time trumps how hard we work some of the time. This is a classic example using the hamstrings again. Sit in a chair or a vehicle 5-10 hour per day and your nervous systems will reset the length of the muscle to match what it does the majority of the time, which is to be short. So, what is the answer? Unfortunately, there is no one simple answer.
The most effective solution I can offer is three-pronged. First, do your best to avoid ultra-prolonged static positions. If your job requires that you are on the computer most of the day, try a standing desk 30-50% of the time. If you drive most of the day, take the time to stop and walk, bend and move more frequently than you are accustomed too. Secondly, and don’t get me wrong, static stretching is not bad, just do it more frequently and more gently.
The “no pain-no gain” mentality with stretching will do nothing to meet your goals. And lastly, take the time to engage in frequent natural movements. These allow your bodies tissues to adapt quickly and efficiently because they are retraining the nervous system to handle movements and loads progressively. You can find a great example on the internet by searching GMB Fitness. I am not affiliated with this site but have found their instruction to be top notch and applicable to any age or level of fitness. Give these things a try and see how you feel and function.
Dr. Derek K. Albrecht D.C. is a partner at OsteoStrong in Murrieta as well as continuing in his private practice. For more information, call (951) 461-9584.