Ask The Expert
In the past, you may have complained of back pain and heard the tried and true saying “stretch it out.” This leads you to bending and straightening joints in an effort to pin point the tight muscles that need to be pulled and manipulated in order to “stretch” them and make them longer. Flash forward to today, this tried and true method is not a relevant model of how our soft tissue really works. In fact it can be counterproductive to recovery and can even decrease athletic performance.
Let us offer some basic anatomical information. Simply put, our limbs are made of bones, which connect and form joints. These joints are surrounded by a balloon-like capsule and thick, supporting ligaments that restrict certain motions. Contractile muscles, anchored to bones at both ends by tough, dense tendons, allow our joints to move. Finally, supportive connective tissue, called fascia, is woven through our muscles and beneath the skin that attach, stabilize, enclose, and separate muscles and other internal organs.
Using this information we are able to better understand what stretching accomplishes. The act of stretching is getting into a position when the targeted muscle and its adjoining tendon are at their longest tolerable length. Once this position is attained, you hold and try to sink further into the tension anytime between 30 seconds and two minutes.
PITFALLS OF STRETCHING:
1. Stretching a muscle changes the mechanical advantage of that muscle. Mechanical advantage can be seen as using a lever to move an object. When using a lever, it’s best to have the pivot point as close to the object as possible to effectively move said object without exerting a lot of force. Stretching a muscle is akin to move the pivot point further from the object making it more difficult to move and requiring a lot more force.
2. Joints are comprised of more than just muscle and tendon, as mentioned above. Fascia plays an important role in muscle rigidity and extensibility and is nearly impossible to “stretch.” A recent study showed that around 1,000 pounds of force are needed to stretch fascia by only 1% length (Chaudhry H, Schleip R, Ji Z, Bukiet B, Maney M, and Findley T, 2008).
3. Stretching a troubled muscle is still ignoring the other pieces involved in movement including the joint capsule, fascia, contractile muscles, etc. These elements are either difficult to stretch (see fascia above) or impossible to stretch.
WHAT SHOULD YOU ACTUALLY DO INSTEAD OF STRETCHING? MOBILIZE YOUR TISSUES!
Mobility is the measure of a joint’s ability to move which is dependent on muscle extensibility, sequencing of muscle activation, joint capsule restriction, and fascial restrictions. Thus, mobilizing is the act of trying to change mobility. Mobilizing techniques include training neuromuscular control, or establishing proper sequence of nerve firing that activates our muscles. This works by stabilizing one joint while moving another. Other techniques are myofascial mobilization/manipulation (e.g. foam rolling) and joint capsule mobilizations.
1. Chaudhry H, Schleip R, Ji Z, Bukiet B, Maney M, Findley T. Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2008 Aug;108(8):379-90.