3 Keys to Better Flexibility
WARNING! Boring science ahead, you’ve been duly noted.
Talk to anyone with tight muscles, and more times than not they’ve been told they need to stretch to loosen them up. Its a pretty common suggestion. Unfortunately, there as many opinions on stretching (I’ll spare you mine!) as there are stretches you can do.
So what’s the best one? What will help improve your flexibility the most?
Ultimately, a greater range of motion and improved length tension relationships (resting length of a muscle, and the tension the muscle can produce at that length) of the muscles is what you should be after when you start a flexibility program. The biggest reason being mobility without stability is a recipe for “the doctor will see you now.”
Instead of asking how to loosen up tight muscles, I think a better question is why do our muscles get tight in the first place? Since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I’m thinking we should start here.
The Science of Tight Muscles
Before we get too far along, we need to touch on why our muscles actually get tight in the first place. There are several reason why this happens.
Breathing incorrectly, mental stress, sitting all day behind a desk, repetitive stress activities (cycling, running, swimming, swinging a golf club, tennis racket, etc), prior injuries and a weak core are just a few reasons why we can lose range of motion (ROM) in our joints. Keeping in mind muscles getting tighter is a protective mechanism in the body makes this a little easier to understand. But what causes the body to go on muscular lock down?
If I had to rank the reasons why, it would have to look like this:
1) Breathing incorrectly (THIS IS HUGE)
2) Weak core leading to muscle imbalances and joint stability issues
3) Repetitive stress activities in a single plane of motion
Stay on top of these, and life is easier. Don’t, and well, life can get pretty miserable real quick.
So let’s break this down a little bit and get the long and the short of tight muscles.
Keeping in mind we do this over 20,000 times a day, and its easy to see how this can be the ultimate repetitive stress activity. Here’s what is supposed to happen when we breathe (1):
- The abdomen/core fills (this includes the diaphragm depressing into the abdominal cavity and a lowering of the pelvic floor)
- The lower ribs expand
- The upper ribs (apical section) fills.
If you don’t breathe correctly, here’s what you’re looking at (1):
- Increased anterior pelvic tilt/increased lumbar lordosis as the hip flexors and paraspinals get involved in your breathing patterns.
- You will be unable to fully exhale all of the breath out of your lungs.
- The chest won’t fill correctly when taking a breath.
- Forward head posture as the neck muscles become over active inhaling and exhaling.
Our bodies are an amazing system of systems, muscles and bones that work together to allow us to function. And that’s one of the problems.
As far as the geography of breathing, the muscles that allow us to inhale and exhale include the diaphragm (where you want to breathe, daily), transverse abdominus (deep abdominal wall) and internal obliques. These muscles are covered in fascia (the connective tissue surrounding your muscles), and it connects to other parts of your body such as the spine, hip flexors, muscles of the hips, upper legs, superficial abs and your shoulders.
Since there are muscles that are involved with breathing that either attach directly to the spine or are in pretty close proximity, this is pretty important. You should also know that the fascia of the diaphragm connects to each muscle of the core which means they work together, or they get out of balance and dysfunction together (2).
If the ribs don’t expand and contract the right way, it hampers the way the thoracic spine extends and rotates. If this causes the upper back to round, it alters our ability to breathe, hindering performance and eventually leading to further postural and repetitive strain issues (3).
Hopefully this will get you thinking a little differently about the amount of times you inhale and exhale each day. So learn to breathe the right way already!
2) Strengthen The Core To Get More
If you’ve got a strong core and relatively balanced muscles, life is pretty good as is your movement quality. Once the core goes, it usually takes out a whole bunch of supporting characters with it.
Have you ever stretched a chronically tight muscle and never gotten any headway? I know people who seemingly stretch their hip flexors around the clock and don’t pick up one microscopic iota of flexibility. Doesn’t make sense does it? If you stretch, your muscles should respond accordingly and tow the company line with more length right?
When a muscle gets tight, its because your brain gave the command for it to tighten up. Here some of the more common reasons as to why (4):
- Produce movement
- Provide stability
- Protect a joint as it moves
- An example of this is when the hips get tight as it tries to bring some stability to a different area of the body that doesn’t have it allowing you to produce movement.
This is why stretching a muscle that’s tight without actually figuring out why its tight in the first place won’t do you any good.
Here’s a run down of a few shortened muscles, what muscles lengthen in response, corresponding altered joint mechanics and potential injury. They are components of lower crossed syndrome (sway back), upper crossed syndrome (rounded upper back) and pronation distortion syndrome (foot pronates more with walking/running) (5):
|Short Muscle||Lengthened Muscle||Altered Mechanics||Potential Injury|
|Calves||Anterior Tibialis||Knee Adduction||Plantar Fascitis|
|Hip Flexors||Glute Max||Increased Lumbar Extension||Low Back Pain|
|Adductors||Glute Med/Max||Excessive Pronation||Patellar Tendonitis|
|Upper Traps||Deep Cervical Flexors||Increased Cervical Extension||Headaches|
|Lats||Lower Traps||Decreased Shoulder Extension||Rotator Cuff Issues|
There are several more of these combinations. The take-away is every time a muscle gets out of balance, something shortens, something has to lengthen, joint angles change, something moves differently and your risk of injury goes up.
When it comes down to it, you need to find out if a muscle is tight because its shortened, or is it tight because something else is weak? The most common reason is a weakness somewhere causing another muscle to shorten and then tighten up (6).
The quick fix? Get it stronger! Do your hinges, loaded carries, single leg squats/push/pull, anti rotation movements, plank work and go through the following progressions as you workout:
Move from a stable base of two legs and two arms moving together to a single leg and one arm moving requiring the core to stabilize you.
Want to work your core in an incredibly challenging way? This will do it!
Then once you learn these progressions, perfect crawling in every way possible. I’ve been using this a ton lately, and thanks to Tim Anderson’s “Original Strength” training method, my “X-Patterns” are getting stronger and I’m moving better.
3) Repetitive Stress Activities
We know that our bodies absosmurfly (Yes, Gen X child of the 80’s raised on MTV. Yes, again, because I actually remember when there was actually music videos on MTV) hate to have our planes of motion/movement patterns dictated for us. We also know that our nervous systems aren’t big fans of repetitive stress activities in one plane of motion.
We are meant to move in an integrated fashion with multiple joints moving together at once to produce movement. This happens through motion created by our static posture and dynamic posture movement systems (7).
If you’re prone to bouts of sitting down all day, swimming, riding a bike or running and you are putting yourself in a repetitive stress environment that your body will eventually protest.
Any time we negatively affect the way we move, we perpetuate faulty movement patterns as well as movement quality. The good news is that this results in the altering of the activation sequence or firing order of the muscles involved, wreaking havoc with movement patterns and reducing neuromuscular efficiency.
If your kinetic chain (human movement system) has a weak link from repetitive stress movements, you run the risk of patterns of tissue overload and movement dysfunction which causes decreased neuromuscular control and eventually sends you on a ride on the “cumulative injury cycle.” The long and the short of one of these rides looks like this (8):
- Tissue trauma (acute injury from a fall, etc as well as repetitive stress activities that cause tissue stress)
- Increased neuromuscular tension
- Protective muscle spasms
- Myofacial adhesions (think the the joy of someone digging into your IT band with elbows and knuckles)
- Altered neuromuscular control
- Basically form falling apart leading to negative function
This is why you need a core stabilization training program that (9):
- Improves dynamic postural control
- Ensures appropriate muscular balance and joint arthrokinematics (joint Surface movement) around the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex
- Allows for the expression of dynamic functional strength
- Improves neuromuscular efficiency throughout the entire kinetic chain
This makes nailing your form that much more important at the basics BEFORE you go into the complex. Form over function my friends, its the key to moving better that will always be your foundation for feeling better.
There you have it a few words to tell you: breathe correctly, do your core work and limit your exposure/undo the effects of repetitive stress movements. And that my friends, is one to grow on!
If you got down this far, THANK YOU VERY MUCH; it is very much appreciated!
- “The Breath-Stress-Relationship,” Mike Robertson
- “Diaphragmatic Breathing Through Pulling Versus Through Pushing,” Dean Somerset
- “4 Things We Are Doing Wrong with Rehab,” Mike Reinold
- “Stretching Doesn’t Work,” Dean Somerset
- “NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise,” Clark, Lucet
- “Some Reasons Why You Should Stop Stretching Your Hip Flexors,” Dean Somerset
- “Movement That Matters,” Paul Check
- “National Academy of Sports Medicine: A Scientific Approach to Understanding Kinetic Chain Dysfunction,” Michael A. Clark, MS, PT, PES, CES
- “Essentials of Integrated Training Part 5,” Michael A. Clark, MS, PT, PES, CES