You're Not Tight, You're Unstable
Last week we cleared up the all too common misconception that stretching physically lengthens the muscle. If you didn’t read it, check out the article here. This week we’re building off that concept and talking about the relationship between strength and flexibility.
We learned last week that tightness occurs when the nervous system doesn’t feel comfortable a range of motion. This occurs when a muscle is not firing efficiently. When a muscle is not firing efficiently it creates instability which causes the nervous system to feel unsafe. The nervous system responds by tightening itself up in an attempt to create the stability that it would have if that muscle were functioning properly.
In short, the nervous system prevents you from moving in these ranges not because the muscle is too “short”, but because it’s inefficient.
So yes, you’re not tight, you’re just unstable.
Take for example, the classic tight hamstrings. You bend to touch your toes and it feels like you’re tugging knotted rope behind your legs. So you stretch them. A lot. But nothing changes.
It’s not working because you’re not treating the underlying cause of the inflexibility – instability.
The nervous system is limiting the range of motion of your hamstrings because (a) it doesn’t know how to control the range of motion you want to go into and it doesn’t want you to hurt yourself (b) to make up for a lack of stability caused by your weak hamstrings (and/or adjacent muscles) not working properly. By training these muscles to function properly we create stability. By creating stability we allow for more range of motion. Now your hamstrings can finally loosen up!
So why isn’t every strong person really flexible? Because of the concept of specificity. Your strength only helps your flexibility when it is applied to create stability in the areas that need it. I could have an incredibly strong chest and bench press 300lbs but not be able to lift my arms overhead because my body doesn’t trust me in that range of motion. You could be a runner with powerful quads but at the same time be incredibly tight because you don’t build strength and stability in other ranges of motion. What’s important isn’t just being strong but strengthening in a way that improves stability.
But what about passives stretching? Yes, static stretching helps you develop more flexibility. But just hanging out in long static stretches can cause a whole different set of problems because it inhibits your mechanoreceptors and opens up ranges of motion in which your body has no idea how to control itself. Gumby is cute and all but let’s be honest, it’s not really a good look.
The bottom line about instability!
Strength and flexibility aren’t opposites, they’re actually complementary. Strength creates stability which allows for flexibility. Weakness (or more accurately, muscular inefficiency) creates instability which leads to tightness. If you have chronic tightness
that doesn’t respond to stretching then there’s probably more to the issue than meets the eye. That’s why at Performance Health and Wellness we do full body movement screening to understand and identify the specific imbalances, weaknesses, and restrictions that are keeping you from feeling and performing your best.
Next week we’ll continue our stretching series by talking about how you can apply these new concepts to stretch more safely and effectively.
Movement is Health,
Dr. Christian Barney D.C., D.A.B.C.O., C.C.S.P., ART
How can Performance Health & Wellness help you?
- Active Release Technique (ART) to the soft tissue structures to restore normal function, decrease stress to the injured area, reduce scar tissue, and promote healing;
- Stretching and Exercises to prevent condition from returning;
- Chiropractic adjustments to restore proper motion;
- Cold laser to help reduce inflammation;
- Kinesio taping to allow an athlete to continue to particpate in his sport plus augments the treatment.
- Functional medicine with extensive nutritional based consultation, individualized nutrition programs.