Flexibility and mobility have been areas of huge change in the fitness industry since the turn of the millennium. For years, to be a good person, you had to do your static stretches before and after training and probably before bed too if you wanted to be looking after your body properly.
Then came dynamic stretches because static stretches would mean that your muscles lost all their power just before you trained or competed and that just isn’t an option for anyone who takes their performance remotely seriously.
Following this, ‘flexibility’ was replaced with ‘mobility’, which was what really mattered. To get good at that you needed to get your masochist on and torture yourself with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, voodoo floss, barbell rolling or any other device that would inflict pain – the electric car buffer on quads and glutes being my personal favourite.
Now, in the crossfit community, there has been a strong resurgence of static stretches and yoga to unwind the intense heavy lifting that tightens up our bodies.
The results from these varied program styles seem to be very inconsistent; some people stretch their tight hamstrings for years with no results, others transform their flexibility seemingly overnight. How can this be? What’s the real deal?
After years of frustrating research, including formal education at university, strength and conditioning courses, and of course the internet, the latest science is finally starting to provide explanations that add up with my personal experience with clients and my own body. I want to talk through three principles, which go a long way to explaining the why and then the how of flexibility/mobility/movement.
Principle number 1: The brain is what causes muscles to be “tight”; muscles are very rarely physically too short
How do we know this? Because under anaesthetic, most people can touch their knee to their nose, even if they complain of “tight hamstrings”. As soon as the brain lets the body fully relax, full passive range of motion opens up and even the tightest bodies can achieve ludicrous positions.
What does this mean on a practical level? We need to shift our focus away from trying to mechanically change our muscles through forcefully stretching them longer or smashing them into giving up new range of motion. Instead, we should be working on our nervous systems and teaching our brains to let us use full ranges of motion when we’re conscious rather than only when we’re knocked out.
Principle number 2: The reason why the mind tightens muscles is to stop you going into positions it doesn’t feel would be safe
This was a penny drop moment for me. There are a couple of main reasons your brain will feel unsafe moving into certain positions:
Previous or current injury – there’s a big distinction between the two.
For current injury, the reason is obvious, there’s damaged tissue that needs time to heal, so the body wants to avoid loading it, all good.
For previous injury, assuming the tissue has healed, we’re dealing with the ‘ghost’ of the injury – a relic in the nervous system telling us to continue to avoid an old site of injury when we don’t necessarily need to anymore. This is the mechanism by which compensation patterns build up (ever heard someone say the site of pain isn’t always the cause of the pain?).
Lack of strength, control or experience in the position (gymnast lingo ‘spending time in the position’)
Lack of strength and control are pretty much the same thing, the body isn’t convinced that you can “own” the position so to avoid finding out the hard way and hurting you, it stops you going there by shutting down the movement – think partial squat depth or being unable to fully flex the shoulders. Your poor, scared body is just trying to protect you by putting the brakes on.
Principle number 3: The overwhelming majority of muscle contractions are subconscious/reflexive
This is a tough one to get your head around, especially if you’ve gone through a bodybuilding phase like most males who were teenage once.
Think about ‘functional’ movements: walking, squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling. While performing these actions, you might feel specific muscles burn as they start to fatigue, but you are not mentally contracting each and every one of the muscles involved in such complex movements (the quads, glutes and hamstrings comprise 9 muscles alone – I don’t know about you, but I struggle thinking about 2 things at the same time).
This flies in the face of the bodybuilding approach where you try to mentally contract the single muscle you’re isolating to maximise its pump, but if you’re into crossfit I don’t need to tell you why that’s not the best way to get moving better.
OK, so why does THIS matter? It means that to communicate movement to the brain, we need to stop trying to mentally contract individual muscles (think rotator cuff work). Instead we should focus on the movement: the body is incredibly good at detecting position, so just get it into the right shape and it will take care of the rest.
It does this through recognizing relative bone movements (e.g. knee bend/flexion), using amazing sensors in joints (you may have heard of proprioception) and stretch receptors in the muscles themselves. When it senses these changes in angle, the body will automatically contract the appropriate muscles to control the movement. This is why we don’t fall over when we step on uneven ground and why you can (sometimes) catch a clean or snatch even if the bar path isn’t perfect.
In Part 2 (coming soon), find out how we apply this knowledge to our mobility or flexibility training.