If you read my last article, you learned about stiffness and elasticity. You want your muscles and fascia to be both stiff (resist stretching) and elastic (able to bounce back after being elongated.)
But what about flexibility, the ability to move comfortably through a wide range of motion? Is that important? How do you achieve it?
Flexibility is a good thing – but it may not mean what you think!
Flexibility is an important feature of a healthy moving body. Most often, people assume that flexibility depends on the degree to which your muscles and fascia elongate when subject to a stretching force. We’ll call this ability to elongate distensibility. Distensibility is the opposite of stiffness.
If you read my last article, you learned that, in general, stiffness is a good thing. That means that its opposite—distensibility—is a bad thing. If distensibility were the defining element of flexibility, you could never enjoy the best of both worlds. You’d be stuck in an ongoing battle to find the balance point between two opposing principles—stiffness and distensibility.
Fortunately, flexibility is not the same thing as distensibility. You can achieve flexibility without giving up on stiffness.
What happens when you stretch
To many people’s surprise, stretching (i.e. holding a muscle in a lengthened state for a period of time) does not significantly change the muscle’s distensibility or stiffness.
There are other behaviors that will change the stiffness of muscle or fascia. For instance,
- If you habitually assume distorted postures (slumping at your desk?) your soft tissues will gradually remodel and adapt to a new postural configuration. You’ll lose stiffness. And flexibility. That’s not a good thing.
- Throughout the aging process, you’ll gradually lose stiffness and elasticity. Your connective tissues will generate fewer tight, elastic fibers and create fibers with less stiffness. That’s also not a good thing. As you age, you need the right exercise commitment to counteract this potential deterioration of movement performance.
- Strength training will change muscle stiffness for the better. And you won’t be sacrificing flexibility in exchange for your gain in stiffness. You may not gain flexibility, though.
How can you gain flexibility without sacrificing stiffness?
When you stretch, your muscles and fascia elongate. But something else is happening – the sensory receptors in the muscles and fascia are sending signals to the brain.
If I have a patient lying on her back on my chiropractic table, I can lift her leg to stretch the hamstrings on the back of the thigh. If I continue to stretch her hamstrings, the nerve endings in the muscle will send stronger and stronger signals back to her brain. As I approach the limits of her comfortable movement range, the brain will translate those signals into pain. It will feel like it’s time to stop.
But even at that point, I can push harder to stretch her hamstrings even more. She won’t like it, but I could do it. Her hamstrings are physiologically able to lengthen beyond the point at which she’s comfortable.
Which means that, to gain flexibility, she doesn’t have to change the stretchability of the muscle. She has to recalibrate the sensory feedback that’s telling her that enough is enough.
Stretch your brain
The value of stretching and other flexibility exercises is to give the brain a chance to get comfortable with a range of movement experiences, pushing the boundary a little past the outer limits of the previously comfortable zone.
Conventional static stretches are one way to accomplish this. But movement is not one-dimensional, and static stretches are. So broaden your flexibility program to include flowing movement through different planes of motion. The key to any flexibility exercise is body awareness. You want your brain to be paying attention and enjoying the ride.
Need tips on developing a flexibility program for yourself? Call me! (Email is good too!)