Back in the day when I was a modern dancer, we thought every type of physical limitation had the same solution: you were too tight and had to stretch more.
Now I think that that approach to fixing physical problems is seriously misguided.
Stiffness and elasticity – they don’t mean what you think
In common English, we often talk about muscles being “tight.” But there’s no clear definition of what “tight” means. A stronger muscle will be firmer. Is firm the same thing as tight? The deeper you try to think about “tightness,” the murkier it gets. To gain clarity, you have to think like a mechanical engineer. So instead of talking about tightness, we’ll talk about “stiffness.”
In common English, “stiffness” sounds like a bad thing. But to an engineer, it’s not. Stiffness is a measure of how much a structure will deform if you apply a force to it. The less your soft tissues elongate when they’re stretched, the stiffer they are.
It’s what happens next
Stiffness still sounds like a bad thing. But the crucial issue is: Once you’ve stretched the tissue, and then you release the stretching force, what happens next?
The degree to which the tissue springs back to its original length is called “elasticity.” Elasticity is a good thing.
An elastic muscle will spring back towards its original length when you release the stretch. That means that the energy used to stretch a muscle is stored in the muscle, then regained afterward. If you have low elasticity, the muscle (or other tissue) deforms in a “plastic” way, which means that it “oozes” into a different length and has little springiness to rebound back.
Stiffness and elasticity aren’t opposites. They usually go together.
Here’s an example. Imagine a big red playground ball. Inflate it only a little and it’ll be “soft.” Or inflate it fully so that it’s “firm”.
Which ball will bounce higher: the firm, stiff ball, or the soft one? The stiffer one. The stiffer one is more elastic.
You don’t want your muscles and fascia to ooze from one shape to another. That would mean that as you move, you’d have to expend extra energy to restore the resting length of each muscle. You want them to be stiff and elastic, so that they automatically regenerate the force that caused them to deform.
Stiffness and your golf swing
An older golfer can’t drive the ball as far as a younger golfer. No matter how “strong” the older golfer is, no matter how “flexible” the older golfer is, his or her fascia is less stiff. It will deform with more plasticity and less elasticity, so there’s less energy stored in the backswing that can be used to drive the ball farther.
You want your muscles and connective tissues to be stiff and elastic.
Two strategies to build stiffness and elasticity
Proper posture places less ongoing stress on the connective tissues and muscles so they’re not constantly dealing with a deforming force. Soft tissues will remodel if subject to ongoing forces. Then inefficiency is built into your system.
Posture starts in the brain, with an unconscious map of how the parts of the body should integrate. Helping you develop postural awareness has been a cornerstone of my practice since 1981!
Proper posture is also a prerequisite for strength building. If you start with poor posture and work with poor form, you’re at a much greater risk of injury, and strengthening exercises will only reinforce an inefficient pattern. You won’t get the results you’re looking for.
Once you have the proper postural set-up, strengthening your muscles will enhance stiffness and elasticity.
Strength training, within the proper pattern of motion, is one of the most important steps you can take to improve health. Your stronger muscles will allow you to move more fully and freely. Plus, muscle tissue has significant metabolic benefits. And it’s good for your brain, too.
Stop worrying that your muscles are “tight.” Instead, build postural awareness and muscle strength.
What about flexibility?
What about flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a good thing? How do you develop flexibility without sacrificing stiffness?
Here’s a hint —flexibility isn’t the opposite of stiffness. But for more info, you’ll have to read my next article…..