Do you think being able to touch your toes defines flexibility? Or is there another way we can start to think about retaining or gaining flexibility? Often a new client will come in and tell me that they’d like to regain their flexibility and they will give me the example of being able to touch their toes. They could do it when they were younger, but have lost some of that ability.
I used to major in dance and gymnastics at summer camp. I literally used to sit in the splits for hours to try and become more flexible, but now my approach to flexibility has changed. I would say I am a fan of dynamic stretching (moving in and out of a stretch where the muscles both shorten & lengthen to create a feeling of being limber or maintaining elasticity in the body) vs. static stretching (holding a stretch until you feel a release). Since entering the world of fitness, stretching has always been a heated topic between fitness professionals – to stretch or not to stretch? I will see clients with long & weak muscles who continue to stretch, but in actuality they need stability and strength to tackle their body’s asymmetries. And, I have had real success with clients who have used a combination of dynamic stretching and muscle conditioning. I sat down with Richard Obermayer, Practioner of Osteopathic Manual Practice and Certified Canadian Athletic Therapist to ask him…Is Stretching Good For You?
RICHARD: Stretching is good for you…in some cases. To stretch or not to stretch? The answer is not yes or no. The answer lies somewhere in-between. There are many different factors that influence the necessity of stretching. First, we need to explain a few terms. Flexibility refers to the ability of muscles to extend fully and mobility refers to the ability of a joint to go through its full range of movement. Flexibility will affect mobility.
It also helps to understand the anatomy and the physiology of the body. We know muscle tissue is contractile tissue. It is designed with contractibility (the ability to shorten) and extensibility, (the ability to stretch). If you are constantly shortening the muscle, and don’t encourage the lengthening part, the muscle gets shortened down. The other thing is: due to the nature of training and performing, we are often creating micro-trauma. When you are sore after your workout you get lactic acid build-up, but also, often there is micro-tearing within muscle groups – especially if you do maximal muscle training. So, when you get micro tearing, you cause fibrotic changes to the muscles. This produces scar tissue – little adhesions within the muscles. Stretching overworked muscles will increase lactic acid removal and will help lessen the extent of micro-tearing from your workout. These are examples where gentle stretching is therapeutic because you are restoring back the muscle’s natural qualities – it’s supposed to shorten and lengthen.
Now who has the need for this kind of restoration? We can all benefit somewhat, but some individuals are naturally more inflexible and therefore need to stretch more than others.
Age is a factor. In general, due to the elasticity and high mobility characteristics of children, they have so much natural flexibility, they often need less stretching and sometimes can be guilty of stretching too much. In contrast, someone middle-aged or older may have lost a lot of tissue elasticity. They may need stretching to maintain joint mobility and prevent muscle injury.
People may have certain diseases or conditions where stretching is necessary. For example: Parkinson’s. A characteristic of Parkinson’s is to have stiff and tightened-down, muscle groups and so it’s vital that they do lots of stretching. By staying active and stretching, the rate of deterioration in functional activity is slowed down.
Another example is those with advanced disc deterioration in their spine. If the spine deteriorates there is a decrease in joint mobility and now muscle groups can become shortened. Again, stretching has a role in maintaining functional movement.
A final example is people with tendonitis. Tendonitis is often related to overuse, poor mechanics and muscle imbalances. Weaker muscles need strengthening and over tight muscle groups need stretching.
JULIE: Are their any people who should avoid or limit their stretching?
RICHARD: In contrast, if an individual tends to be hypermobile — stretching is contraindicated. A hypermobile person is often described as “loose jointed.” These individuals have excessive mobility in most of their joints. A contortionist would be an example. Do not excessively stretch people who are hyper mobile. This population requires more stability (strengthening) to enable them to function optimally.
There are different types of stretching techniques:
Static stretching involves gradually taking a muscle to its end-range of motion and holding it there. If this is too aggressive (pain or shaking) there is a reflex safety mechanism within the muscle that will engage. As it engages, a nerve receptor within the muscle triggers the muscle to tighten. In this instance the stretch becomes useless. However, a gentle and sustained stretch for 20-30 seconds prevents this trigger mechanism. Now, when the stretch is repeated a second and third time, the muscle flexibility improves.
Dynamic stretching is a repeated movement that involves both lengthening and shorting a muscle towards its full range. The stretch is not held. Dynamic stretching is more functional because it’s sport specific. When we are doing sports we are asked to do a specific movement pattern. For example the backswing in golf. No one holds that position. They have to have dynamic flexibility to get there comfortably.
JULIE: I see a lot of people who do static stretching and that will be the bulk of their “at-home” program to stay flexible.
RICHARD: I would not discourage static stretching as any home regimen, however it may be inefficient. Once the person has obtained some initial benefit, they need to now turn that into more dynamic stretching that reflects their goal For example: Someone may come to me and say I’m a tennis player and I cannot get around to do a two-handed backhand swing. The end goal is to have enough flexibility to get the swing. If you are just doing static stretching it won’t help you get you improve your backswing. Dynamic stretching should reflect the person’s ultimate and functional goals.
JULIE: Ok, what about someone who sits at their computer all day – rounded forward through their spine and hunched over their desk? If they go home and do a back bend (arch their back – the opposite of what they are doing all day), do you think that’s enough?
RICHARD: To improve flexibility in the front of the shoulders we need to do upper back strengthening that encourages them to hold upright posture more effectively. They need some stretching to open them up a little bit. Then, 80% of the focus needs to be towards strengthening. You can use strengthening techniques to mobilize people Mobility can be improved through dynamic and specific strengthening.
I am thinking from a therapy point of view — we get very specific to the nature of different tissues and what they need to improve or get better. As a Pilates teacher, you are thinking of things more from a performance point of view, where mobility is far more improved using more dynamic strengthening techniques. You’re talking about dynamic functional strength training which gets people looser more limber – which I am all for!
JULIE: Yes and with Pilates, there is a strong focus on postural alignment. When I am working one-on-one with someone, I am not choosing arbitrary exercises for them. I take a look at what muscles are locked long and which are locked short and what exercises are good choices to help restore muscles to their optimal length so their posture is upright. A balanced Pilates program will incorporate both stabilizing and mobilizing the joints.
RICHARD: I am a huge fan of Pilates training. It is a safe and effective method of training the whole body, however, it emphasizes strength and control from the core outward. The core is like a foundation in a house. On a solid foundation a wonderfully functional structure can be created! Remember you need to be strong to be flexible but you need to be flexible to be strong!
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