Written by Hannah Dykstra
We’re often instructed to “stretch and mobilize,” but what does this actually mean? Not only for athletes, but for any human function, maintaining mobility is important to human performance and health. For the highest level of competing athletes, this may mean optimizing a competitive edge or for a desk jockey, it may mean simply maintaining proper mechanical functions to live in wellness and without chronic pain. In order to understand stretching, we must first understand what “muscle tightness” actually is.
Muscle tightness is not a structural change, but is the nervous system sending signals to our body to essentially increase the “tone” in order to protect an instability elsewhere with the body. For example, underused abdominal muscles can cause your body to “tone’’ the hamstrings in order to protect the instability of those abdominals. This is different than actual muscle tightness which itself would be a structural change, such as that of the muscles trapped in a contracted position after the removal of a cast. In order to lengthen the muscle structure, it takes longer than just 20 seconds every once in a while.
When delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) sets in, most are guilty of assuming that the muscle is tight and statically stretching the muscle until it “feels” loose. Static stretching is holding a position for any time between 10-40 seconds in hopes to “lengthen” a muscle. It is a common misconception that static stretching can increase range of motion, but this effect is mostly only true to the short term as a pain relief, but with little actual progress to performance and long term goals. In the view of extended progress, passive stretching only increases the body’s neurological tolerance to the stretch rather than actually increasing the muscle cell density.
Take the couch stretch for example – if you continually work at generating more range of motion over a long period of time, you will most likely see some increased flexibiltiy, but that does not solve the root problem. Your body had simply developed a tolerance to the stretch to the point where it becomes comfortable and familiar in that position.
Throughout different clinical studies, research has shown that passive stretching will decrease performance-based power output. Meaning you will not be as powerful through a certain movement, because you have put those muscles into a relaxed state.
So, the best way to increase range of motion before power output performance is to increase the strength at the end range of the movement. By positioning our bodies in a certain way to maintain tension while increasing the end range of motion, we develop the proprioception to apply this end range under tension to our power output movements. The concept of range of motion with tension is true mobility.
To increase this end range strength under tension is best done through end range eccentric muscle loading. The stimulus of muscle loading under tension is much greater than that stimulus of passive stretching.
Here would be an example end-range pullover exercise to improve shoulder stability in correct body positioning:
1. Lay flat on the ground with feet against the wall mimicking a squat position.
2. Press the belly into the floor and tuck the pelvis under so there is no gap between the body and the floor.
3. Sink the rib cage down into the floor through a large exhale.
4. Pause at your first point of end range resistance, take a breath at then breath through the position by exhaling out of the nose to the next point of resistance.
The next time you walk into the gym feeling “stiff” or “tight”, reassess how you approach mobility and improving the homeostasis in your body. If you find yourself always defaulting to a static stretch, challenge your mind to think of that specific muscles end range of motion and how you can functionally correct it in the long term.