Why do we always stretch the wrong muscle?!
In our previous email we eluded to the idea that our primal reflexes are still the fundamental driving force of our day to day actions, movements and behaviors. But how does that help us in our day to day experience when dealing with aches, twinges and sporting performance?
Perhaps the best place to start would be the one thing that all of us feel we need to do when something doesn’t quite feel right. Streeeeetch!
This article is not intended to answer the question ‘Is stretching good for us?’ Or debate the mass of conflicting evidence, but rather to offer a slightly different slant on it so that you might have food for thought.
Many potential downsides to passive stretching for flexibility have been investigated and demonstrated over the last few years. But for many physical practitioners today the main point to make is this;
If a muscle is ‘tight’, its tight for a reason
It’s no mistake. The ‘tight’ muscle does not exist in perfect isolation from the rest of the neurobiomechanical system! The brain is asking that muscle to be tight.
This immediately takes us back to a major point in our first email. That our whole movement experience is based on stimulus vs response.
We are wired in such a way that for a muscle to contract reflexively and therefore efficiently, it must lengthen first.
STIMULUS: The action of any structure in the body lengthening and loading equates to a huge flood of information back to the brain.
RESPONSE: The brains response is to FIRE the loaded muscles to decelerate momentum and a return the limb to neutral or beyond and so on…
This exchange of information underpins the achievement of effortless, reflexive and pain free movement through life.
But what if for some reason your movements are not so efficient? What if, for example, you are having to accommodate a sprained ankle?
What if you are STILL compensating for that ankle sprain from 10 years ago? How is that affecting your posture and motion today?
We won’t go into the finer details now, but take our friend Derick the caveman below. In this example, for whatever ‘original’ reason, Derick’s pelvis has hiked on his right side and rarely moves out of this postural compensation. 10 years spent moving around like this has probably now chronically shortened Derick’s right adductor muscles through adaptive tissue change.
But notice what his adductors on the left are doing. Lengthening and loading under stress. Constantly firing off the sensory receptors that tell the brain that it’s time to contract. In this case chronically. This is effectively the brains attempt to manage this situation. To manage the wayward pelvis and drag it back to centre. All Derick knows is that his left inner thigh ‘feels tight’ as it reports all this feedback to him every step he takes! He may feel pain on the inside of his knee or a groin strain type sensation.
So which muscle is Derick most likely to want to stretch out?
The one muscle that’s screaming tightness at him?
The one muscle that is fighting to keep him as stable as possible?
Trouble is, research tells us that passive stretching is likely to decrease muscle strength and coordination for up to 8 hours possibly a lot more. So for Derick, the act of passively stretching the one muscle that’s really trying to help him out and keep his pelvis safe will only act to destabilise the whole situation further.
While his genuinely and chronically short right adductor sits quietly doing very little, saying very little and generally getting a free ride!
This is a very 2D example. Its obviously a bit more in depth than that, and there are ways to ‘3D stretch’ in context and motion that helps your brain to understand the reason why there may be a better way of doing things. Give the nervous system a choice, and presuming no remaining threats prevent it, the brain will default back to an easier, less stressful way of achieving life’s objectives.
If he deals with the original threat, there may be no need to compensate anymore at all.
For Derick the best option for his chronically short adductors might be to address the movement compensation that keeps them tight rather than accidentally re-inforce the pattern by passively stretching them to the point of sedation. At the very least, he might go about passively stretching the genuinely short right adductors, though this would also be missing the main point.
So the next time you want to have an extended stretching session because your Hamstrings feel tight and you have a bad back, take a look in the mirror. Observe if you have one shoulder lower than the other and a pelvis that’s hiking up to meet it? If so, think carefully about which muscles you think you might like to stretch
Ask yourself “why is my body selecting this posture as the way it survives best?”
Coming up next time….
In the final email we will look at the idea that tissues heal but muscles learn. How scars, tattoos, jaw issues or old injuries can still be altering your movement patterns today.