ADAM FRIEDMAN, CSCS, CN
SPECIAL TO THE MIRROR
Including just 15 to 20 minutes of daily stretching can create a dramatic improvement in how you look, feel, and perform in all aspects of life. Yet stretching is generally low on the priority list, even for many fitness enthusiasts. Those who consistently stretch have grown to realize and appreciate all of the benefits it has brought to their body and mind.
For some, stretching has become an integral part of their lifestyle because they use it as a vehicle to relax, de-stress, and enter a state of calm in this otherwise hectic world. Others have initially committed themselves to stretching because of how it benefits their performance in activities, such as yoga, gymnastics, dance, and martial arts. Eventually the value of stretching to improve the mind and body becomes the ultimate motivation to stretching consistently.
Unfortunately there is also a number of people who had been reluctant to stretch, but are now forced to make a choice about either stretching religiously or risk being in chronic pain stemming from a variety of causes. It is this group that I would like to decrease in size by preempting their chronic pain starting with a stretching education.
The first objective of stretching should always be to create balance in our musculoskeletal system – in other words, to maintain proper posture. Therefore, creating the flexibility for muscles to be at their optimal length promotes correct alignment for the skeletal structure. This combination greatly enhances the body’s ability to generate the most force with the least energy-cost to the body, and the lowest risk for injury.
Having correct body alignment is the foundation of flexibility, stability, and strength. To further understand this concept, knowing something about the human anatomy and physiology and the forces acted upon them is pertinent: Each of our skeletal muscles is attached by a connective tissue called a tendon. In addition, another connective tissue called fascia wraps intertwined through the entire body like a giant web, which helps our muscles to work together in groups to generate force and create motion.
In each muscle and tendon, there is an optimal muscle-tendon length ratio that allows it to act upon a bone, and interact with other muscles in the most efficient way. This means that our muscles are their strongest when they are at a specific length, that allows for an ideal range of range of motion in the joints. If a muscle is either shorter or longer than this ideal length, its own contractile mechanisms are compromised, resulting in a lower capability to produce muscular force in which to act upon an object or reduce external forces brought upon our body. If we were to properly stretch a shortened muscle to its optimal length, it will instantly have more force, producing capability to make us stronger, and explosive when we need to be.
In connection, since our muscles can move bones, those muscles that are too long or too short can alter our structural alignment. In effect, this creates further imbalances in posture, and an added biomechanical disadvantage in applying force and withstanding external forces.
Applying forces created from our muscles is derived from their cellular fiber contractions. The repetitive nature of these contractions, whether voluntary or involuntary, is the primary root of having short muscles that get to be stretched. If a muscle remains short from these contractions after activity or inactivity, it leaves its antagonist counterpart in a lengthened state. This results in a weakened state in both.
How our body responds to external forces also plays a huge role in the flexibility and function of the muscles and fascia. The external forces that most impact our body on a daily basis are gravity and ground reaction forces every time we take a step. Mechanically, the body is designed to disperse the impact of these external forces in the least stressful way on the body. During both activity and inactivity, our bones should bear the brunt of these forces. Thereafter the forces should land in our connective tissue, and then finally in the muscles. During activity, the intelligence of the body’s design uses those external forces collectively to generate the energy to create free flowing movement, like when we are walking, or jumping.
However, if our body is out of alignment and our range of motion is restricted, it can compromise the ideal sequencing. Instead of being dispersed properly, the forces can get absorbed to a greater extent by muscles. This causes the muscles to become tight, and over stimulated as they withstand the excess forces.
As a result of that repetitive stress over time, unhealthy tissue is created from ischemia (an inadequate blood supply), and misaligned muscular-fiber formation. Generally, unhealthy tissue can be characterized by a rigidity, and hypersensitivity to the touch and/or pressure. Healthy muscle tissue is meant to be soft, pliable, and relaxed to the touch and/or pressure.
The same forces that impact the muscle also impact the fascia, which can often be the source of those painful touch centers on our body from the stress related over-stimulation, and subsequent inadequate blood flow. In a domino effect, when a shortened muscle and/or tight fascia pulls a bone out of alignment that has other muscles attached to it, it alters the muscle-tendon length ratio of the other muscles in that proximal group, making them longer and weaker. Compensation ensues, followed by eventual breakdown and higher risk for injury.
The body is a survival organism and finds a way to work just fine at suboptimal levels. It can operate off of a small percentage of our muscle fibers, and it most often does. This gets many people through life, but then there is only little left to be had in quality of life with aging because of the accumulative effects.
The great news is that with proper stretching, shortened muscles and tight fascia can be averted, and there can be a brighter outlook on our possibilities. You may find that after properly stretching certain muscles in your leg that it feels lighter. It’s not because stretching created less weight to your leg, but because more muscle fibers were put in a better position to be engaged in the action of lifting your leg, and making it feel significantly lighter.
In my upcoming series of articles, I will explain some very effective ways to properly stretch, and give you the ammunition to improve your flexibility and your fitness for life.
Adam Friedman, CSCS, CN, CMT is a kinesiologist, certified strength & conditioning specialist, certified nutritionist, and certified massage technician. He is the founder of Advanced Athletics, Inc. located right next door to the world famous Gold’s Gym in Venice, on the corner of Sunset Ave. and Hampton Drive, one block east of Main Street. To schedule a complimentary assessment please call 310.396.2100 or email Adam at [email protected] To learn more, visit www.advancedathletics.com.