- February 4, 2017
Old paradigm – if something hurts or feels stiff, stretch it. New paradigm – if something hurts or feels stiff, move it! Our doctors tell us to stretch, our culture tells us that a more bendy body is more free for enlightenment and our yoga teachers insist that we “open our hips”. Functional mobility and range of motion are not an optional, the ability to move with ease in our joints actually has a huge effect on our lives, especially as we age. How we choose to get this mobility into our bodies is another story, we must enhance our range of motion, while preventing injuries and chronic weakness.
In his famous video, The Fuzz Speech, Gill Hedley shows how our bodies can become overgrown with connective tissue, literally preventing us from moving. This represents one of the ways in which our bodies adapt to how we move and live, and why some of us feel so darn stiff all the time. Because this feeling of stiffness is accumulative, over years and years, the way we release it has to also take time. Mobilizing built up fascia has to be a dynamic process, this has to include self massage, manual therapy, stress reduction, proper hydration and full body movement.
Another concept that is becoming more accepted in yoga is the effect of the nervous system on the way we move, how far we can go and how it feels. Stretch researchers have found out that our nervous systems have a protective effect on our bodies, if there are ranges of motion which we cannot control, our nervous system takes them away from us. Stretching has been found to be more about nervous system tolerance, something that can be safely modified through controlled and strong training.
In an interview, Shannon Marion BScPT agreed that the evidence points us away from static stretching as a healthy means of gaining functional mobility. It has been reported that this type of stretching used as a warm-up for athletic movement can actually inhibit performance. We know that passive, static stretching (meaning relaxing into a stretch) can actually slow down the neurological connection between the muscle and brain. A passive stretch could be relaxing into pigeon pose for a minute or two, or simply sitting in a chair for a few hours. If muscles and fascia get slower in their ability to create tension, they might not be available to support us when we really need it.
A study comparing full range of motion resistance training to static stretching found that resistance training in large ranges can produce just as much mobility as static stretching. This is very interesting and exciting news for people who are interested in increasing their mobility and movement boundaries. This means that we can lift weights (body weight or external), move them through larger ranges, and get strong and mobile all at the same time!
Coming back to the initial idea of exchanging movement for static stretching, lets come up with a few examples of what this even means. In my practice and classes, I often begin with some joint movement, shoulder circles, hip circles, spinal movement or wrist prep. Many of us imagine shoulder circles as some easy-peasy relaxing movement. Make your joint circles slow, intense and full of muscular activity. This will get the blood flowing around the joint, safely mobilize accumulated fascia, and teach the muscles to support the joint in different ranges of motion. Circles and slow dynamic movements also bring hydration into our tissues and sliding surfaces around muscles. There are many examples of this on my Instagram page.
People who want to gain new range of motion can begin by pushing the boundaries of what they can control with strength. In a forward fold for example, rather than grabbing your shins and pulling yourself in, try not using the hands at all, instead pull yourself into the position with your own internal strength. Rather than thinking about going further into a range and releasing tension practice pulling yourself further into the range and creating more tension. People who are already quite mobile should be thinking of layering strength and control over-top their large ranges of motion.
Applying this model to yoga poses, stretches and warm-up routines can make a huge difference in long term injury prevention and strength development. Finding ways to incorporate this method into different practices can sometimes mean the difference between a nagging pain and better movement.
My advice is not to stop moving through large ranges of motion all together, instead, to layer strength and tension into those ranges. Rather than holding a static position for a minute or so, move in and out of the position, allowing the body to learn smooth transitions and control. If your warm-up includes stretching, swap the forward bends for leg swings or hip circles. Add calf raises and crawling movements to get the joints prepared for whatever comes next.