A chat about stretching, flexibility and stability

Nov 18, 2014

I have become known somewhat as the ‘stretch guy’ in the gym which I didn’t expect would happen when I first started working as a personal trainer here. It has even led to me holding my own stretch class each week where I get to help out people who are stuck at desks all day move around a bit more and feel a bit looser. So you would think then that I would be that guy shouting from the rooftops that everybody should be stretching till their hearts content as much as possible and whenever possible. Sorry to break it to you but I am definitely not that guy! Stretching (referring specifically to static stretching here) is great and I am all for it BUT only in the right situation and when the person needs to be statically stretched.

With Yoga and Pilates growing in popularity it seems that the next ‘cool’ thing to be able to do is to bend over from a standing position and touch your toes. Many people view this pose as the ultimate test of one’s flexibility and will spend countless hours over the course of many weeks, months or even years desperately stretching and stretching their hamstrings so that eventually one day they can reach down and grab onto their toes and become the ultimate, flexible ninja warrior that they always dreamed of becoming! Ok I am getting a bit carried away here so I will get back on point! Being flexible is important for overall health, wellbeing and is especially important as we age to help keep us moving and functioning effectively. However it is possible to be too flexible and I would argue that being too flexible is worse and potentially more harmful than not being flexible enough. When dealing with someone who is extremely flexible it is likely that the last thing that they need is to be stretched. Sure the client might complain of tightness in muscles such as the hamstrings, low back and neck but just because something is tight does not mean it should be stretched. In the case of someone who is extremely flexible this tightness can be what is called protective tension. In other words your body has recognized that certain parts of the body are unstable and has put the ‘emergency brakes’ on these tissues in the form of tightness. Stretching this person may alleviate the muscle tightness temporarily but sooner or later that tightness will come right back in the same way picking at a scab feels good in the short term but doesn’t solve anything in the long term. Stretching a tight muscle without improving stability around the associated joint (s) results in the muscle remaining tight and essentially ‘hanging on’ for dear life.   

So how does one go about improving joint stability? I will first define joint stability as the ability to control joint movement or position. A good example would be the person who has a terrible squat pattern. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong: the knees buckle in, the classic ‘butt wink’ occurs and the hips don’t rotate outward sufficiently which results in an excessive amount of forward lean. The person may also scrunch their face up quite a bit and maybe even clench their teeth hard. This is just a sign that the body is searching for stability somewhere because it lacks it in the necessary parts of the body.

Ok, now get this same person to hold a 5kg medicine ball out in front of them and have them perform the squat again. More often than not the person will go on to perform the movement flawlessly and you will be even amazed at how much deeper they can go. Why? Because the 5kg weight provides a counterbalance and allows the hips to move back and down into the squat easier as well as forcing the abdominal wall and core musculature to fire and stabilize the body. And all of a sudden we have improved stability. This is just one example but this same approach can be applied to many other movements as well.

I’m not saying that all our squat and movement problems are simply solved by holding a medicine ball in front of you. Quite often the client may indeed have mobility issues that may need addressing through things like stretching and foam rolling before they can go on to perform weighted exercises safely. But do be mindful that stretching the person like crazy is not always the solution to getting rid of chronic tightness and what the person may actually need is a different approach altogether.

Next week I will be back with more topics related to health and fitness. I’m thinking I may dive into the Yoga debate and discuss its ups and downs. Or maybe I’ll jump on the bandwagon and have a chat about Crossfitt as everyone else seems to be doing so! Stay tuned!

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Chris’s Gym Hawthorn

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