One of the things I often here from people when we are thinking about gaining strength is that they don’t want to start to get “tight”. The association with gaining muscle and losing mobility is pretty common. However, here at Darkside Strength, we always associate gaining strength with increased mobility. Very briefly I think that we should examine why that is. Why do exercises make you more “Flexible”?
Over the past couple of weeks, I have shifted the focus on my studying and learning from the body to studying the brain. During that time, I have come to think that no exercise truly targets any certain body part, but the ability of the brain to manipulate that body part. Your strength is determined by your brains ability to recruit as many motor units as possible. Hypertrophy is driven by your brain’s assessment that you need additional muscle fibers. Just as the brain is in control of those systems, your brain is also in control of the range of motion it allows.
The cool thing about this is that we can re-learn ranges of motion. There can be a variety of reasons that you lose range of motion. Maybe you have been training a body building style of training and muscles that are “prime movers” have become overtoned, pulling the smaller muscles that are in tight to the bones out of position. Maybe even to a point where your brain forgets how to use them. These “prime movers” then think that they need to provide the stability for the joint, because the brain wants to prevent injury, and give the appearance of “tightness”. Perhaps the opposite is true. Often times, I see untrained individuals walk into the gym and have very poor range of motion. They don’t have big muscles that are impeding their movement, yet they still are unable to achieve basic motor patterns due to poor range of motion. In this situation, the brain does not feel confident that it is strong enough to control those ranges of motion and therefore does not allow the body to go there. A great example of this is the person who can not squat, or touch their toes in a standing position, but when we lay them on their back to perform the Active Straight Leg Raise and see that they have full range of motion in the hamstrings. When flat on the back with the floor providing stability, the brain feels safe. The brain then allows the tissues, which were never tight in the first place, to move through their full range of motion.
Why does any of this matter?
The answer in either case, is exercise regression. If the brain does not feel safe performing movement in the standing position, no amount of “cueing” is going to create the correct movement. Perhaps you will get a client/athlete to perform something, but it will likely include movement compensations and need constant “cueing” (think back to the whole “knees out” debate). Good movement shouldn’t require much cueing. It should just happen. There is no squat technique. If your body works, it will just happen. In the case of the untrained individual as well as the person who has trained poor movement patterns, the answer to improving the range of motion is putting that individual into a position that the brain feels that it can safely achieve the desired range of motion, and then using it. As your brain develops strength and confidence we can progress ourselves back into the standing position.
Thinking about exercise regression is pretty simple. What do we know about the way we learned to move in the first place? The baby starts out flat on it’s back, then rolls over into a crawling position, then climbs to the knees, then is able to stand. When someone has created a faulty movement pattern, the answer is always to go back to a position that we are strong enough to give the brain enough confidence to allow you to achieve the full range of motion. Those positions probably seem familiar. We have exercises that we perform in the supine position, the quadruped position, half kneeling, tall kneeling, and then to the standing.
I doubt that I will ever really convince people that they don’t really need to stretch that much, that most of their “tightness” is really a compensation for a weakness somewhere else. What I do ask that you do is this: For every stretch that you feel that you must do, perform at least 2 strengthening exercises in one of the regressed positions listed above. Maybe even move yourself through all of those positions after you stretch. What you will find is that eventually you won’t feel that you need the stretch, once you are strong enough to maintain a good position.