Stiff As A Board, Light As a FeatherDec 07, 2021
Activity is addictive! It is fun to lift heavy things, run long distances, and burpee a thousand burpees. However, what about the in-between?
In gym class, we are all taught the traditional “bend and touch your toes.” Yet, is this static stretching approach detrimental to our bodies and our performance?
The world of mobility is a complex mosaic of techniques with many different schools of thought. We at @maximalbeing incorporate mobility into our regimens as a means to keep the performance going throughout our life paths. Therefore, let us take you down the rambling road of the least sexy part of working out…the stretch.
Muscles are bundles of fibers called actin and myosin. They are lengthened and shortened by using energy (ATP). These units combine into fibril bundles, that combine into fibers. Muscle fiber combines to form muscles, which connect to bone with tendons. Each muscle is separated by an outer lining termed the fascia. This fascia is a web-like collection of connective tissue (mostly collagen) capable of a diverse number of functions.
Traditionally, this fascial lining was thought to transmit energy from exertion and allow the nerve to pass through to the muscle for activation. However more recently we have discovered that the fascia contains numerous small blood vessels and has a deep network of sensory nerves capable of sensing pain, stretch, etc.
With time you can develop less lubricant and more adhesions that connect the muscle with the fascia, limiting movement. Additionally, due to this connection and the ability for sensing pain, etc, muscle pain can develop limiting your movement further. So how do we re-establish the flexibility of our muscular system? One way is with mobility training.
Head, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes
Ah, the old standard bend and stretch. We are not knocking physical education teachers out there, but there is just no better place to start than the beginning.
The category of the traditional static stretch is termed “static stretching.” Traditionally, this was THE option for post-workout recovery. I guarantee if you have been in a phys ed class you have done these stretches.
At the core of such maneuvers are the lengthening of muscle fibers by pulling them between their origin and insertion points (where they connect into bone). This action can then be held for any amount of time, the muscle relaxed and repeated.
Though seemingly straightforward, this widespread practice is quite controversial. Growing up I was told that you have to “hold stretches for 30 seconds.” Turns out this is not true. Some would argue that perhaps stretching does not help further performance by “loosening” tight “cool” muscles.
There is also evidence to suggest that passive “cold” stretching can weaken your athletic performance.
That being said these research studies are of limited sampling and examine specific muscle actions for specific populations in a lab setting. Can these data be extrapolated to the public? The data are just not there. Most likely if it works for you and helps you feel better, great, do it.
On a similar note, fascial work is also debated in the fitness community. Fascial work includes means to work out presumed adhesions formed within the space between the fascia and the muscle fibers themselves, which can lead to stiffness and pain. Such modalities include foam rolling, ball rolling, flossing, compression, massage, and yoga. For our discussion today, we will exclude massage and yoga, as these topics can encompass their post.
Gadgets and Doodads
Foam and ball rolling use rollers, lacrosse balls, and other implements to place pressure on the tissue and “iron out” adhesions.
Flossing utilizes large rubber bands braced with tension to another location (other legs, doors, etc). to place tension on the target area.
Compression also uses rubber bands, but is wrapped around the target area to produce a radial force on the area and hence press the tissue toward its central point.
Some of these means to “release the fascia” have been around for years or even centuries (yoga). The typical process involved the induction of pressure and movement onto the muscle sheath in a repeated or sometimes static motion. This pressure +/- movement then releases spindle-like connections between the fascia and the muscle fibers called adhesions which can interfere with pain signaling and sensation.
Though this concept is hard to quantify and difficult to study, attempts have been made to study myofascial work and the benefits, showing assistance with strength training recovery but not overall recovery or flexibility.
Though the data is somewhat mixed, it has been my personal experience that self-myofascial work is effective at improving recovery from strength training and proper form for work-outs. An example of this is squat depth.
When we review the data, we are met with mixed results with some information favoring myofascial work and some not.
You should have to look at these data with discerning eyes. Are the methods of exercise the same as yours? Are you exercising with EMG monitors attached (ouch)? Is the study’s protocol the same as yours? Can we infer validity to 11 people’s performance in a lab study?
I am a researcher and my only point is, do not look at the headline, look at the whole picture. Does it work for you, then great do it! If it doesn’t, how long have you tried it for? Until the science can produce a convincing argument with a larger sample, I am afraid you are going to have to trust the mobilization experts.
All in all, my prior year’s pathway included the use of mobility work every single day. I have found great benefit with this practice not only in my recovery, flexibility, and ability to perform the next day’s exercise, but also have seen a benefit in the performance of compound exercises such as the snatch, clean, press, and even squats.
As a comprehensive resource, I recommend consulting with the supple leopard’s book on mobility as a means for starting your journey to a more mobile life.