Being Flexible Helps You to Live a Longer Happier Life
The second area I’m working on is my flexibility. Seeing patients have difficulty putting on their shoes or trouble getting off the chiropractic table has made me check my flexibility. Flexibility is important to so many normal movements on a daily basis. A lack of flexibility or imbalances in flexibility are often what I see as causes of pain in my chiropractic practice.
How did my flexibility measure up? My upper body flexibility isn’t bad but flexibility in my lower back and pelvis is poor. I used the “Can I touch my toes?" measuring stick. The answer? Nope. 3 inches short. Test yourself now – try touching your toes.
If you can't touch your toes, then you may be in trouble. First though, I want to help you understand what flexibility is, why it is important and how to make it work for you.
Does stretching make you more flexible? The obvious answer is “yes” based on what we’ve all been told about the merits of stretching. However, this is one of those sort’a true and sort’a not true answers.
Stretch your muscles or stretch your mind?
I’ve been reading the latest on ways to stretch muscles, because I always want to know if there is something new that will help my patients in my chiropractic practice. I am rethinking one of the common beliefs about stretching. “If you stretch a tight muscle, it will become longer, more flexible and more supple” And ideally less prone to injury. This is partly true.
In reality, we are not lumps of clay that can be molded by persistently tugging on things. This is because our central nervous systems is running the show.
So what does that mean? It means that unless you are under anesthesia (where you will miraculously gain full and even excessive range of motion, but I do not recommend attempting to go through life under full anesthesia simply for its flexibility gains), your ability to stretch at any range is determined by your nervous system’s tolerance to that range.
For example, if you have very, very short hamstrings and you try to fold your torso forward over your knees, you meet rigid resistance. You cannot pull on your hamstrings like they are inanimate taffy, and expect them to stretch. That is because your nervous system gives you a firm end range for that movement, basically saying “Nope. Sorry buddy. I don’t feel safe there, so I’m not going to let you go there.”
Getting pushy about it and trying to force your hamstrings into ever deeper end ranges will have one of three outcomes:
- Nothing will change
- Your hamstrings will get shorter (yes they can!)
- You injure your tissue (which, by the way, has about a two-year healing period if we’re talking about a tendon injury).
For these reasons, I do not recommend overriding your nervous system on issues of flexibility. It will win and the consequences will be unpleasant.
The nervous system is your body's emergency brake
Why would the nervous system not feel safe and limit your mobility? Because the range of movement you are trying to reach is unfamiliar. Your body has compensatory mechanisms that allow certain parts to function as an emergency brake in order to hold it all together and prevent injury. Two main laws are in play here: motor control (the neurologic action involved in movement) and re-organization (tissue growing in the manner we want it to). This second part can be (over) simplified to, “Use it or lose it.”
Let’s talk about the motor control. In the case of the hamstrings, chronically short-hamstringed people constantly use their hamstrings to compensate for some bad pattern of movement or posture that they are using somewhere else in their body. Tight muscles mean that the system is working hard compensating for something else that isn’t doing its job. Reasons that my hamstrings are tight may be:
- Under active deep core musculature
- Too rigid core musculature (And yes, underactive and too rigid can come together)
- Weak adductor muscles.
If these or other key stability structures can’t fully do their job, the hamstrings stand alert and ready to do their job. They provide support when the support is missing elsewhere in the body, by tightening down.
To go back to the emergency brake analogy - if you were in your car and it was parked on the edge of a cliff, held there only by its emergency brake, would you release it? No. (Not if you are sane!).This is the same decision your nervous system is making when you attempt a forward fold and stop before you reach the toes. It protects you from extending yourself so far that you injure tissues.
If you have really tight muscles it means the emergency brake is on, and that some other part of your body isn’t working properly.
Next article: Getting flexibility into those really tight muscles