Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Movement Literacy: Flexibility Part I

So the philosophy professor asks: Do I still have to stretch?

It is really a shame that the concept of “stretching” has become so seared into the fitness lexicon. By stretching I mean static stretching. There is no automatic cause and effect relationship between static stretching and healthy flexibility; or being healthy or preventing injury.

Healthy flexibility is about moving well; it is not about maximum individual muscle length.

Flexibility—by that I mean range of motion about a joint—is context dependent; and it demands some understanding of functional anatomy. It ain’t just about feeling the stretch in the muscle belly or tendon! It’s about what’s happening at the joint with respect to the other joints! The available range of motion can be dependent whether or not you are in a weight-bearing situation, what is happening at related joints, or how fast or slow you are moving. Many important muscles, like the hamstrings, work at two joints. Thus their resting length and dynamic length—and the available motion at one joint—depend upon what is happening at the other joint, and what other muscle groups are doing.

So if you require flexibility in a certain movement, and you are attempting to use static stretching to achieve that flexibility, you at least need to mimic that joint position and relationship. You need to understand why you are doing what you are doing and what elements you are trying to affect! If you can put yourself in a weight-bearing position, all the better. If you can dynamically move into and out of the position, even better. Then your body adapts and adjusts sensory information that might cause the agonist or antagonist muscles to contract, for whatever reasons.

But most people don’t understand why they need flexibility or where they need it, whether it is for activities of daily living or for sport performance. They don’t really know if they have too much or too little. They are just bombarded by the popular press that stretching is a must and they absorb that message. They cannot relate it to larger, more complex issues such as movement, posture, neuromuscular relaxation, balance, and range of motion. For most American adults and children, flexibility—stretching—is only about simple static postures that are held for a few seconds.

Unfortunately, there’s a little more to it. And that requires a little education, attention and skill. Let someone who knows, teach you to take care of your movement system.

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