What is the first thing that you think to do if your body is feeling tight and inflexible? For most people, it’s likely to stretch. Whether it was in school gym class growing up, participation in team sports, or the recommendations from a physical therapist or personal trainer, most people attribute stretching to supporting good health, improving joint mobility, and helping to ease the stiffness that we are too commonly plagued by in our day-to-day. We wake up feeling stiff, experience low back pain and tight leg muscles after long hours of sitting or standing at work, and then try to remedy this with various workout routines, some of which may help give us temporary relief, only to then leave us in the same or sometimes even worse place than when we first started. The perpetual cycle continues; We are once again waking up feeling stiff and inflexible.
There is an assumption that if we are feeling tight we are experiencing a mobility problem. Once again people go to stretching to try to resolve this issue, in this case thinking that dynamic stretching routines will help achieve the goal of improving movement while simultaneously increasing flexibility and joint range of motion. While we agree that movement, and the stretching that is inherently a part of it, is key to improving joint health and flexibility, we believe that how you go about it matters. This article will discuss reasons why you may be experiencing joint stiffness and inflexibility, expose the common pitfalls of mainstream dynamic stretching routines, and offer perspective on how thousands of Functional Patterns doers have ditched the fitness stretching dogma and instead implemented three key protocols that have helped them finally get the results that so many of us are seeking.
WHAT IS STATIC VS. DYNAMIC STRETCHING?
Stretching has been touted to offer many benefits, some of which include increasing flexibility and range of motion, injury prevention, performance enhancement, and increased blood flow.
Of the various types of stretching modalities, two common ones are static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching consists of stretching a muscle (or group of muscles) to near its most full range of motion and then maintaining or holding that position for a period of time, without movement. Among the benefits of static stretching are the claims that it can help you improve flexibility while also helping to cool down after movement.
Conversely, dynamic stretching involves actively moving parts of the body into ranges of motion with the intent of priming the body for movement. In this article dynamic stretching will refer to the stretching that is promoted in the mainstream fitness world which neglects the contextual nature of actively recruiting entire kinetic chains (a concept which will be discussed later in this article) and with a disregard to the prioritization of human movement. This type of stretching is assumed to improve dynamic flexibility and be useful as a warm-up for a proceeding active workout. Some examples of dynamic stretching are:
- Hip Circles
- Arm Circles
- Arm Swings
- Straight leg high kicks
- Walking lunges
If you’ve been in any sports, movement, or rehab environment you’ve likely participated in at least one of these stretching routines. In fact they’re so common that it’s often assumed that it must be good for us as we see so many examples from therapists to professional athletes partaking. However, if one were to look at the studies, even the ones that at surface level seem to affirm the value of stretching, there are a myriad of confounding variables which call the results of these studies into question. At Functional Patterns we find that instead of focusing on limited and in many cases conflicting information in studies, we would rather get straight to the point of focusing on what gets undeniable results of getting people out of pain and moving/feeling better. In order to do that we need to look at whether stretching makes sense to do in the first place and how the contextual nature of how it’s done matters greatly.
(Note: If you would like a further look into some scientific studies on stretching watch HBS Mike Mucciolo’s video on “Why Stretching Doesn’t Work.” For additional information explaining the problem of static stretching check out this FP article “The Dysfunctions of Stretching.”)
RETHINKING DYNAMIC STRETCHING
Two major limitations to dynamic stretching are as follows:
Dynamic stretching doesn't take into account why people are in pain in the first place. For example, if you are experiencing knee issues that may be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have joint pain or are feeling stiffness due to tight leg muscles, arthritis, bursitis, or an injury. Are lunges or high leg kicks going to address these issues? Let's generously say that in the best case scenario they might temporarily make you feel better. But how many of us have experienced temporarily feeling better as an invitation to go out for that hike or hop into the pick-up basketball game only to end up with tight leg muscles and in pain once again? The problem is, you never addressed what was causing the issue in the first place. Do you have restrictions in your tissues? Are you losing core engagement when you walk which is leading to jarring at your hips and collapsing in at your knees? What’s happening with your spine as you move? Without precisely accounting for the body’s structure as a whole, dynamic stretches are a sloppy attempt to improve joint mobility and flexibility. It’s not enough to simply move, you need to learn to move well. If that movement isn’t working on specifically correcting your mechanics it is leading to further degeneration.
Think about it this way: You feeling pain is like seeing a warning light come on in your car. The answer isn’t to just ignore it; You know it’s wise to address the issue before continuing to drive the car. Otherwise you’re likely to run into bigger problems such as the car breaking down completely, ruining the engine, getting a flat tire, etc. Your body is no different. Neglected or poorly assessed issues become larger problems further down the road.
- Dynamic stretching does not account for the integration of entire kinetic chains. Human beings are primarily designed to stand, walk, run, and throw as a priority. That does not mean that those are the only functions that humans do, but anthropologists note that for humans’ locomotion and survival we have needed to do those motions primarily, with all other movements being a derivative of those four. What does this mean for stretching and movement? Our body is designed to support itself in a balanced way, using reciprocal inhibition. That’s just a fancy way of saying that as one side of the body actively contracts another side is lengthened, which then reverses creating a recoil and supporting balanced tension throughout the body. Not only does this happen in isolated regions of the body but it also happens in longer segments, also known as kinetic chains. For example, in the image shown below we can see that there is a relationship between the bicep shortening with the tricep lengthening and the the hamstring shortening as the quadricep lengthens but we can also see that there is a shortening of the entire backside of the body as the front side lengthens. This integration of active muscle contractions across the body is what is referred to as connecting entire kinetic chains.
In order to support our body in motion and ensure that we are not causing excessive compression on any particular area it’s important that we are able to recruit many myofascial connections at the same time. This is where dynamic stretching becomes problematic; Just because the body is moving doesn't mean that the muscles are actively engaged.
Try this: passively straighten your arm and then bend your elbow. It feels like a rather empty motion, right? Now straighten your arm and try to bend the elbow by pretending that you’re holding a heavy weight and flexing your bicep. It should feel like a much more active motion. In both instances you moved your arm but the execution of the movement resulted in a significantly different response from the muscle. Now think about this in a larger context; Just because the body is moving doesn't mean that muscles are engaged nor able to work together. We see this all the time with new clients that come in to work with us; They try to mimic a motion without understanding how to engage the entire body. This typically presents as either excessive range of motion without proper tension (floppy frame) or a stiff frame, neither of which is getting well balanced muscular integration. In both cases the person tends to overload regions of the body such as the knees or low back. The answer is not high kicks for tight leg muscles of joint compression; The priority is teaching them how to get multiple areas of the body working together so that the core and upper body can create a suspension system that helps take pressure off the lower body while teaching the muscle groups of the lower body to also better recruit. The integration of getting the whole body to work as a system (while also accounting for postural dysfunctions) simply isn’t accounted for in dynamic stretching protocols.
THREE STEPS TO IMPROVING JOINT MOBILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
Now that you have a better sense of why context matters when it relates to training the human body, here are three steps we recommend to start you on the path to moving better:
(Release of the TFL as shown in the 10-week Online Program)
(Demonstration of single leg squat mechanics as shown in the Functional Training System)