This is Part II in a three part series. Click here for Part I.
If you’re in pain and you think increasing your flexibility will get you OUT of pain, I’m here to tell you that the OPPOSITE is a far more likely and a safer approach: get yourself OUT of pain and you will probably (and quite quickly) recover the flexibility you lost when your nervous system detected danger and went about protecting you from further injury by restricting your mobility.
If you’re TRULY inflexible and you are NOT in pain, then by all means work on increasing flexibility – safely, in ways that don’t stress your tissues or put you in danger of injury (NOT static stretching).
If you’re not in pain and you’re a dancer, gymnast, runner, yogi etc…then you will be forced to do some static stretching, and I recommend you go about this in such a way that you don’t injure your soft tissue or joints.
If you are in pain AND you want to increase flexibility, then I highly recommend getting yourself out of pain FIRST. You’ll have a better baseline of what your actual flexibility level is like, and you won’t be running the risk of injury or increased pain by endangering your body with stretching that could cause more harm than good.
Know you’re why and you’ll begin forming an alliance with your body that will allow you to reach your goals safely, and far faster.
If you’re the parent or coach of a child in a sport that requires them to be super flexible (like ballet or gymnastics), I would like you to consider the ramifications of having them perform extreme flexibility routines. I’m speaking from experience.
I’m extremely hyper-mobile due to 10+ hours a week of gymnastics and flexibility training as a child. I cannot (EVER) undo this hyper-mobility, and I am more prone to certain injuries because of it. I do not regret doing gymnastics one bit! I’ve been wanting to pick it back up as an adult actually.
However, I wish someone had been able to coach me during those years and later as a young adult, because I may have been able to off-set some of the damage or at least been mentally prepared for all the issues to come with my ankles, knees and shoulders.
The downsides of being hyper-mobile:
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there’s really no health benefit (in my opinion) of becoming EXTRA flexible.
So if your only goal is living a pain-free life and you’re relatively flexible already, then stick to fascial release.
First, a general guideline:
If muscle fibers and attachments shrink in a mostly linear manner, they must be lengthened in a mostly linear manner.
If fascia shrinks globally it must be released globally.
Each tissue must be targeted according to its nature.
Static stretching and increasing your flexibility will NEVER release your restricted fascia. Can it impact the fascia in a positive manner to stretch in other ways? Maybe. But if you have giant lumps of stuck fascia in your tissues, it would take an extremely talented person to ‘release’ that fascia through any kind of static stretching or yoga type movement-based stretches.
This is also why releasing your restricted fascia, while it can increase mobility or restore range of motion, will never make you more flexible: flexibility is ONLY gained by lengthening those muscle fibers and attachments through their greatest range of motion (linearly, through extension), and/or the joints through poses like pigeon.
For example: bending to touch your toes ‘lengthens’ your hamstrings (the muscle fibers) from the attachment points at your sacrum to the backs of your knees and in your calves from the backs of the knees to your Achilles or heel…you can’t ‘stretch’ your hamstrings or calves in the opposite direction through flexion (from Achilles to the back of the knee, or in the case of the hamstrings from the knee to the sacrum – that direction CONTRACTS those muscle fibers and stretches their opposite (in this case your quads).
Whereas with fascia it actually MUST be ‘stretched’ globally – in every direction, or 360 degrees; so after a piece of tissue is compressed you would use FLEXION (the opposite of what is necessary for lengthening muscle fiber) as well as extension AND rotation to release the fascia.
This is a huge topic and I won’t be covering it in depth here, because there are various reasons to want to increase flexibility (or NOT), as well as various ways to accomplish it, in addition to all the different body parts to target.
Essentially, if you want to increase flexibility you need to hold or move through a stretching pose in such a way that it actually changes your muscle fibers, and you’ll need to make it a regular practice until you achieve your desired result.
This is why as a child gymnast I spent hours in the various splits positions (and ones like that to the right >>), back bending and stretching everything we could in the upper body too (every muscle group and joint was targeted for increases in flexibility). They were training us to be incredibly flexible through HOURS a week of holding these stretches. This is what it takes to actually achieve huge gains in flexibility.
For the record, I am NOT a fan of static stretching for the majority of the population for any reason. An upcoming episode of Mobility Mastery Monday will be dedicated to this topic and I’ll show you what to do instead of static stretching.
If you’re not careful (and even if you are) you run the risk of causing damage to your muscle fibers via a stretch reflex, tear or “pulling” something (hamstrings are particularly prone); you can irritate or strain your attachments and/or overstretch your ligaments (and if that’s not your desired outcome then you should know it’s something that could happen).
If you’re stretching in an attempt to heal an injury, you certainly run the risk of making it worse with static stretching.
For example I never EVER recommend stretching or even touching your low back if you have low back pain because all those muscles in and around your hip and/or your low back are in a state of emergency contraction to protect your spine, and “loosening” them will likely only cause your brain to freak out and restrict your range of motion even more (possibly with even more pain), until the cause is found and corrected.
Similarly, stretching the calves in a static manner for something like plantar fasciitis can often make the PF worse, because the FASCIA is not getting released and the soft tissues that are already irritated (the tendony fascia in the foot and all the muscle fibers there) are getting PULLED ON in a linear manner: with static stretching, only the muscle fibers and attachments (like the Achilles and plantaris tendon) are being asked to lengthen and in this case they really don’t want to because of the fascial restrictions around them, mostly IN THE CALVES. (If you have PF, click here for a solution).
I will cover my favorite method of stretching – called PNF stretching – immediately after this series ends, so stay tuned for that, or google it.
I’m also a HUGE FAN of using “dynamic” or movement based stretching, and I’ll be doing an episode on that soon as well.
If you want to be a human pretzel, then you’ll have to take up something like yoga, dance or gymnastics and take your stretching routine beyond the norm.
Those balls or knots of stuck fascia need to be compressed and all the fibers (muscle and fascia) need to be recruited to break that sh*t up and release it for good!
Obviously, the bulk of this blog is dedicated to teaching you how to release your fascia. So if that is your goal, you can browse away, use the search box to find what you’re looking for and have it it.
I haven’t personally experienced ALL methods currently out there, but I do know there are quite a few (including certain yoga methods) that claim they can ‘melt’ fascia by holding stretches or poses, and there are other fascial stretch methods that involve passive movement via a therapist without the use of compression.
My personal opinion is that, while there is probably some positive impact happening with these various methods, I hold to my current belief gained from personal experience doing this work for 8 years: to truly release fascia in a way that lasts it MUST be compressed and some kind of movement needs to happen, preferably ACTIVE global (360 degree) movement. Otherwise it seems to me that most of the work and benefit is happening in the muscle fibers being used and NOT the fascia.
To MAINTAIN happy/healthy fascia (beyond fascial release, which can be used to restore space and health to the system) as much as possible engage in fluid movements (like tai chi, yoga, running, swimming etc) and dynamic stretching. Fascia is healthiest when it is mobilized, when blood is pumped through the system and everything in the body is working together (muscles, bones, fascia) without intense strain.
Decrease stress and increase play.
Movement heals, and movement that we perceive as FUN and enjoyable trumps all other kinds for health (in my opinion).
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