When man is living, he is soft and flexible.
When he is dead, he becomes hard and rigid.
When a plant is living it is soft and tender.
When it is dead, it becomes withered and dry.
Hence, the hard and rigid keep company with the dead,
The soft and supple keep company with the alive.
A supple, freely-moving body is a major asset to total health. When joints and soft tissues possess ideal flexibility, benefits are seen not only in the musculoskeletal system; the benefits ramify, mostly through improved neurological function, to virtually every organ and system of the body. The vast majority of people are not aware of the enormous impact flexibility has on different aspects of our health despite the praise hatha yoga practices have accumulated over thousands of years. Today stretching exercises get high praise from athletic trainers, sports medicine specialists, and athletes because of their proven ability to prevent injury and increase performance.
Even with that high praise few individuals engage in any significant stretching routines. Fewer still use them intelligently or frequently enough to even prevent injuries or relieve stress. And only a miniscule number practice a flexibility routine that is designed for their special needs and structural weaknesses. Even dedicated adherents of hatha yoga many times do not have sound routines for improving flexibility in the tighter areas while protecting and stabilizing excessively mobile regions.
The Physiology and Benefits of Flexibility
When muscles, tendons and ligaments are too tight they limit proper joint motion. This causes several unhealthy reactions in the body. Tightness in soft tissues generates excessive nerve impulses through much of the nervous system, altering functions in different parts of the body. Sometimes these excessive nerve transmissions interfere with normal nerve signals to internal organs, confusing them and causing them to malfunction. For instance, lower back and gluteal muscles, if too tight, can trigger excessive nerve firing causing excessive uterine contractions in women, making their menstrual cycles more uncomfortable.
Another mechanism involves the classic stress syndrome of "fight or flight." This happens when an individual habitually learns to respond to stress by unconsciously tightening muscles that are not really needing to be activated. This results in chronically tight, shortened muscle fibers, and even pain. Virtually every organ in the body is affected by this stress-generated muscle tension; it cascades neurologically and hormonally throughout the body inflicting both short and long term damage.
Soft tissue tightness can also restrict joint motion enough to disrupt the flow of nerve impulses coming from the neurological bed of the joint itself. This causes the same confusion of nerve signals to internal organs as described above. For example, abnormal nerve firing from improperly functioning joints in the thoracic spine can send abnormal rhythms to the heart or produce too much stomach acid.
When joints are restricted, other joints nearby usually become excessively mobile in an automatic effort to compensate. This creates even more abnormal nerve signaling. It is one of the prime causes of joint injury at work, in the home, or in athletic activities.
Proper stretching creates:
- muscles that are relaxed and at a normal length while at rest (This actually makes them stronger.)
- soft tissues that have a strong tensile strength
- soft tissues that do not fire extraneous nerve impulses into other systems of the body
- joints that move fully and freely through their designed range without producing abnormal nerve signals.
For people with considerable muscle tightness, joint restrictions, and/or excessive mobility, restoring better, balanced flexibility will:
- reduce injuries to the musculoskeletal system
- diminish the "flight or fight" stress syndrome
- reduce muscle tension; alleviate many joint and muscle aches and pains
- reduce the symptoms and progressive deterioration of many types of arthritis
- improve sleep patterns
- improve athletic and work performance
- contribute to better posture
- allow for more efficient movement throughout the day
- decrease the frequency, duration, and intensity of headaches
- lower blood pressure
- reduce respiratory distress
- improve internal organ function
Obstacles to Performance of Effective Stretching Exercises
With all those benefits why do people not engage in good stretching programs? There are two reasons. One, it is usually not a very fun exercise. Not only does it border on painful the psychological rewards that come with other forms of exercise are missing. Somehow, gaining an extra inch of movement in a stretch after a couple weeks does not give the same joy as finishing a 10 K run in a personal best time. There is not a similar "endorphin high" that aerobic exercise induces. While there are running, triathlon, biking and swimming competitions and clubs and social events that support those activities, stretching gets nowhere near the same support. Yoga classes are the closest one comes to camaraderie in this form of exercise. Yoga vacation retreats and workshops are available, but on a limited basis.
Secondly, stretching has failed to catch on because of the poor quality of current techniques. It is important to mention the two most serious offenders. The first is the bouncing stretches where a person stretches a muscle complex and joint to its maximum stretch and then bounces it in an oscillatory manner past that point repeatedly. This is a less painful stretch than the slow, steady-pressure maneuvers which are not as likely to cause tissue damage. Bouncing stretches will also give a sense of quick improvement for that moment. Unfortunately, with every bounce small tears occur in soft tissues; if done repeatedly, bounce stretches eventually end up producing rigid scars. There are therapeutic times when this type of stretching is used to break up joint adhesions, and in those situations it is effective if specifically and properly directed. But using a bounce-type stretch for general soft tissue elongation is not wise.
The other type of stretching that poses many problems for people is stretching joints or soft tissues that already are overstretched or hypermobile (excessively moving). This occurs when general stretching exercises are adopted by people without an accurate, preliminary assessment of which areas really do need increased flexibility and which might actually need to be stabilized and avoid excessive motion. Yoga classes and individual yoga practitioners frequently fall into the trap of doing a prepared routine that is generalized for everybody without recognizing the high number of individual needs that people have. All too often the problem comes from stretching a broad area that overall might be restricted but individual joints or particular angles of motion are already too mobile. Instead of the stretching force going into elongating the shortened tissues it impacts the excessively mobile segments.
A typical example is doing a back arch exercise, like the Bow or Cobra in yoga terminology, to increase spinal extension motion. Well, in many people the thoracic spine, or mid-back, needs this type of stretch, but they also have an unstable lower lumbar spine that will be severely irritated by the same maneuver. Often it is difficult at the time of the exercise to distinguish between the pain of the stretch and the pain of injury. The standard precaution given in yoga instructions is that if it hurts afterwards, be careful in repeating the exercise or omit that particular stretch altogether. Unfortunately, the damage is many times done already. It seems a much wiser approach to have a skilled professional carefully evaluate flexibility, both restrictions and excesses, then plan specific stretches for the areas of limitations and stabilization / strengthening exercises for the hypermobile, over-elongated areas.
Undertaking Effective Flexibility Training
The problem then arises, how to find someone skilled in making this assessment and prescription. Good chiropractors and physical therapists who do a lot of sports injury work will often be the best people to ask. Some yoga instructors who have special relationships with these knowledgeable health professionals will be good at accommodating special needs. Once again, the more preliminary evaluations that are done in any aspect of our health the more accurate the health enhancement procedures can be. This is particularly important in those individuals who have significant musculoskeletal problems already or have been injured in the past with residual weaknesses. Individuals who strive for optimal levels of athletic performance and push themselves to the limits should also seek out professional assistance. They are risking injury, not so much because of serious weaknesses, but because small biomechanical faults can pose an enormous risk when the body is challenged to the brink of its capacity.
These are also reasons for integrating a stretching program with strength training and manipulative therapy. After full assessment of flexibility, strength, and joint motion-- stabilization training, stretching and joint manipulation can be combined to give benefits far superior to a stretching program alone. Often a person will stretch a restricted joint for months on his own with only minimal improvement and some overstretching of surrounding tissues. Then they receive an effective joint manipulation taking a few milliseconds to accomplish what they agonized over in hours of self stretching.
It is also important to mention that there are different types of stretching ideally suitable for various types of restrictions. Shortness and excessive tightness in muscle contractile fibers are best stretched and relaxed using techniques incorporating neurological inhibition mechanisms like proprioceptive neuro-muscular facilitation (PNF). These involve stretching the tight muscle, then isometrically contracting it for several seconds while under full stretch, then contracting its antagonist muscle, and sometimes even incorporating different eye motions and breathing patterns---all in order to reflexively condition the nervous system to assist in the relaxation and stretching of the targeted muscle group.
Stretching non-contractile fibers such as ligaments, tendons, and fascia utilize slow, prolonged stretching techniques. Joints can be stretched similarly or manipulative techniques involving slow, rhythmic oscillations or quick movements can be used.
Dynamic Stretching protocols are now being scientifically developed for different sports and a preliminary exercise before a practice or a game. It is designed to methodically and gently prepare muscles and joints for the more vigorous activities to come. These exercises have been found to greatly reduce injuries in athletes.
Elongation of any human tissues is enhanced with increased temperature. That is the reason why all stretching programs should be done only after the tissues are warmed. The usual way to accomplish this is by any gentle, safe, aerobic warm-up exercise for 10 minutes before stretching.
Many people have the misconception that they get enough flexibility exercise in the activities of daily living that they don't need extra programmed stretching. "I get plenty of stretching bending over picking up kids, my husbands dirty clothes, and working in the garden." Nothing could be further from the truth. There are scores of joints and muscles throughout the body that need regular stretching in all directions for optimal health. Providing it will reap many unseen benefits. Ignoring it will sow the seeds of future problems.
Since there are few people who would not benefit appreciably from a regular stretching routine, there are many who need to find some form that is suitable for their needs. For those seeking self care through flexibility training without professional assistance, it is advised to use Evjenth and Hamberg's book, Auto-Stretching. The excellent illustrations show in superb detail how to isolate specific muscles and angles that are often overlooked by more generalized instructions. The Health Care Center also has available an abbreviated, inexpensive version of the core exercises in this book called The "Better Than Yoga" Stretching Guide.
There is little reason, in holistic health terms, to justify excessive efforts towards extreme flexibility. Two blatant examples of stretching excesses that have few advantages, if any, over what might be termed reasonable, healthy flexibility are gymnastics training in childhood and advanced yoga postures. Unless one thinks he or she can gain holistic health by being an Olympic gymnast or contortionist, these practices should be discouraged. Encouraging young children, particularly girls, to force their developing bodies into stressful positions and maneuvers their tissues were not meant to sustain is asking for tragic consequences in later years. Remember that holistic health connotes balance and moderation. We are aiming at reducing stress, not increasing it.
Make a commitment to get more regular stretching. Be evaluated by a health care professional for advice on a specific plan or use the Auto-Stretching book as a guide orThe "Better Than Yoga" Stretching Guide. Auto-Stretching can be ordered from 800-592-7329. The The "Better Than Yoga" Stretching Guide is available at Thomas M. Collins Chiropractic, Inc.