Craig Valency, CSCS

Part 4: Are You Functionally Flexible?

We always hear about how important it is to stretch and be flexible. But why is that? Do you really know the purpose? Stretching for the sake of flexibility, or to maximize the length of each muscle in isolation, offers little value in and of itself. It’s no different than doing a muscle-oriented strength training routine, in which the objective is the development of each muscle in isolation. That doesn’t sound very functional!

The objective should be to maximize perfect movement patterns by using strength training and flexibility training as the vehicle. You can be too tight, but it’s also possible to be too flexible. The key concept here is optimal flexibility. The functional approach to flexibility training addresses these goals in a way that prepares the body for the demands of movement in all three planes of motion.

There are many forms of flexibility, including static, active, dynamic, and PNF stretching.  Solid research suggests that active and dynamic stretches should be done before a workout or participation in a sport. After running, biking, hiking, or sports activities, static stretching is a good way to relax the body, because of its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system and its ability to restore normal resting muscle lengths. However, I do not recommend long-held static stretches right after a strength training session.

The argument for post workout stretching is that strength training shortens your muscles, as they have to contract under heavy loads for multiple sets, so it is wise to restore them to their resting/ optimum length. If you exercise properly, however, you are moving through a full range of motion; so maximal joint mobility and muscle flexibility are maintained.

When you lift weights, you get sore because you are creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which eventually heal and become bigger and stronger. This is the source of DOMS, or delayed on-set muscle soreness. In my opinion, it seems that after inflicting micro-tears for an hour, it is probably not the best idea to stretch the muscle even further and create more tears! Instead, I recommend a total body cool down with a slow bike ride, jog, or walk as a way to get the blood re-circulating throughout the whole body and more quickly promote healing of the muscle tissue.

Dynamic Stretching Before Exercise
A study published in the European Journal of Physiology (2005), for example, found that static stretching significantly reduced force output and muscle activation. This was probably due to central nervous system inhibitory mechanisms. A Japanese study that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2005) was one of the first to demonstrate that dynamic stretching significantly improved muscular performance when compared with static stretching. The proposed mechanisms for this were said to be an increase in muscular temperature, which improved dynamic short-duration performance, as well as post-activation potentiation (PAP), which increased voluntary contractions of the antagonist of the target muscle.

Flexibility vs. Mobility
An integral part of the definition of functional training is the ability to move your body in optimal ranges of motion to preclude compensations from other muscles. Flexibility refers to the extensibility of specific muscles, but mobility refers to the quality and quantity of movement around a joint. This distinction is important, because with a functional mindset, we don’t break our bodies into parts that need to be stretched; rather, we look at how well segments move and do what we can to maintain or improve these ranges of movement. To accomplish this, you can use stretching as part of your toolbox, along with joint mobilizations and soft tissue work (massage and foam rollers).

Lack of Flexibility or Muscle Guarding?
It’s common to see people lament their horrible hamstring flexibility. “I haven’t been able to touch my toes since 1967!” I hear that one a lot. They stretch everyday but get nowhere! The problem is often muscle guarding, which is caused by scar tissue or other injuries in the body. The body’s natural reflex to protect an injured area is to guard against further stretch and tearing of muscle. This is a neural response that creates tightness; so all the stretching in the world won’t help. In fact, it might even make it worse! This is where soft tissue work, joint mobilizations, and proper functional stretching come in to play. For some of the very best self-mobilization strategies go to Kelly Starrett’s blog, Mobility Wod.

Functional Flexibility: 3-D Stretching
The concept of functional strength and core training is well known and practiced widely, but this concept hadn’t found its way into the world of stretching until Gary Gray came along. Gary Gray takes it one step further than the accepted practice of active and dynamic stretching before exercise and static stretching after exercise. He introduces the concept of active stretching in the non-dominant planes of motion. Say What?!

Most functions of daily life, activities, and sports require movement in all three planes of motion. Muscles, therefore, get moved and stretched in all planes, but most of us only intentionally stretch each muscle in one plane – the dominant plane. For instance, the hamstring runs along the back of the leg. It extends the hip and flexes the knee (that’s not the whole story, but it works for this example). This movement is a forward and backward movement pattern (saggittal plane), similar to jogging. If, however, you played tennis, you would run, plant your leg, and exert a stretch on the hamstring while you rotate your upper body and hip as you hit the ball. It would make sense, then, to stretch your hamstring while exerting these same rotational forces.

To better prepare your body for these demands, take the functional approach: Stretch the hamstring in the non-dominant plane by propping your leg up on a bench and rotating your torso side to side while reaching with the arms. The arms act as the “driver” of movement– in this case, of a rotational (transverse plane) force through the hamstring. This can be done for every muscle group in all three planes and can have a profound effect on injury prevention and an improved response to the specific demands of your sport or activity.

In Part 5, it’s time to blow the roof off of the house of lies we are being taught in school. Biomechanics, or the study of human movement, is the basis for how trainers design workouts. Unfortunately, what we’ve been taught has been, how do I say this . . . wrong. In Part 5, I will give one example that will open your mind to a whole new way to look at the way our body moves. Don’t miss it!

To read the complete series start here for part 1: From Muscles to Movements