MOVEMENT MINUTE #7

By Coach KB

(If you are new to the POINT Gym and Kitchen blog and want to learn what the Movement Minute Challenge is all about, check out the introductory post here.) 

***The MM will take more than one minute to read this week because there is just too much to say and it is too “controversial” a topic not to provide a little more information. I’ll do my best to pare it down into easily digestible soundbites, but trust me - you want to take the few extra minutes to read this one!***

You know how hard it is to believe that a low-fat diet is bad for you? That eating (good quality) fat is actually GOOD for you? Eating “low-fat” is a notion that has been so ingrained in our lives since childhood that it takes the average person a lot of convincing and proof of the science before believing it is not good for us. Even then there is still some deep-seated guilt around enjoying the vegetables you just slathered in butter.

Now picture that feeling of disbelief, multiply it by probably 1000, and add some outright refusal to accept the actual science that proves something doesn’t work. What on earth could I be talking about… What is something we are so attached to that many of us refuse to consider that it is not only not good for us but can also be bad for us? Let me give it to you straight, people:

STRETCHING. DOESN’T. WORK.

The idea that the more you stretch the longer your muscles will get and the more flexible you will be is wrong; in reality you may just be damaging the tissue. This is one of the conclusions Jules Mitchell drew in her research for her Master’s in Exercise Science; her thesis was on the science of stretching. As a yoga teacher she wanted to write her thesis to state academically what the yoga community has been touting for years, but about a year into her research trying to prove the benefits of stretching she actually found the opposite to be true: the science of stretching actually proves that stretching as we know it does not work.

We stretch to get “more flexible” but what we are really talking about is range of motion (ROM). When we stretch we all imagine the belly of our hamstring lengthening so we can reach further and touch our toes but ROM is a concept related more to joints than to muscles so what we are really talking about is muscle “tolerance” and not muscle length. (This next part connects last week’s Movement Minute on neuro-structural training perfectly!)

Tolerance is really a neurological response - your body stops you from going where it does not feel you can safely go. If you rarely/never take your body in a particular ROM your nervous system loses memory of how to get in that position. If you were under anesthesia and those nerve impulses were turned off you would have full ROM. Crazy! So really, if you want to see changes in your ROM you have to use your body at those limits in an active way so your mind knows you are under control in those positions… Essentially this means strength-training, but targeted strength-training at those ranges of motion. When you do this you are stimulate the muscle fibers so they can communicate with your nervous system and vice versa: this is how you develop strength and control in that joint position.

Wrap your mind around this - your muscles don’t just lengthen and shorten in one direction; your muscle fibers move in all different directions and embed into the connective tissue that surround it. We want our muscles to be able to control their muscle force in all those directions. This takes strength. The idea of “flexibility” as we know it today exists isolated from strength; we revere people who can touch their nose to their knees without considering if they are actually strong enough to hold their body together under load.

[With the Olympics going on right now we have a great picture of the marriage of strength married to “flexibility” (ROM). Katie Ledecky is STRONG… SUPER strong! Her shoulders, arms, and back are probably the strongest parts of her body, yet have you seen her warm up on the edge of the pool? She can easily swing her arms straight out to the sides and touch them behind her back. Strength through ROM, people.

Picture Simone Biles. The epitome of a powerhouse of strength. She’s only 4’8” but I would not want to be on her bad side in a dark alley. Even with her giant muscles she can still do the splits in all directions and touch her nose to her knees and her toes to the back of her head... She can probably touch her nose to her knees WHILE she touches her toes to the back of her head. Strength through ROM, people.]

We are dynamic communicating organisms; we aren’t lumps of clay that we can just shove in a direction and expect to go there. Our nervous system regulates our muscle tissue which transmits a force to our connective tissue. If you can’t take your joint to certain positions isn’t not because your body actually can’t go there, it’s because you just haven’t used your body there enough to tell your nervous system that it is safe to be there. It’s not a matter of “tightness,” it’s a matter of communication. Your muscle fibers aren’t strong enough (yet) to maintain that force regulation through the body.

A few pleas before I give you the Movement Minute Challenge for the week. I want to start changing the way we talk about the idea of stretching and flexibility:

  1. Stop coveting super bendy flexibility. Ideally we would be both strong and flexible, but if I had to pick one I would rather be a little “tighter” and know my joints were strong and safe under load than be able to get some oohs and aahs at a party for doing the splits.

  2. Stop saying “flexible.” Instead say Range of Motion.

  3. Stop saying “tight.” Instead say Limited Range of Motion.

  4. Stop stretching. Especially if you feel like you injured or pulled or strained something. Instead move it and use it (gently at first) so the muscle fibers will direct the loads where they are supposed to go. With otherwise healthy tissue the only “stretching” you should do should be something like restorative yoga, which is based in props. Instead of stretching as hard as you can, you support your body with props in its existing ROM so there is a more equal force distribution. This way you can be in that position for a long period of time and communicate with your nervous system that it is safe to be there.

Okay, finally time for the Movement Minute Challenge. Since most of us in the gym are obsessed with how “tight” our hamstrings are, the focus is on improving our ROM through strength. This week I challenge you to spend AT LEAST one minute per day doing squats and/or lunges and or the Founder (from Movement Minute #3) slowly and only at your ROM where you can maintain good form - don’t go for depth if you have to slouch your shoulders or round your back or lean forward or come up on the balls of your feet to get there. If you are in the gym you can stay after to do light Romanian Deadlifts at the ROM where you can maintain good back position (see the Founder). Melissa and Kim and I can help you with this if you are unsure.

I highly recommend listening to the interview with Jules Mitchell on Episode 9 of the Liberated Body podcast. It is where I got a lot of the language on this topic I shared in this blog but there is so much more I didn’t cover. Jules also has a blog on her website where she says something I love since I believe we sometimes want to be more flexible just for the sake of thinking we should be more flexible: “What are you going to do with this new range of motion? If you don’t have the strength and optimal muscle function at the new range of motion, how does it serve you?”