There, I said it. Stop stretching. A controversial statement for sure but if I'm going to help you improve the mobility of your joints and tissues in the most effective way, then I needed to grab your attention somehow. From what my patients tell me, it seems most people aren't putting much thought or effort into their stretching routine anyways and quite honestly, aren't holding a stretch for much more than 10-15 seconds...maybe 30 seconds tops.
Before you assume that I'm disregarding the “tightness” that you feel, let me assure you that I'm not. What I'm hoping you gain out of the next few paragraphs is a better understanding of where that “tightness” is coming from, why stretching is not providing you the benefit you think it is and then introduce you to the better alternative. *By the way, what I'm about to say is completely supported by the scientific literature; happy to post some articles if anyone is interested.*
To level set, when you stretch you are not actually stretching a muscle. Muscles are VERY elastic having the ability to shorten and lengthen through contraction and relaxation. If you approach stretching with the mindset that you are permanently or even temporarily (for a workout) elongating muscle cells, that's not what is really happening. It's like trying to stretch out a rubber band; you can lengthen it for a brief period of time, but once the force (you pulling on both ends) is removed, the muscle cells bounce right back to their resting state.
If you aren't making an impact on muscle cells, then what ARE you stretching or attempting to stretch? The quick answer is connective tissue. This includes the joint capsule, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, 80% of nerves and the fascia which permeates muscle tissue. Connective tissue basically consists of cells and fibers and even though it is extremely strong (for good reason), the stuff is dynamic and very adaptable over time. This is the STUFF we can manipulate.
If you were able to do the splits or easily sit cross-legged when you were young and have lost those abilities throughout adulthood, it is your connective tissue which is most often at fault (not always as I'll describe further down). Connective tissue can become thickened, disorganized, fibrotic, nutrient deficient and even dead. So it's not really your muscles that are restricting your range of motion; rather, it's the connective tissue surrounding your muscles and connecting your muscles to other structures that are unhealthy and limiting your movement.
Anything we do to our bodies on a physical level (stretching, moving, strength training) are all attempts to do two things: A) Induce a specific neurological response and B) Create changes or adaptations in our tissues. On a slightly more scientific level, the goal should be to induce activity in our cells and provide enough stimulus so that they know how to respond. The study of cells - cell histology - tells us that cells (specifically connective tissue cells) respond to force, time and direction. “Force application leads to physical distortion which leads to various responses: Growth, differentiation, polarity, motility, contractility, cell death, etc.” Ingber (1993); Wang et al. (1997); Janmey (1998). In simple terms, however we want connective tissue to grow, remodel or realign, we can make that happen by imparting specific forces.
So if you have a joint capsule, tendon or even some scar tissue that has become thickened and rigid over time, it is 100% possible to remodel that tissue so that it looks and functions like normal healthy tissue again. As I stated above, the key is to determine how to communicate with that tissue and then apply very specific demands and loads on it. The tissue won't have a choice but to adapt. Cells don't have brains; they just respond. And they respond best to internally generated forces such as isometric contractions done at a fairly high intensity for a sustained period of time, repeatedly. In terms of stretching, research has shown that stretches held anything under two minutes do not induce the type of cellular activity we want. So it's not that stretching is the bad guy - you will certainly gain a response after the two minute mark - it's just not the most efficient way to get the job done.
There IS one other underlying reason for feeling increased tension. In addition to unhealthy connective tissues, neurological tightness is another mechanism through which your brain attempts to protect you from going into ranges of motion it perceives you cannot control. Your joints are the FIRST parts of your anatomy to perceive motion and the primary way that your brain receives information about your movement.
IMPORTANT STUFF: If the quality of a single joint is poor, then your brain will receive very little information about where that joint is in space, the direction the joint is moving in, the speed with which it is moving, and so forth. In fact, the joint might be so unhealthy that it doesn't receive much information at all. This is bad because when this happens, the nervous system gets thrown off and increases activity BEFORE your true end range of motion resulting in a heightening of the neurological signals through your muscles. Therefore, it's not really the muscle fibers fault...on the contrary, it is the adjacent joint which is the source of dysfunction.
The primary reason joints become unhealthy is from a lack of movement. Not exposing them to all possible ranges of motion on a daily basis results in stiffer connective tissues (aka more fibrotic and more disorganized) and certain types of nerve endings never getting their light switch turned on. Mechanoreceptors reside inside of your connective tissues and send information to your brain about the quality of your joints. If you sit in mostly the same positions every day, engage in the same types of activity every day and never challenge your joint ranges of motion, then it's very likely that a certain of your mechanoreceptors are inactive. *If you would like to read up on this topic further, feel free to reach out and I'll send you a great resource.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: The acronym CARs stands for controlled articular rotations and refers to active and controlled rotational movement at the outer limits of your joint ranges of motion. Although at first glance these might look like glorified shoulder circles, me and my team can assure you they are not. Performing them requires focus, intention and can actually be quite taxing when done correctly. There are different levels of intensity with which you can perform CARs - from very light to very intense. For example, when I'm instructing a patient in CARs and I want them to do them with moderate intensity, I'll tell them to imagine the air is 30% thicker than what it actually is.PURPOSE OF CARS:
- Stimulate the mechanoreceptors I referred to above,
- Help to prevent maturation of fibrotic tissues
- Instigates the desired cellular activity to remodel the surrounding connective tissue.
- Provides oxygen and nutrients to your joint cartilage delaying and even preventing the onset of osteoarthritis.
- An added benefit that might take some time to appreciate is that you will learn to assess the quality of your own joints every time you do CARs providing you feedback and helping to define where you might need to place more focus and attention.
Check out our Total Body CARs routine that we recommend everyone complete daily. Even if you're not injured or in pain and even if you think you have good mobility, incorporating these into your day is invaluable. Personally, I do these every day as I get warmed up for my workout session; I think of them as joint preparation. If you ARE in pain and rehabbing from an injury, these are still safe to do and actually, they are CRITICAL to your healing. Just avoid painful ranges of motion.
Hopefully you've gained a little better understanding of the science behind stretching, muscle tension and tightness and how vital it is that your joint health becomes your priority. If you have any lingering questions, don't hesitate to ask in the thread. Let's keep the dialogue going.