fig ia. stretching-silhouette3
The question that I’m faced with on a daily basis from clients is “what do I need to do in order to achieve my goal of fixing a physical problem?”
Many of the problems that I help people deal with are related to a desire to perform physical movements that are, at that point in time, beyond their physiological limits.
This is especially true of the CrossFit community, who inevitably wind up with niggles or minor injuries that impact their training. A frustrating prospect for any CrossFitter.
This sport requires strength, flexibility and aerobic endurance in equal doses, however the foundations for these attributes are less apparent. These include symmetry, posture, control, stability, proprioception and breathing, to name a few. If the above foundational attributes cannot meet the demands of the sport for a person, inevitably, problems will occur.
The tricky thing is that we only have a finite amount of time to work on accessory skills such as flexibility, balance, core stability and control.
So how can we fast-track the process of identifying the main contributing factors, deal with them and prevent them from coming back?
While there are many approaches that eventually need to be incorporated, in my opinion the single best way to start is to learn how to stretch. And I don’t mean putting your foot up on a bench and leaning forward for 15 seconds… I mean seriously stretch.
An effective stretch can and will have an immediate impact on how our brain perceives the area that we targeted. Often, tension in a muscle or joint region is simply the product of our brain’s perception of what is happening rather than what is actually happening.*
Our brain doesn’t hold grudges, it often just plays tricks on us. So we are capable of making rapid change to an area as long as it receives the right level of input in order to safely make that change. The more specific and direct this is, the better the outcome.
In the beginning, I’d advise stretching whilst in complete control of the movement. Even under considerable load and with moderate discomfort, if your brain’s perception of the stretch position is one of confidence and safety, then the body will move into new range that is often unexpected.
I like to call these ‘breakthrough’ stretches.
Many of the stretches that I personally favour involve the application of force to achieve a deeper stretch position, to which a person will contract maximally against, as they further explore their range of motion. What happens is a neurological ‘re-mapping’ in the regions of the brain controlling the stretched/contracted tissues, which usually renders the muscle more neurologically active and therefore better able to recruit the individual motor units.**
This often is the difference between unsuccessfully trying to do a pull up and successfully reaching your sternum to the bar.
The experience of an effective stretch is also important. It can help identify and piece together imbalances, pinpoint areas of tightness, uncover strength issues through the full range of motion and highlight problems with motor sequencing. A great stretch will feel immediately different, bringing greater awareness and understanding to how ones body is moving within the context of its physiological limits.
*less commonly, in some situations there is actually a problem that needs to be looked at more closely, in which case it’ll need an expert opinion. Listen to your body.
**this ‘re-mapping’ can temporarily cause an inhibition of the stretched region, but it usually recovers within minutes to hours, depending on the intensity of the stretch. Interestingly, this inhibition can be used to ones advantage, especially when looking at the opposite acting muscle group. Take the hip flexors for example, a strong stretch may inhibit these allowing the opposing gluteal muscles to be more active!