With stretching being the rage these days, we should probably know the difference between muscle pliability or flexibility. There are companies like Stretch Zone and Stretch Lab, and it seems that every massage therapy store now has a stretching therapist. With all this stretching going on, why aren’t more people living without chronic aches and pains? The most important thing I have learned in my career about muscles is muscle pliability is more important than just flexibility. I know that may seem like an odd thing to say as I am known for stretching, but flexibility is to improve muscle length whereas pliability is to improve softness and length. What is the difference and why should that matter to you?
Stretching, As We know It
We have all done stretching since grammar school. Remember, our gym teachers would make us sit on the ground or the gym floor and make us pull our legs and arms in different directions? Most of the time it was painful and didn’t really make a lot of sense as to why we were doing it in the first place. All we wanted to do was to go run, jump and have fun.
If you played high school sports, stretching was always at the beginning and end of practice. My coach used to say it was to warm us up before we started to play our sport and then cool us down afterward. Most of my coaches were really out of shape and I doubt they could have bent over to tie their shoes. Wait, maybe that is why their shoes were never tied! I just thought about that! Anyway, very little was ever said about the fact that it could make us better athletes or prevent injuries. It was an afterthought, mostly.
Stretching, as we’ve known it, is about pulling our muscles to lengthen them. I have heard therapists say, “the longer you hold and the harder you pull, the better.” That is a bad idea, especially when you are dealing with an injury. I have watched so many college and professional athletes stretching on the field following the same advice. So, if this is so wrong, why are so many therapists and trainers still following this advice?
The belief is, we must force our muscles to lengthen as the muscle may choose to shorten due to fatigue. I know you have heard of muscle memory, right? It is described as the muscle remembering a specific move or motion on its own. Think about it for a moment. If the muscle had a memory, wouldn’t that require a brain in each muscle? Going a step further, then the muscle could decide on its own to do whatever it wanted. If that were true, imagine standing on a street corner, the light turns green, and the right leg decides to go right, and the left leg decides to go straight. I think you would be in a pickle, correct? Obviously, that does not happen, thank goodness. Muscle memory is actually a neural pathway in the brain that can recall which muscles are needed for a specific task. The muscles are just reactive.
When doing traditional stretching, the longer you hold and the harder you pull causes the brain to react in the same manner as when you are lifting weights or carrying something heavy. The reason you cannot improve your flexibility with traditional stretching is, the brain thinks you are attacking your body with forced pressure. Therefore, the brain goes into the “fight or flight mode’ and contracts the muscles. The other problem with traditional stretching is we incorporate too many muscles at one time so the brain doesn’t know which muscle to release.
When you watch someone who is very good at yoga, their movement seems effortless. Why? In yoga, the mind/body connection is about allowing the brain to release the muscles. Even though it may look like it should be very painful, the yoga expert is sitting there with no pain at all. The mistake most people make in practicing yoga is, bringing a traditional stretching mindset into the yoga practice. It isn’t about the pose–it is about the releasing of the muscles to allow the pose. Too many times stretching has become a competition as we are looking for the “wow” when someone can do an unusual pose. That is a bad mindset to have.
Why Is Pliability So Important?
Muscle pliability, on the other hand, is more about the muscles being soft and lengthened, which will allow the body to take the impact of a fall, accident, or just daily use of the body without an injury or damage. It is true there may be stretching moves being done, but it is more important that the brain be connected to the movement. Every movement you make in your life will cause the muscles to become hard and tender. This is caused by the muscle-burning Adenosine-Triphosphate (ATP) and leaving Lactic acid waste in the muscle fiber. This Lactic acid waste will cause the muscle to become less pliable and more tender, regardless of your age. What we deem age-related, in many cases, is more about less pliability in your body.
I once had a client with back pain and he just couldn’t understand why his back hurt. He was in the gym three times a week, practiced yoga daily, and ate healthily. Yet, every day he woke up with a stiff low back. When I interviewed him, he couldn’t wait to show me how easily he could bend down to touch his toes. He could place the palms of his hands on the floor without bending his knees. He told me that when he was lifting weights or practicing yoga, his back felt fine. When he got into his car and drove home, his back would start hurting again. His question was, “should I replace my car?”
You can imagine how surprised he was when I showed him how tight his muscles were and that the short muscles on the front side of his body were causing the back pain. From his point of view, he was stretching his back by bending down. He said his PT told him that was great for the back. The problem was he was trying to stretch the wrong muscles and the need to be the best at it caused him to apply too much pressure and force, which resulted in more tightening.
How Do I Gain More Muscle Pliability?
Pliability can be improved at any age. Once you understand the brain’s role, there is a two-step process that will improve your pliability and help prevent future injuries and damage. As Tom Brady would say, “Think of it as Pre-Hab.”
Releasing the muscles so they can become soft and pliable begins with self-massage. Don’t make the mistake of rubbing your body like you see many massage therapists do. That is a different thing altogether. When doing self-massage, it is like testing your body one spot at a time. If you are working on your forearm or thigh, press one spot at a time and see if there is any pain or tenderness there. If you feel none, press a little harder. If there is still none, move on to the next spot. If you do feel some pain or tenderness, stay there, maintain the pressure from your finger, breathe out, and let the muscle relax. Once the pain dissipates, move on to the next spot.
Pushing hard like in deep tissue massage is not a great idea. First you may bruise yourself, which is not good, and you will cause more lactic acid as the brain will fight against the pain. You can do this type of self-massage on all parts of your body. Your body is seventy percent water and should be soft, no matter how strong you are. This is true for men and women.
The second step is to stretch gently as I have taught you in my clinic. Stretching is not about forcing the muscle to lengthen, it is about allowing the muscle to relax with a little pressure as you breathe out and let go. You hold the stretch for five seconds to prevent the stretch reflex from happening and repeat the stretch ten times to teach the brain the movement is safe. The stretch reflex is built-in to your nervous system to automatically react if someone pulls your arm or leg too hard. This reflex can prevent a broken arm or leg.
The last step is understanding the brain’s role in making your body more pliable. The brain must feel safe in any movement you do or it will tighten the muscles, preparing for danger. You cannot make your body more pliable without thinking about what you are doing. When doing a self-massage or stretching your body, your thoughts must be about what you are feeling and not how far you move. Many times, when I am working on my body, I close my eyes to prevent myself from looking at how far I move, which creates judgment on oneself and focus on just feeling the release at the place I am supposed to feel it.
Listening to loud music, thinking about your scheduled appointments, or just not focusing on what you are doing will affect how pliable you become. This is time invested in yourself and your future health. How you age is up to you. You will have accidents and how your body reacts to them will determine your future health. We are all where we are by the choices we have made in the past and that relates to everything in our lives.
Tips to Improve Your Stretching
All you need is a yoga strap and a tennis ball for the tennis ball massage. Give yourself about 15 minutes twice a day and you should see better results within 2 weeks. This, though, is a lifetime event. Think of your pet. they stretch every day and several times a day. Stretch when they stretch. Follow the videos below and free your knees. In my opinion, the calf stretch is the most important stretch a human can do. It will solve many issues of the body.
Stretching is more about feeling the muscles letting go than forcing them to stretch. If you are forcing the muscle, you could be doing strength training, not stretching. Make sure you are feeling the intended muscle stretching. If not, the form could be wrong. Holding for 5 seconds allows the brain to release the muscle before it senses any danger. Repeating the stretches 10 times allows the brain to learn it is safe for the muscle to move that way.
Don’t forget the Tennis Ball Massage!
Softening your hips and back is easy when you use the tennis ball. Just lean against the wall and apply enough pressure to feel the painful area. The temptation is to press harder but resist it. Instead, breathe out and allow the muscle to soften under the ball. Then move to another spot and repeat. Continue doing this until most of the painful spots are gone. Check out previous newsletters to see the video.
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About The Muscle Repair Shop
Drawing upon his personal experience as a former competitive athlete turned wheelchair, obese, and chronic pain sufferer, Muscle Repair Shop Founder Butch Phelps decided to take his health into his own hands when at the age of 36 he was told he might not make it to his 40th birthday. Applying balanced nutrition advice from his doctor along with a sound exercise program, he went from 315 lbs. to 180 lbs. Motivated by his experience, he then acquired degrees in advanced therapeutic massage and aging sciences to help people eliminate chronic pain. This included applying his expertise in how people age, including the effects of dementia, anatomy, psychology, and the day-to-day struggles living as an older person to his practice and development of The Muscle Repair Shop’s one-of-a-kind Stretch n’ Release Technique.
Available through in-office and virtual coaching treatment sessions, this unique combination of stretching and breath work teaches the brain to release the emotional side of muscle tension and pain allows clients to find lasting relief and healing from stiffness, aches, injuries, and chronic pain. The at-home exercises come with customized instructional videos and virtual or in-office support, allowing clients to enjoy and experience life and sports as they did before limitations slowed or curtailed activities.