I know what it’s like; I’ve been there before and experienced very little in terms of results. Those that I did get were short-lived and I’m in the health and fitness industry. It’s my job; I should know how to do this. So, why wasn’t I getting better? Why was I still only cycling through periods of tightness, chronic pain, laboured movement, and, on occasion, debilitating pain? You know, the kind that had me crawling on the floor & using furniture just to stand.
Why wasn’t all that stretching helping? It made me feel pretty shitty. Was there something wrong with me or was I just crap at my work?
I had been seen by various specialists over the years, but they had all been pain management at best. They were keeping the issue at bay without ever getting to the source of the problem. Instead of finding the cause, they were treating symptoms, which, to be fair to those specialists, is the dominant way of thinking in this part of the world. It was what they were trained to do. I was doing the very same thing. In a nutshell, a lot of what I had learned was wrong; or, more accurately, I was looking at a very small, isolated part and missing much more of the picture. I expect there is still even more of this picture to come as I keep learning & expanding my understanding.
“So, what changed, Gareth, and is there actually anything useful in this blog?” Well, I am so glad you asked. I shall give you a whole new paragraph for that.
A few years ago, I started to learn about the neurological aspects of how the body works, the relationship between the brain & body. Don’t worry, I won’t go all science crazy and chuck a load of unnecessary long words at you. Whatever is happening in the body, the brain is telling it to do that, or not to do that. There is always a reason the brain is doing this. When I figured this out, the proverbial “can of worms” opened; my curiosity had been sparked. I stumbled across the AMN academy on my new mission to find answers. They changed everything for me. So, big love to those guys. The results have been pouring in faster than I could have imagined, and not just for me, but my clients as well.
Now that I have given the academy their well-deserved props, I can get back to this brain stuff. The brain operates on an input and communication basis; it is in a constant, simultaneous state of receiving and sending information. Input dictates output (there are some things that can disrupt communication in either direction, but that’s a topic for another day). The constant flow and utilisation of information is very energy costly, so the brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy. It does this by adapting and minimising the use of resources that are not needed for a task. That can come at a price though. The less something is used, over time, the less efficient it becomes at being used. So, let’s put a bit of context to this. Because it’s something we all do, often far too much, I’ll use the example of sitting. The more time you spend seated, the more your brain will adapt your body to take the energy cost of sitting down, uh…down. Some muscles shorten and tighten, while other muscles lengthen, relax and start to switch off, to some degree. All in the name of making you efficient at sitting. Your brain will create a picture of what each muscle’s role is and what they will be expected to do in that scenario. That picture removes any computational load on the brain, as it already knows how to do it; it has a picture, it has learned. This is how a habit is formed. Now, this counts for everything you do: your brain learns, adapts, and looks to save energy. With all that in mind, we can now move on and learn how to deal with such physical issues. You must be ready for a new paragraph; I know I am.
I have rambled on quite a bit; so, let’s get down to the useful stuff: why all the stretching was rubbish and what can be done. I have no problem with stretching; in fact, I think it is amazing and very important. The problem that I faced was that the methods I was using, did not address how the brain learns, adapts, and saves energy. People stretch to get rid of tightness or increase range; that’s usually the aim anyway. For a little bit of time, that stretch may have eked a bit of extra length out of a muscle, but then what? What about the brain’s picture of what it can do with that muscle? Has stretching changed all of that?
Well, not really. All stretching will do, on its own, is maybe, improve your ability to stretch, not your ability to actually move. For that picture to change the brain needs something new to learn, thus giving it the context to create a new picture. This is where novel movement comes in; the brain goes mad for it. Not literally, mind you. That’s not what I mean. When the brain has something new to learn, it lights up and starts creating new pathways. It changes the picture. It does require repetition, though, as well as added effort and attention. You can’t just do it once and expect your brain not to revert to the old way; it’s energy saving, remember? Now, I’m sure you fine readers have already worked out that the novel movement should be relevant to the area you’re trying to improve and not a movement for a completely different limb. I’ll say this anyway, just in case someone slipped through the net; it does have to be relevant. The short version is stretch, then use that newly gained length in a novel movement/ exercise to create a new improved picture. Repeat.
I suppose I had better do a section on complex novel movement for you. The more complex a movement is, the more the brain will light up. By complex I mean something that changes direction & levels. Martial arts, dance and gymnastic type moves are all excellent examples of complex movement. There is also a whole culture around movement gaining popularity with people like Ido portal leading the charge. Now I’m not suggesting you take up a martial art or start trying to bust out cartwheels in the gym, particularly if you haven’t been doing much movement recently. You can take small elements from any of those complex things, tailor it to your ability. If it is totally new to you then adding a more linear movement that you are unused to is good enough, then build from there as your movement capacity increases. The important thing is it's something that your brain has yet to turn into a habit.
I want to share with all you kiddywinks a simple tip on stretching for flexibility and movement that I use all the time. There’s all sorts of neurological stuff going on that makes this method more effective than basic, static stretching. It’s something known as “contract relax stretching.” I’m going to assume that you have some knowledge of stretching, some that you have at least tried. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have at least a passing interest in moving better. So, start with stretches you know. Once you are in the position for whatever stretch you are doing, find the end range; that point where you can feel the stretch can't go any further without forcing it. Make sure you maintain that position until you’re finished with this stretch technique. Start to contract the muscle you are targeting, but not super hard; try 50% effort. Do that for 5 seconds, then relax the contraction but maintain the position, breathe out and try to increase the stretch if you can. If you can’t then just hold the position. Do whatever your muscles will let you do. Over time your body will get better at stretching. Repeat that process four times in total, four contractions of five seconds per stretch. That’s it! Move on to the next stretch.
Before I finish up, I just wanted to add a bit of a disclaimer and give a small bit of safety advice. First, I’m not claiming that stretching will “magic your woes away.” I don’t know your issues without seeing you. So, this is very general advice to help people in stretching with a purpose. Second, when you do use stretching like this, it’s important that you don’t go hammering it to the point of exhaustion with exercise afterwards; you know, lifting super heavy weights and that sort of thing. Coaxing is much more effective and safer than forcing.
Lastly, try new things. Play and try not to ruin yourself. That’s actually a pretty good life mantra.
Big punkass love