It’s very common in the training industry to hear that if we’re missing range of motion that the solution is we need to stretch our muscles. While it’s true that stretching and improved flexibility has enormous benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike, often the key to gaining more range of motion isn’t through stretching.
It used to be thought that muscles were in charge of holding our posture and joints in place. But research is starting to show that fascia and joint positions are having a greater influence on how we hold ourselves and how well we move. It may surprise you to learn that muscles are essentially mindlessly responding to joint positions. If we move a joint too far away from a neutral position, it’s the muscles’ job to return them back towards neutral. This avoids us from dislocating our joints and being completely out of control when we move.
When we think of muscles and joints this way it’s no wonder that muscles are feeling tight or weak or fascia is tender to the touch. Muscles are doing their job keeping us from constantly dislocating our joints. If your natural resting position or posture is a little (or a lot) away from neutral, then the muscles are forever firing to keep you from moving your joints too far from their neutral position. Similarly, a weak muscle may be weak because you sit so far in the opposite end of the range of motion of that joint that it essentially never is required to fire to move in the direction where it needs to contract.
So now when we think about stretching and range of motion, if we think more about introducing missing range of motion to joints and give those muscles not choice but to contract, or even better, to relax for the first time, the nervous system feels safe enough to relax those tight muscles and create more flexibility.
As a trainer, my preference over static stretching of muscles that are desperately trying to keep your joints in a safe range, is to instead restore range of motion to allow synergistic and agonistic muscle pairs to relax or contract when needed. Stretching muscles statically is losing favour in the training industry instead being replaced by both dynamic stretching, where you take a joint through a movement that mimics the full range of motion required and restoring range of motion so efficient movement can replace stretching muscles that are just doing their best to keep you safe. Try putting more focus on making sure joints can fully open and close, that there is equal amounts of movement on the left and the right, up and down, side to side. Allow your muscles to be able to both relax and fire.