Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Flexibility Is Driven By The Nervous System

Flexibility is a common concern for the health-conscious population. Right or wrong, stretching a tight muscle is often a main focus. However, what causes a lack of flexibility? How does that lengthening and shortening of muscular tissue work?

Well, you may be surprised to know that a lack of flexibility is not a structural issue. Often, we think of tissue like an elastic band. It seems like a good metaphor, as we'd like to stretch out that band enough to a point that it remains lengthened.

How we visualize muscle on stretch.
HOWEVER, the reality is that flexibility is, in fact, a neural mechanism, not a structural one. Just like the shortening of fibers occurs when you contract a muscle, the nervous system initiates similar contractions in response to stretch. (It's this response that we condition or decondition by lifestyle, rehab, or training.)

In other words, when you try to reach for your toes, your hamstrings experience a reflex that cause a contraction against the stretch.

You can't think of muscle shortening or lengthening like an elastic band. You have to think of it like a second person pulling back on a rope when you try to pull it in another direction.

What's really happening.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. If you've ever pulled a muscle in your back or slept funny and have a kink in your neck, you can feel the sudden lack of flexibility in the area. Your muscle tissue didn't just magically and suddenly decrease in length (which would mean decreasing in size) in that time. Rather, the muscle is contracted and guarded.

This being said, getting muscle to lengthen and remain like that is not as easy as simple as performing prolonged stretching. If inflexibility is a nervous system reflex in response to stretch, that reflex needs to be trained out. Whether that be teaching the muscle to relax under tension, addressing a reason for excessive muscle guarding, or some other type of conditioning, it always comes back to making the nervous system happy and willing to let go.

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