The first part of this quasi-series began by glossing over the broad strokes that a holistic approach would partake with regards to enhancing performance.
To dial in towards a specific topic that I have an interest in, I’d like to outline my own thought process towards achieving more range of motion and ultimately a “problem” and “solution” towards why you may feel tight.
The Nervous System and Muscular “Tightness”
How can you measure your nervous system’s “goop”?
Is the autonomic nervous system (ANS) some goop found in your brain that regulates functions on a reflexive level?
Luckily for us, there are different ways to indirectly measure the state of our nervous system, mainly coming down to Heart Rate Variability, which can reflect various biological markers such as recovery of heart rate and heart rate recovery, along with different postural assessments that can reflect a snapshot of your nervous system in a physical form.
Specifically for athletes, dancers, and regular gym goers alike, the nervous system can be modified either positively or negatively, with regards to enhancing performance.
Por ejemplo, if you travel all day and then go off to perform for an hour or two, then travel back that same day, I’d argue that would be a negative stimulus to your body. On the opposite hand, if you sleep for 10+ hours, eat well, and get plenty of hydration, and then do some dynamic warm-up exercises, that could be a positive stimulus to making you perform better and ultimately feeling better.
So enhancing performance can subdivide into several groups of qualities: improving power, strength, speed, along with acquiring a greater range of motion with the desired effect of improving performance (with the opposite restricting movement). Range of motion at least in my eyes, is referring to both the active and passive ranges about a joint’s movement pattern (take hip internal rotation as you descend into a squatting motion, for example).
So, where am I going with all of this?
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be going through the mechanisms and solutions to muscular “tightness” and range of motion.
Mechanisms for Subjective Feelings of “Tightness”
Both the nervous system and muscular system have influences on why you may be experiencing limited ranges of motion about a joint. To digress to a specific example, with the dancing community, the hip and achieving a split (or the abduction of the femurs) seems to be the standard, yet many do not go about it in the safest and most efficient manner possible.
So, there are a few potential reasons why you may feel tight:
- Acute activity (Which can be explained via tone of the nervous system)
- Quality of Muscle (Short vs Stiff)
To elaborate further, the time after an acute activity will exhibit a specific tonicity, or passive muscular tension, after the [offending] activity is performed. For example, if you go running, you might feel tight in your calves and hamstrings, depending on your stride of course. Or, if you like to dance, you might do something more along the lines of this:
These movements can bring about tightness in varying parts of the body.
In this dancer’s case, there may be feelings of tightness in the neck (with rotation and flexion), shoulders (with internal rotation and adduction), and the inside of the hips (or adductor tightness).
With regards to dancing, crashing your body and spinning sends a signal to your brain to “protect” and prevent this motion from overreaching and causing any severe damage. So, the next time your body is more prepared to handle the forces that the body is experiencing when you dance (or lift, or sprint, or etc…).
If there were a continuum to explain this better, it would look something like this:
Parasympathetic < ————————————————-> Sympathetic
Well, if you continue to dance (or run, lift, sprint, play hockey/baseball/insert sport), and continue to crash your body into the ground, and continue to push the limits of what the human body can handle (let’s be honest, we are dancing and rivaling what gymnasts are doing), where do you think the body will end up from a nervous system point of view? Where will this activity drive the state of your nervous system?
It is my belief that the body will experience a surge of sympathetic related feedback – increase in all stress related hormones to reduce the “pains” of dancing, increase in postural demands that the body can experience, increase in respiratory rates, which can lead to increased heart rate, and so on and so forth. Long story short, it isn’t the best thing to always be in such a sympathetically driven state. You need to chill, bro.
The solution that I have been taking to shift myself and the dancers I work with is multi-faceted, and one aspect involves providing a positive stimulus that will reduce the sympathetic tone that the body has presented. This will ultimately guide your nervous system to relax.
- Perhaps providing slight tension on a muscle bed will help to calm any muscular tension that you may be experiencing.
- Or perhaps trying any of these breathing exercises that you might have read me write about very recently will help to effectively shift you out of a sympathetic state into a parasympathetic state.
- Or even more extrapolated, perhaps a nice long walk on the beach will provide a better parasympathetic stimulus to your body, enough for you to relax and feel less tense!
Interestingly enough, these things can help reduce tension systemically, albeit temporarily.
Muscular Tightness: Short vs Stiff
With regards to muscular tightness, there are two avenues available:
Overcoming stiffness in a muscle can be demonstrated by adding an external load during a movement pattern in which the muscle is being tested.
One example that has been used in the past is adding a weight to a squatting pattern to differentiate between stiffness and shortness in the hip flexors. Stiffness will allow the femurs to reach a lower level than before, due to the force transfer of the hip flexors acting on the femurs.
So how would you know if you have shortness in your muscle quality or not?
Difficult question for sure – that is, unless you get assessed by an experienced therapist, coach, or trainer.
But at the end of the day, many people will present in several common areas that are often presented as tight, but no one really addresses this issue. Generally, everyone knows stretches for their hamstrings, quads, and maybe arm stretches. Unfortunately for these individuals, there are more muscles that can present as “short” that would require varying stretches to “hit” these “tight muscles”.
On the opposite hand, the posterior muscles of the hip (glutes), along with the latissimus dorsi are neglected muscle groups that don’t get the attention that they deserve.
…To take that next step, what if your lat dominance is causing you to have tight hips or anterior pelvic tilt?
I know, my brain asploded the first time this was postulated to me as well.
In any case, it is my belief that stretching should be the last thing almost anyone should do – that is, if you haven’t taken care of the quality of your nervous system, or the quality of your muscle tissue (before you go on stretching it).
Why is that?
Well, stretching is the devil.
All joking aside, stretching has a few caveats that should be taken into consideration before doing it:
Stretching has been known to have acute negative changes in force production if done prior to exercise or activity.
How? It provides an inhibitory (or reduction-like) affect to the muscle bed at hand.
So if you stretch your hamstrings and adductors before you start doing flares and windmills, you are being counterproductive towards your efforts – you are in fact, making yourself less powerful for your power moves. How is that for counter-intuitive?
So Where Does This Leave Us?
I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t leave you with an action plan, now would I?
Well, luckily for you, I do have one.
But there’s a catch – I’ll outline the general ideas, but the specific steps will be outlined in my upcoming e-book (which will be free mind you), Unlocking Rotational Power.
So, these steps involve:
- Assessing for Postural Demands
- Exercises to Reduce Sympathetic Tone (Purposeful Breathing Exercises)
- Exercises to Reduce Muscular Tone (Foam Rolling and Self-Myofascial Release)
- Inhibition Exercises (Stretches)
- Stability Exercises (To reinforce any joints that need subsequent stability due to the inhibitory drive from all of the above exercises)
The fifth point is one that is something you might see other trainers and coaches write about – in which performing a stability exercise will provide enough of a stimulus in order to override any lack of stability, along with a subsequent increase in range of motion about the joint’s movement pattern. (For example, Dean Somerset comes to mind with his side plank to improve hip internal range of motion “party trick”.)
In any case, this is a lot to digest, so I’m going to open up the comments section if you or anyone has any questions regarding the subject matter above.
Keep it funky.