Using the Force to Improve Flexibility
By Tina Jo Orban CMT, A.C.E / ISSA CFT
Our bodies as a species is on a very slow evolution of change— barely even palpable over millennia. Health and medicine for centuries creeps along likewise. Just think, as little as century ago bloodletting (a very unhealthy prescription) was a “cure” for many ailments. That went on for about 4,000 years. It has only recently been thoroughly discredited. And as little as 70 years ago menthol cigarettes were prescribed by doctors to improve one’s lung function! An interesting counter to all of this is our rapid advances in technology. Tech has been a boon to medicine and health. Subsequently, advances in anti-aging, medicine and sports medicine is rapidly improving and evolving. Techniques in improving sports performance are constantly being influenced by new research and new modes of application are corollary to the findings. For example, look at all the advances in understanding of nutrition to improve performance. There are new and different ways of training, (such as the rise of HIIT and cross training). There are new analytical tools for sports specifics: GPS, HR monitors, accelerometers, bar velocity units, etcetera, measure physical performance. We analyze data and improve quickly. None of this existed just a century ago.
With the combination of nutrition, training, and technical tools, each new generation of athletes, it seems, up ante of the prior. As animals, we have been stretching in the same old ways since forever. Yes, Stretching has long been practiced by ancients such as Yogis. The practice of course had religious implications and is mentioned in the 5,000-year-old religious book the Rig Veda.
Indeed, Yoga incorporates a lot of isometric stretches. Broadly there are essentially three types of stretching: Static, (a held elongated position of the muscle) Dynamic, (alternating tension pulling and releasing the elongated position) and Assisted (a trainer or partner actively applies force to elongate the muscle). There has been a couple of “discoveries” or advances in stretching over the past few decades that has come about with research concerning neuromuscular physiology. Stretching used to be conceptualized previously as taking the tissue (scarred, injured, or even just hypertonic from excessive training or use) and restoring it to its longer previous length. But it turns out that the nervous system has a great deal more to do with flexibility than just the tissues length and limits.
This is why we have had a rise in the practice and application of Post-Isometric Relaxation (PIR), and PNF proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and Reciprocal Inhibition (RI) techniques. All of these have been great in helping improve an individual’s flexibility. PIR, what is it? It is an isometric contraction phase followed by gentle stretching of the same muscle. RI what is it? Reciprocal Inhibition uses an antagonist contractual phase followed by gentle stretch.
Aiming for the same results— the difference PIR uses same muscle contract/ relax-- whereas Reciprocal Inhibition (RI) muscle energy technique uses an antagonist muscle. The former is call autogenic inhibition. And it all is neurologically based to improve flexibility. This is due to sensors (Golgi Tendons Apparatus and Muscles Spindles) embedded in your tissue to protect from over stretching or rapid stretching. These techniques are used today and are very effective. I use them myself in my practice. That said, it seems we had a nothing new under the sun in stretching, until lately. Bob Cooley dubbed the Genius of Flexibility has discovered that actually constant resistance in eccentric and concentric phases of movement allows for true flexibility improvement. It is called RFST, or Resistance Flexibility Strength Training. I had to find out for myself, so I enrolled in a level one certification. You can only truly, learn their methods via certified Genius of Flexibility Practioners. Bob Cooley, (a very cool guy) is the founder of RFST training, and the schools are located in Santa Barbara California, (where I attended) and Boston. If you ever get the chance to go— is well worth the trip and money. Depending on your goals, Level 1 is pretty good enough to understand the basic technique in this newly discovered way to stretch and strengthen. It is kind of akin to the Cybex weighted pulley systems as far as constant tension goes. The goals different of course: to improve flexibility. The best way it can be described for the purposes of this article is say for example you were performing pec flys with 25 lb. dumbbells—and now imagine the weight stays at constant resistance at all points and rep after rep the elongation of your muscle is incrementally increased on the eccentric phase. The idea is to start in a stretch and measure your initial ROM. Then the practitioner (who is the force—(and yes, the technique has a bit of a metaphysical element to it—think Jedi) of resistance takes you through reps pushing and pulling against your force. The result elongation of the muscle. Better flexibility has shown to decrease injuries in sports training (and bodies in general). Flexibility comes in handy for all sorts of things (use your imagination here).
Viola! After the sets your ROM has increased! It does work. I did it myself. How long does it last? Well, like fitness— to have it—one must perpetually work on it. You only are as fit as your last work out! Conclusion, it appears there is something new under the sun when it comes to improving flexibility. May the FORCE be with you.