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Functional Stretching

Functional flexibility

Saul Yudelowitz BSc (Hons)

Like most human patterns, stretching typically fall into one of two groups in the manner that it is undertaken. Some people donít stretch at all or very little relative to how much they exercise while others tend to stretch a lot. There are many papers out on the different effects that stretching has on the system however not a great deal of agreement bar one point. The vast majority of all musculoskeletal therapists (a therapist that works in a manual way without the use of prescribed medicine to heal the body) agree that stretching is essential for flexibility.

Most of us agree that stretching requires at least two points. We are warm and relaxed muscles. I would agree that both these points are essential for effective stretching. This leads to a point of how muscles contract. Most of us understand that muscles shorten when they contract called a concentric contraction (CC) however there are other ways that muscles contract. Most of us understand that you can put a heavier weight down onto the floor that you can lift. This is called an eccentric contraction (EC). In the EC the muscle while contracting is getting longer and not shorter. During EC a muscle generates as much as 40% more force than during a CC. As a musculoskeletal specialist who has worked with some of the top athletes in the world from different sports I can tell you that muscle injury and post exercise soreness are commonly associated with EC. This is my understanding on the situation.

EC can be as high as 40% more than CC; this is necessary for two main reasons. First the body is designed for survival and so if we were to move our joints through a range of movement (ROM) and had a poor method of slowing down the movement this would ultimately lead to the destruction of our joints rather quickly. A good analogy is opening a car door. If you were to fling the car door open as hard and as fast as you could so that the hinge of the door would be the mechanical brake that stops the movement at the end of the ROM, it would not take long before the hinge of the door wore out.

The second reason for this is what I call the cornstarch experiment. Food scientists have long known the two opposite properties of cornstarch when mixed with water. Cornstarch mixed with the correct amount of water will behave in the following manner

It will behave as a liquid, taking the shape of the object that contains it just like water but with a different viscosity.

When this cornstarch and water mixture is compressed, it will behave as a solid. So if were to run over this very quickly you would not sink.

Our cells behave in a very similar manner to this. When they are uncompressed they have a similar ability to change shape however not as easily as the cornstarch but when compressed they become solid to a certain point. If the threshold of this point is exceeded then yes of course the cells rapture and die. All this is relative to the second point of EC. We have known for a long time about the visco-elastic properties of the musculoskeletal system. In professional sport athletes are taught how to first lengthen the muscle or contract the muscle eccentrically before the CC. Throwing a ball is a good example. If we hold a ball in the dominant throwing arm and initially move the arm backward before forward then you will throw the ball further had you just moved the arm forward.

The second reason is, to generate high force you first need to EC muscle before you CC the muscle, all pro athletes know this. Hamstring and groin strains are very common in professional football (soccer). I have worked with English Premiership, German Bundesliga and other European football players. It is very common to see a significant difference in strength between the extensors and flexors. Many players work on kicking the ball but not the muscles that slows this movement down and hence players have ongoing issues that donít get resolved. Steven Gerrard who has played for Liverpool for some time now is reportedly suffering an ongoing issue similar to this.

I know that this article has begun to become technical however I am doing my best to keep it simple, if you just bear with me a little longer. My best way to explain functional stretching to my patients is to ask them how they stretch out their muscles. Lets use the Gastrocnemius muscles (Calf). Most patients will just show me different variations of an EC. Per example, resting the ball of the foot on a step and lowering the heel towards the floor, or leaning the arms up against a wall while moving one foot backwards keeping the heel on the floor. The list is endless and dysfunctional, I assure you.

Below I will discuss how to stretch out the Gastrocnemius muscle. As always we need to look at the body from a holistic point and so just making a muscle longer with out considering how the new length will affect the joints is unacceptable and ultimately leads to injury. I have done research on this stretch and the results were statistically significant in showing that the commonly used stretch off a step to stretch out the Calf muscle was ineffective when compared to the stretch below. Most people over evert the foot or over pronate, as it is more commonly known. So when stretching the Gastsocnemius we should also stretch out the Peroneals, which are the main everters of the foot. To do this you would need a foam roller; the EVA foam roller is the best choice due to its firmness. Cut out a 45-degree wedge into the roller. The wedge should only be as deep as half the diameter of the roller. Now place the roller against an object so that it does not move around during the stretch. Place one foot in the cut out wedge so that the following occurs

The foot should be in a position so that more weight is bearing on the outside of the foot and

The heel must remain on the floor

These two points must be maintained at all times during the stretch. Keeping the leg straight slowly take to opposite foot off the floor. The aim here is to have a straight line connecting your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle. Now maintaining this position, slowly rotate your body to the left or the right. The goal here is to rotate to the side that moves the stretch from behind the leg towards the outside of the leg. Medically we would report that the lateral Gastrocnemius and the Peroneals are being stretched. Hold this stretch for 2 minutes. Now take you foot out of the roller and walk. You will feel a significant difference between the left and the right foot as well as the way in which the foot makes contact with the floor. It is also worth noting that the Achilles tendon rotates through 90 degrees to the lateral before inserting into the heel bone. Typical methods of stretching that are used in clinics untwist the tendon which if chronically maintained leads to tendon problems like, Achilles Tendinopathy. Another interesting point is that the line of pull from a muscle is never in straight line. Stretching in straight lines is pointless.

You see stretching done correctly will have an effect on the biomechanics and the kinesis of the joints due to the change in length of the muscle. Please not that I would recommend doing this stretch with an experienced musculoskeletal therapist; you could book in to see me or purchase the DVD on functional stretches and exercises.

The information contained in this article was prepared from medical and scientific sources, which are referenced and are believed to be accurate and reliable. The information herein should not be used to treat or to prevent any medical condition unless it is used with the full knowledge, compliance and agreement of your personal physician or other licensed health care professional. Readers are strongly advised to seek the advice of their personal health care professional(s) before proceeding with any changes in any health care program.

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