To Stretch – Part II

This is part two of an educational series about active and passive connective tissues and their ability to move: your flexibility. In Part

I we addressed WHY flexibility was important, and the two factors limiting your flexibility. Today we will address one of those limits in depth, how it occurs, why it occurs, and how to deal with it.

Neurological restriction is a term given to the amount of tension in the muscle that can be released reflexively and immediately. The way a muscle creates tension (in essence, shortens) is by a signal from your brain telling it to shorten or lengthen. This can be something controlled by the conscious mind or can be automatic like a reflex. When this tension limits your range of motion, it is termed neurological restriction.

“I’m so stiff from those squats on Friday.” Ever notice that after a good workout you feel stiff and maybe a bit sore? That is neurological tension and it is an example of your nervous system’s limit to your flexibility. In a workout your body creates a small amount of damage to the muscle tissue. In order to deal with this, your nervous system tightens down the surrounding muscles to aid the healing process and prevent further damage. This increase in tension “protects” the muscles, and as suchneurological tension can be termed protective tension.

The stiffness and soreness of your muscles after a workout is termed delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). However, DOMS is only one mechanism of protective tension. There are actually three methods to develop protective tension:

1) Protecting weakened muscles – Not only does the tension that occurs in the days following your workout protect your muscles, it can do so DURING a workout. Ever feel like you’re unable to squat any deeper and the coach is saying “ALL THE WAY DOWN”? That is because your muscles are tiring and neurological tension is stopping your range. At this point, you must rest the tired muscles, if even for a brief moment, and then return to the activity. Continuing exercise through a shorter range will not improve your strength through the full range.

2) Protecting damaged joints – Either when a joint is not sitting properly at the center of its axis of rotation, or part of the joint is injured, your body will tighten the muscles to limit joint range of motion. This is also termed “splinting”. This is less applicable to your daily training, but if you ever notice an injury to a joint, you will also notice the increase in tension of the muscles around the joint. Now you can be aware.

3) Protect nerve tissue – Nerves need to slide between muscles throughout a movement. Sometimes they can become adhered or scarred to the surrounding connective tissue and do not slide. As such, when the movement creates a pull on the nerve your muscles will contract to limit the movement and therefore limit the pull. If you continue to pull on the nerve it can result in neurological symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness, or sharp/burning pain. This can also be the cause of injuries like sciatica and carpal tunnel syndrome.

These are the ways that protective tension develops. Now you need to know how to deal with it on a daily basis.

1) Warm-ups are a way to reduce some of that neurological tension. Especially with day to day training, a warm-up is imperative to alleviate a lot of tension and soreness. By warming up you increase blood flow and reduce a small amount of the protective tension and your body is able to get into certain positions easier and without compensation. If the warm-up for your workout does NOT alleviate the tension, you either need another day to recover or you have more serious joint/nerve damage and should consult a professional.

2) You should not “get tight” in the middle of a workout. This is a serious warning sign that more serious damage is about to occur. If an area is tight during a workout, be sure to seek help from a professional. If you are a CrossFit Asheville member, this is a definite time to inform the coach of the situation and then set up a CFA Triage appointment with the Stay Active Clinic.

3) Decreases in ANY stress will decrease overall tension. If you’re not eating/sleeping/thinking well you will increase and prolong daily protective tension from training. This means you need to eat/sleep/think better.

4) Hold yourself to functional Range Of Motion standards. We, as coaches at CFA, spend much of our time ensuring you reach full ranges and you must do the same. Muscles only get strong through the range they are used. A more shallow squat does not strengthen that deeper squat.

5) Foam rolling, lacrosse ball work, and mobility drills (as done in many of our warm-ups) are excellent at reducing protective tension on a daily basis. Use these as tools for recovery. Basically, a tangential force (pushing into the muscle from outside) will cause a reflexive relaxation of that muscle… this is the function of the foam rollers and lacrosse balls. A relaxing spa massage will do the same thing, but that is far more expensive and difficult to fit into your schedule.

You will battle the first type of protective tension on a daily basis when training. This is simply a physiological fact and must be obeyed to achieve optimal success. Doing so will limit your acquisition of certain mechanical tensions (adhesions, scarring). A more in depth look at mechanical tensions and the relationship to protective tensions is to come.

For Part III click here.