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Stretching the Truth: Part 4

Thomas L. Teter Jr., DC

In our previous installments of this series, we discussed the different reasons why people stretch, the most common methods of stretching, and the mechanisms that may be at play when people do stretch. This time, we will learn some methods that you can incorporate into your program to increase your mobility. 

There are 4 main methods that are used in fitness in order to increase joint and/or tissue mobility. These include foam rolling, active joint mobilization, positional muscle contraction, and post-isometric relaxation. 

Foam rolling is a very popular method used in fitness for decreasing muscular tension and increasing range of motion. When foam rolling, most people apply perpendicular pressure with the foam roller into a muscle for a time factor of 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Using slow oscillations, the body will slowly decrease the intramuscular tension that is felt in a muscle. While this can be a very effective method, it most likely does not work by the method that is described. Most who utilize a foam roller assume that it is actually breaking up scar tissue, or mobilizing fascia, but the truth is that the pressure created by the foam stimulates receptors in the muscular tissue that cause an inhibitory effect to the muscle. This, in turn, decreases the muscular tension and thus allows the user to potentially go further into a range of motion. Overall, foam rolling can be a very effective method for decreasing tension and increasing range of motion, but it is does not create long-term adaptations to tissue. On the contrary, it creates small temporary windows for creating larger excursions in range of motion that can be used to get the joints and tissues into the positions utilized in fitness. 

After foam rolling, active joint mobilization can be used to permanently improve the range of motion at a joint. In order to do this, one needs to take the joint to its end range of motion, then provide a slow and momentary movement into the restricted joint motion. This impulse should last no more than 5 to 10 seconds, and then the person should slowly return back to the starting position. This process should be done for around 10 to 20 reps, with slow and deliberate movement. By taking the joint to its end range of motion, and then moving further into the range, we are stimulating receptors in the joint capsule that facilitate proper movement at the joint and create new neurological patterns in the brain. This is a very effective method that can be used to create more permanent and long term changes to joint range of motion. The purpose of active joint mobilizations are not to lengthen muscular tissue, but rather to create lasting changes in the motor pattern of joint motions. 

Positional muscular contractions are another fantastic method used to improve range of motion. In order to do this properly, one must take his/her joint to its end range of motion, and then gently isometrically contract into the range of motion that you are trying to improve. When contracting, it should be a low level force produced for about 5 to 6 seconds, and then one must relax the tissue before attempting to take it further into the desired range of motion. By contracting the agonist muscle that is being used to create a specific range of motion, you are creating a post-activation stimulus that allows a muscle being contracted to temporarily produce more force.

This improvement in force production allows the muscle to move the joint further into its range of motion. By using this technique, one can create a 20- to 30-percent increase in force production, which correlates into a 10- to 20-percent change in range of motion. These improvements in force production and range of motion - although temporary - can last anywhere from 90 seconds to 2 hours, so this method is very complimentary when used as part of a warm-up prior to exercise. Not only will this method improve range of motion, allowing the joints to get into the proper positions to absorb force and adapt to stress, but it also allows for the use of larger loads that can be used during resistance training. 

The final method used as part of a fitness program is post-isometric relaxation. This method is very similar to the positional muscular contraction technique. The outcome is the same, but the main difference is in the application. With this method, instead of contracting into the range of motion you are trying to improve, this time you contract the antagonist muscle into the opposite direction. This isometric contraction should also be held for about 5 to 6 seconds, and then relaxation can take place. By contracting the opposing muscle group, it relaxes that muscle, allowing for a greater excursion into the desired range of motion. Whereas the positional muscular contraction technique improves force production in the agonist muscle group, post-isometric relaxation decreases force production in the antagonist muscle group, but both allow for improvements in overall range of motion. 

As you can see, there are many methods that can be applied as part of an overall fitness program that can improve range of motion of the joints. None of these methods are better or worse than the others, but which one to use depends on the user’s goal and a clear understanding of the physiological mechanisms involved. The key is to use the right method, with the right person, at the right time, in order to reach the right goal. In the next installment, we will discuss the proper order and application of these mobility techniques in the warm-up to be used before your training sessions.