There isn’t just one way to stretch. There are many, including some types you may have heard of: static, active, dynamic, active-isolated, passive, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), ballistic and others. Each has their uses in an integrated, progressive flexibility regimen. All types of stretching exist on a continuum… you progress from one to another as your tissues and your fitness regimen progress. However, there is one type of stretching appropriate to nearly all bodies, at all levels of function and all levels of fitness… self-myofascial release.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is roughly tantamount to giving one’s self a deep-tissue massage, only no therapist is required and you don’t pay by the hour. The stretches are performed using SMR implements such as foam rollers and tennis balls. SMR accomplishes a number of things… it softens tight, painful tissues, inhibits over-active muscles, reduces your tissues’ resistance to movement, re-models deranged connective tissue, improves both blood and lymph circulation, and even makes other types of stretching more effective. To understand how SMR works, one needs to understand some basic muscle physiology. Hang with me on this…
There are two primary types of skeletal muscle tissue: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic muscle fibers are what we traditionally think of as muscle fibers… they contract, relax and effect movement. Intrinsic muscle fibers serve a different purpose. Their role is in communication. They communicate with the brain… relaying messages pertaining to muscle length, tension, and the rate of change of both. The brain uses this information for multiple purposes. This feedback allows the brain to determine the position of your limbs in 3-dimensional space. This information is also used for protection of the very muscles these fibers inhabit. There are two primary types of intrafusal fibers pertaining to muscles: muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs (GTO). Each detects the same things, but with the respective messages they send in response, the brain does two very different things.
When a muscle is stretched too far or too fast, the muscle spindle sends a message to the brain telling it to make the muscle contract to avoid overstretching or tearing. If you sustain that tension for a while, or the combined tension of the stretch and contraction is too great, the golgi tendon organ sends its message to the brain, instructing it to make the muscle relax. Flexibility issues are frequently, in part, due to improper thresholds at which these structures send their messages to the brain. Chronically tight muscles often have an extremely low threshold for stimulating the spindles. That is to say, it takes very little tension to make the muscle contract in defense. These muscles, or portions of muscles are often tight, hard, and sore to press on. With all of this in mind, let’s go back to SMR.
With SMR, you stimulated the spindles to fire, you hold the position until the golgi tendon organs make the muscle relax, then you move on. Each time the GTO fires, in has an inhibitory effect on the spindles. Over time, the threshold for engaging the muscles spindles (the amount of tension required to make them fire) can be raised back to a normal level. The muscle will be softer and more flexible at resting tension and less prone to overuse. While the science behind SMR may be a bit intense for the casual reader, the technique is really quite simple. You apply pressure to the affected area using your body-weight against the roller, ball, etc. Move along the contour of the muscle until you find a sore spot. This soreness represents the tension created both by the stretch and the resultant defensive contraction. Hold the position until the GTO fires (15-30 seconds) and the sore spot relaxes by at least 70%. Then move to a new spot. Don’t move until the sore spot relaxes! It’s that simple. Below I’ll put a link to a video demonstration of a few different SMR techniques.
I mentioned above that SMR can make other stretching methods more effective. To understand how, image stretching a muscle which has portions of it that are so over-active that they won’t release. What happens? I’ll tell you… the “knots” remain intact, if they don’t become tighter due to the increased spindle activity, while the tissue surrounding them stretches more to compensate. It’s much the same as if you tied a few knots in a rubber band then pulled it taut. The knots get tighter while the rest of the band stretches. If you pull too hard, it’s the areas adjacent to the knots that always fail (tear) first. The solution? Untie the knots. SMR accomplishes just this by targeting the isolated areas of over-activity which are inaccessible to traditional stretching methods. Once these issues are resolved, muscles become more evenly extensible and less resistant to movement. SMR should be done every day, especially for trouble-spots like the outer thighs and calves, and is best done pre-workout, as it prevents these muscles from being overactive during exercise.
Sometimes SMR hurts, but it’s worth it. With practice, you’ll have fewer sore spots when doing SMR (eventually none) and the ones you do have will relax faster. SMR is one of the only techniques one can do to themselves to resolve these issues. It’s a bit of work, but the payout is huge.