Pliability – or, how to train with fewer injuries

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The difference between static vs dynamic (a.k.a. functional) strength and length

"Gym 3 - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 11-August 2007" by G. Dall'Orto - Own work. Licensed under Attribution via Commons.
Man stretching. Note the muscles working to maintain static posture.

Static, obviously, is strength or flexibility when holding a position – be it simply standing or sitting up, or holding a stretch in one position. This is more about endurance, and our ability to keep positive posture for extended periods in static positions.

Functional / dynamic strength, together with functional / dynamic flexibility, means the ability to take a joint and its muscles through their complete range without compromising stability or structural integrity – that is, you can do it with comfort and control, without hurting, breaking or straining anything.

In this article I explain the difference between flexibility and pliability, and why pliability is king. I also explain how to apply this understanding to train your muscles more effectively – and, more importantly, safely.

Your muscles will not fully relax when you stretch them. Even when you stretch your hamstrings out as far as they can possibly go, they should still gently contract to maintain stability in your knee joint, preventing your knee from hyper-extension.

For as long as you are alive, there is always at least a low level of muscle contraction taking place. The same goes for any muscle at any joint.

What you need to do is control to the contraction, whether concentric (shortening) or eccentric (lengthening), in order to prevent injury to the joint (a ligament sprain) or to the muscle (a strain).

Pliability: what it is and why you need it

Creative commons licensed image.
Flexibility + strength = pliability.

Pliability generally means: “the ability to change and adapt in response to stimuli without compromising integrity.”

The combination of muscle strength plus tissue flexibility through a wide range of motion is pliability. It is the capacity for soft tissues (muscles, tendons, fascia and ligaments) to maintain control and stability in posture or movement through a complete range of motion.

A non-pliable structure loses strength and may break (i.e. become an injury) when you try to flex or bend it.

This is why it is so important to train our muscles and joints through their full range while maintaining precision control all the way – not just through a limited range where we feel strongest. Anything less than that can cause injury.

It follows that if we spend a lot of time in a limited range of motion (as in long periods of sitting), when we go through a wider range on a less frequent basis (e.g. walking) we are more prone to injuries in normal life. Neck, back and ankle injuries spring to mind.

Safe and effective training – what NOT to do

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Hamstring strain injury. (I recommend not doing this.) Photo: Daniel Cardenas.

It makes me laugh when I see gym-goers (mainly men) almost autistically focused on their pecs and deltoids to the detriment of their rhomboids and mid/lower traps.

The huge imbalance in power from front to back is almost guaranteed to lead to a rotator cuff injury.

Likewise an imbalance between quads and hamstrings can lead to a hamstring rupture, or an imbalance between calves and shin muscles can lead to shin splints or anterior compartment syndrome.

On top of that, they tend to train through the power range of the muscle (the middle 40–50% of range) and have nearly no strength at end-range.

Massive biceps, sure, but they only work for half of their range.

Then they wonder why they get strains and sprains when they do things out in daily life that call on strength at the end-ranges, such as the end of a bicep curl or seated row.

Two things to avoid injury and get better results

“Motion is lotion” and “balance is power” are your training mantras.

Flexibility is dead, pliability is king.
If you can do this, you are my hero. Total control under high load.

First, train with control through the full range of motion. With resistance training, don’t fully relax at the end of the movement – maintain muscle control to create pliability in the tissues.

Keep in mind that it can take the length of time the cells need to regenerate (about 3–6 months of discipline) to see significant changes in pliability.

Second, whatever you train on the front, train on the back. What you train on one side, train on the other. Maintain balance in your training at ALL TIMES.

When your rhomboids are strong, you bench-press heavier weights.

Why? Because your front chest muscles aren’t constantly overpowering your upper back muscles.

When there is such an imbalance, your pecs are be constantly contracting. This means they are using power on idle-mode, which means your benches will never be at full power. Keeping a balance enables to muscles to rest efficiently when not in use, meaning you have full power on tap when you ask for it.

Same goes for those calf muscles, quads, and biceps. To raise, press and curl more, train your shin muscles, hamstrings and triceps at least as much.

When you have good pliability, and a muscle power balance in posture and movement, you are far, far, far less likely to develop an injury, sprain or strain (or fracture!)

"Fuori asse alla seconda" by Reginaldo82 at Italian Wikipedia - Transferred from it.wikipedia to Commons by Marco Plassio.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
Dancers generally have amazing pliability: precision + motion, with bonus grace. Photo: Marco Plassio.

Pilates and the moderate-to-intense styles of yoga are great ways to build and maintain pliability. Gymnastics and contemporary dance are even better.

In the gym, train through diagonal and torsional (spiral) planes of motion, too. This better reflects how we actually use our bodies in daily living.

This trains your muscles to work together (in “kinetic chains”) rather than in isolation, which allows for the generation of more overall power and again reduces the risk of injury by spreading the load.

How to stretch

Finally, don’t stretch before your workouts.

Yeah, I said it. Only stretch after your workouts.

This is because we now know that stretching calms muscles down. And if you’re going to use those muscles in your training, you want to have them ready to fire, not asleep on the job. Jolting a calmed muscle back into action will possibly lead to a strain or sprain injury.

Instead, bring your body gently up to temperature before you go into your main training. A light jog, some low resistance cardio, or anything similar that gets you to a sweat will be perfect. As your body warms up, all the necessary physiological systems (glucose and fat burning, blood supply, mental focus) will naturally come on-line.

Save the stretches for when your workout is complete, when you need to prevent your muscles from staying contracted.

Apply this sequence to your training, and you will be improving your pliability.

If you do get injured

In the unhappy event that you do develop an injury, seek professional advice. A good remedial massage therapist, myotherapist, musculoskeletal therapist, physiotherapist, sports physio, or osteopath are all reliable experts who can help you heal properly and get back to your training quicker and easier.

We can also advise you on how not to re-injure yourself.

Always read-up on any therapist you haven’t met before you book with them.

Button to book massage at South MelbourneSth MelbourneBrunswick East