Anatomy and Physiology Fitness Injuries Pain Posture Remedial Massage

Pliability – or, how to train with fewer injuries

Don’t stretch before your workouts. Yeah, I said it. Here’s why..

The difference between static vs dynamic strength and length

Gym 3 - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 11-August 2007.jpg

By G.dallorto – Own work, Attribution, Link

Static strength or flexibility means being able to hold 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 hold a posture for extended periods without fatigue while 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 do not completely 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-extending and your pelvis from hyper-flexing.

For as long as you are alive, there is always some low level of muscle contraction taking place.

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

An oversplit by former Olympic gymnast Irina Tchachina
Photo by Mollerjoakim – uploaded by Mollerjoakim, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Pliability: what it is and why you need it

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.

So, even when your body is at its extreme limits of range of motion, your brain still has enough control over your movements and power to avoid injury.

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 lead to injury.

It follows that if we spend a lot of time moving within a limited range of motion (as in long periods of sitting, or doing nothing but walking for exercise), when we go through a wider range on a less frequent basis (e.g. sprinting, touching our toes, or reaching up to put in a lightbulb) we are more prone to restrictions and injuries even though we are just doing simple everyday things. Neck, back and ankle injuries spring to mind.

Pliability vs Flexibility

Flexibility just means your muscles are lax enough that you can bend and twist into wide-ranging positions. It doesn’t mean you have control and strength while you’re doing it.

If your muscles are too relaxed, your joints can easily be stretched past their safe limits, with huge forces going through your ligaments as they try to stop your joints going further than they structurally can.

You need muscle control to work with the ligaments and joints to stay safe and healthy. When you add strength to flexibility, you have pliability: the “maintaining of integrity.”

Safe and effective training – what NOT to do

A severe hamstring strain injury. (I recommend not doing this.)
Photo: Daniel.Cardenas / CC BY

It makes me laugh when I see gym-goers (mainly men) almost religiously focused on their chest muscles while ignoring their upper back muscles.

A huge imbalance in power between front to back is almost guaranteed to lead to a rotator cuff injury or a pectoralis minor strain.

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

On top of that, these gym-bros tend to train only 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 properly for half of their possible range.

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

Two things to avoid injury and get better results

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

If you can do this, you are my hero. Total control under high load at end-range.

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 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.

The 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!)

Gymnasts have incredible pliability: precision + motion, strength, and 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.

Similar to gymnasts, dancers are the epitome of pliability. The precision control they have, combined with flexibility, is incredible to witness.
Photo: Reginaldo82 at Italian Wikipedia / CC BY-SA