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Published on April 16, 2015

woman stretching before exercising

To Stabilize or Mobilize

We’ve all done it at one time or another. We work out. We get tight, stiff and sore — or all of the above. So we try stretching, mobilizing, foam rolling, rolling with a tennis ball or lacrosse ball. We get our hands on “self torture devices” that move us around in odd shapes, do body work, manipulation, contortion, voodoo or anything that might give us relief. What happens when we’re not getting the results we desire? Maybe it's time to try something else.

Not all limited range of motion, pain or musculoskeletal tension means a structure needs to be released or stretched. Sometimes it means the structure needs increased strength and stability. Only when we have the ability to stabilize an area will we also have the ability, and give the muscle permission, to relax and gain mobility.

Is the Wiring Bad?

Take the psoas muscle for example. The psoas is the muscle that attaches to your back and hooks to the leg bone. It contributes to flexion and external rotation of the hip (hip movement), as well as stability of the lumbar spine (middle of the back keeping it strong and firm), flexion of the trunk towards the thigh (bending over forward), and can laterally flex the lumbar spine (do side bends). It crosses many joints and is capable of doing lots of jobs, so it needs to be strong and flexible.

It is common that people with low back pain, lumbar lordosis, anterior pelvic tilt, tight hip flexors, ‘clicking’ or ‘snapping’ at the hip, leg length issues or limited hip extension really stretch the hip complex and the psoas muscle. Yes, in some cases this muscle needs stretching (given that it is functional first), but you would be quite surprised that if you test this muscle's functional capacity, communication from the brain to the muscle might not be there, or be very limited. In other words, the wiring is bad. Think of it like wiring going from a light switch to a bulb. You can replace the bulb, put in a new switch on the wall — but if the problem is in the wiring new bulbs and switches won’t do much. When a muscle crosses many joints, has many jobs to do, and isn’t capable of communicating with the brain to do those jobs effectively, the muscle might just stiffen up, or get tight, as a strategy for keeping you from injury and your body stable.

Think of it this way, you’re hanging from a tree branch and don’t want to fall to the ground, but feel vulnerable like your about to slip, what do you do? You would do your best to grip tighter and hold on for dear life.

If your brain can’t communicate with your psoas, or other body parts, you have bad wiring. The psoas is doing its best job to stabilize your spine, it’s trying to hold on and tighten up. Being tight, you stretch it even more. What do you think it might do? Hold on tighter?

Get to the Bottom of the Issue

In this case you could stretch the muscle until the cows come home. You can dig in deep and massage that psoas all you like. You might get some short relief, giving a lift to grab the branch a little better, but the tension keeps coming back. If the poor lil’ muscle is hanging on for dear life, and here you are tickling the arm pit, prodding, poking and stretching it — while it’s still trying to hold on for dear life — it goes back to getting tighter.

If the psoas muscle can’t be engaged, it’s possible that compensation is occurring, which means other body parts are working harder to help out. Compensation can include synergists (muscles that help with movement - but aren’t main movers), functional opposites (think of the bicep on the front of your arm and the tricep on the back of your arm), joints, ligaments, breath holding, pelvic floor bracing, jaw clenching, scar tissue, it’s all possible. Find out what is limiting the functional capacity of a muscle, and give function back. Give it permission to engage. Give it permission to relax. Give it permission to not have to hang on for dear life. Spend some time earning functionality of those muscles, and mobility will improve.

If you keep running into mobility issues, and stretching isn’t working, work with someone who can properly assess the situation. You may have a stability issue — not a mobility issue.

This content was originally posted on my personal training blog.

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