We all know how crucial stretching is to gymnasts and dancers – it’s an every-day must if they want to get ahead. We’ve been speaking to popular American cheerleading coach, Deryn who runs, The Cheerkin, about misconceptions about stretching and how the central nervous system plays such an important role.
Deryn is a former allstar cheerleader, coach and MSc graduate and registered kinesiologist. She helps squads all across the USA improve their performance and here’s what she’s got to say about stretching.
Misconceptions About Stretching
There’s a big misunderstanding that muscles are either inherently long or short, and that stretching will make short muscles long. While stretching, your muscles DO lengthen in the moment, but they don’t remain permanently long. Once you’re finished holding a stretch, your muscles retract and go back to their normal resting length. It’s not like super flexible people are walking around with loose, hanging muscles that are ready to be pulled to their max length at any time! In fact, the tightness that you feel at the end point of a stretch is not because your muscle ran out of length – it’s because your central nervous system (CNS) is stopping you! Improving flexibility actually has less to do with increasing the length of your muscles and more to do with learning how to control your CNS.
What is the CNS?
Your central nervous system is made up of your brain and spinal cord. Think of your brain as the control centre of everything – it houses your thoughts, interprets the environment around you and controls all body movements. On the other hand, your spinal cord acts as a communication highway between your brain and body. It relays all the information needed to get your body to do whatever your brain says.
Role of the CNS in Stretching
Your CNS loves to keep you safe, and therefore prevents you from doing any “crazy” movements (like splits, for example). Throughout your daily life, normal movements like bending over to tie your shoes or reaching above your head to tie a ponytail are perceived as “safe” by the CNS. This is because you do them so often! So, when you decide you want to get your splits down and begin trying to achieve a further range of motion (ROM) than your body is used to, your CNS will slam on the brakes to protect against injury. Once the brakes are hit, the feeling of muscle tightness and discomfort occurs. If you stretch regularly, you’ll increase the tolerance of your CNS with each stretching session. Over time, your CNS will recognize the positions as safe and allow you to stretch further.
Beam Queen t-shirt £12
How to Take Advantage of Your CNS to Improve Flexibility Faster
As mentioned above, stiffness is a protective mechanism of your CNS – your body will only allow you to get into positions it considers safe. So, if you want to improve flexibility, you’ll need to do something that screams safety to the CNS! Here’s the #1 thing you can do: Increase strength and stability throughout the range of motion you’re trying to achieve. When you have enough strength and joint stability, you can actively pull yourself into a stretch and hold it there. This tells your CNS that you have full control over the movement/position and will be able to avoid any potential injury. In other words, it knows it doesn’t have to freak out and hit the brakes right away! The best way to increase strength, stability and ROM is by doing active flexibility exercises. This includes things like kicks, leg swings, arm angels, etc. Exercises like these will create flexibility that is actually useful. If you only improve your passive flexibility (ex: sitting in oversplits but never doing any hip stabilization exercises), you’ll put yourself at a lot higher risk of experiencing a serious joint injury. For effective flexibility training programs that include both active and passive stretching techniques, visit this page!
Festival Leotard by Sylvia P £43.99
Mastering the art of controlling your central nervous system is the secret to unlocking amazing flexibility. Doing the splits, a needle, or any other position is more about being able to convince your brain to let your muscles lengthen instead of using its default mechanism of tightening up and restricting movement.
• Kelly, G. (n.d.). Use your brain to get flexible fast. BreakingMuscle. https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/use-your-brain-to-get-flexible-fast
• Rawlings, J. (n.d.). Stretching is in your brain part 2: What is the value of flexibility without strength? https://jennirawlingsblog.com/blog/stretching-is-in-your-brain-part-2-what-is-the-value-flexibility-without-strength
• Ruiz, F. P. (2007, August 28). What every yogi needs to know about flexibility. Yoga Journal. https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/what-science-can-teach-us-about-flexibility/
• St Louis, N. (2016, March 28). Stretching 101: Rethink flexibility. Optimize Physio & Sport Medicine. http://optimizeottawa.com/stretching-101-rethink-flexibility/