One of the central concepts in mobility training is expanding your “range of motion” or ROM. This is very different from traditional stretching, which is less about the movement of your joints and more about the length of your muscle fibers. Tightness can be a limiting factor in ROM, so mobility training might involve some stretching, but even when it does the approach is active, not static. Let me explain.
Before I do that, let me state that I am not a doctor or physical therapist, just someone who has been trying to find what works for their own body. Don’t try anything here until you have spoken to a doctor or physical therapist about what is best for you.
The first thing to understand about stretching is that it doesn’t actually lengthen the muscles. “Instead, it may be that exercises such as reaching for your toes train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing off pain signals.” In other words, you are primarily training your nervous system, not lengthening your muscles!
Secondly, static stretching is no longer considered the best way to achieve greater flexibility and, because it can make your muscles weaker, it is generally recommended that you don’t do it before a workout. And just because you feel tight in a certain area, you shouldn’t necessarily be stretching that muscle. A good example are your hamstrings. I’ve stretched them for years with no success, because (as per my first post) my issue is more closely related to anterior pelvic tilt. To fix this I need to stretch my hip flexors on the front of my body and strengthen my glutes. “This pulls the pelvis back into alignment and creates a balance between tension.” Simply stretching my hamstrings, as I was doing when I took yoga, is thus not only ineffective, but may simply be placing additional strain on an already overstrained muscle, without fixing the underlying problem.
That doesn’t mean I don’t do any stretching. For instance, with pelvic tilt you still want to lengthen your hip flexors. How best to do that? The first step is to do some foam rolling on the front of my leg. This is myofascial release, designed to “help stretch and loosen restricted fascia so the muscles and joints under them can move freely without pain.” You can also use a rubber ball, but never do it directly where there is most pain. While rolling can help, it is only of limited use, and should only be a warmup for further targeted work using more effective stretching techniques.
The two most common stretching techniques recommended by physical therapists are ”dynamic” stretches, in which “soft tissues and joints are taken through their range of motion during movement” and “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation” (PNF) stretching which “involves the combination of excessively stretching the target muscle and contracting the opposite muscle.”
This is an example of a dynamic hamstring stretch done by swinging the leg.
And here is a video showing a PNF approach to lengthening the hip flexors. It involves isometrically contracting and then releasing the muscle.
In my experience, PNF is the most effective form of stretching, but dynamic stretching can be good to do before a workout. Strength training itself is can also be a form of dynamic stretching. For instance, sumo squats help lengthen the adductors.
No matter how much (or what kind) of stretching we do, however, we might still feel stuck, as if our very bones are limiting our range of motion. This too, it turns out, is often a limitation imposed by our nervous system, which is trying to protect those joints. To gain a greater range of motion in our joints we need to do something a little different from standard PNF approaches. What we want to do is learn to exert force at the end range of our natural joint mobility. This approach is called Kinstretch™, and was developed by a chiropractor named Andreo Spina, who also created some other registered trademarks which he makes money giving seminars on. (Most important here is “functional range conditioning” or FAR ® which Kinstretch is built upon.)
I was very suspicious of Kinstretch all because a lot of the information about it online reads like marketing mumbo-jumbo — with lots of acronyms and very little science or clear explanations about what is going on. Almost every link either goes to a YouTube video or a link to sign up for a paid seminar. I usually run away screaming from such sites. But I am now a fan! This is based entirely on the following half hour video. It is an introductory Kinstretch class for hip mobility and it has been really great for me. It is literally the only thing I have found that has worked to give me greater hip mobility without causing any unusual pain or discomfort.
Based on how much I liked that class, I did some further digging I found that Kinstretch is based on three core concepts:
Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) “involve the patient actively moving through their range of motion and utilising their usable range of motion under muscular and neurological control rather than just simply holding a static stretch. CARs are essentially “circular” joint motions and the idea is that each time we try and create a “larger circle” in order to improve control in the outer limits of our usable range.”
Progressive Angular Isometric Loading (PAILs) and Regressive Angular Isometric Loading (RAILs) are the other two parts of the practice. It works by “stretching and contracting the muscles that are being lengthened/ stretched followed by the opposing muscles to pull us deeper into the stretch.” PAILs being “the first contraction in the sequence in which we tension the muscle that is being loaded/ stretching.” And RAILs “is the second contraction of the antagonist or tissue that is shortening to achieve a new range of motion. You can think of this as actively pulling yourself into the new range of motion.”
As you can see, the basic concept is similar to PNF approaches to stretching, but it is more focused on joint articulation. To try to put my understanding of Kinstretch in plain language, you go to the limit of your current range of motion and then do isometric or controlled movements at that end range. This is safe because you don’t ever try to go beyond your natural range of motion, just to the limit. And then you are doing work which gives you strength and control, not really stretching in the traditional sense.
Having tried Kinstretch earlier, I recently took it up again because I was feeling so tight in my hip that it was difficult to tie my shoelaces. My physical therapist threw up her hands saying it was problem related to my osteoarthritis, and that probably nothing could be done about it. After a week of Kinstretch, however, I am already doing much better.
This pretty much wraps up my series. To see the whole series, click here. And for more information about resources, specific exercises you might want to try, etc. check out this frequently updated page I maintain on managing hip pain.