ROM or Range Of Motion often seems to be misunderstood in the fitness industry.
A common belief is that our muscles can sometimes be too short or tight and restrict our range of motion when we move, and techniques like short term static stretching, foam rolling and trigger pointing are then used to ‘release’ muscles and allow us a greater range of movement.
Now muscles definitely have a length – they’re not infinitely long – but we will never see our muscles used at their true full length because our movement is controlled and protected by our Central Nervous System, or CNS.
The amount a muscle is allowed to lengthen in a movement is controlled by the CNS, and is a function of the technique you are performing, your motor-skill, your technique, the environment you’re performing the technique in, the perceived danger and both internal and external motivation to move.
In other words ROM is governed by far more than simple “muscle tightness”.
The problem here is that when we perform techniques on our muscles like stretching and foam rolling we’re not actually making anything longer, but instead we’re manipulating the CNS to temporarily allow more range.
How ROM Works In The Real World
Our body is super-clever in the way that it figures out a way to move based on the outcome we are trying to achieve, but also dumb as it actually has no concept of what a good movement is – as long as it’s pain-free and we complete the task in hand sufficiently our body is happy.
As we move, the PNS (Peripheral Nervous System) relays feedback from our proprioceptors to the CNS about the movement we are performing like where we are in space, how balanced we are and how much range to allow in the movement etc.
If there is perceived danger of any kind in a movement, like a joint coming close to end range, loss of balance etc, then the brakes will be put on in that movement and the movement can slow down or stop in once place or everywhere.
This notion of perceived danger is a double edged sword – it can be both good and bad.
Our body can shut down ROM in a joint purely because it’s never experienced movement there. This is a great mechanism that stops us from getting injured, but if you want greater range of motion in a joint you need to focus on re-educating the CNS to allow new movement there.
Movement Re-education Over Stretching
To gain a greater range of motion in a movement the first step is to switch your focus from muscles to joints and start thinking about how your CNS is controlling that movement.
If a joint runs out of range in a movement then a good strategy is to ask whether that joint is able to work in a longer range and it just prefers not to, or if that joint really is at end range.
If a joint is able to function in a greater range but your body just chooses not to use that range then tweaking the movement with coaching cues is often enough to change the movement pattern.
On the other hand, if a joint really doesn’t like working in end range or if end range is particularly short then creating a specific movement for that joint to encourage it to work in a longer range can be a good the way to go.
Note – if you try to get more range out a joint and feel pain in that movement, stop and get the pain diagnosed!
This thought process is what allows me to change my clients form, technique and entire movement pattern in minutes with ZERO static stretching – movement analysis > coaching > specific exercises.
So next time to want to get more range in a movement, before you hit the static stretching and foam rolling ask yourself where your restriction lies and whether your restriction is skill or structure related.
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