Flexibility & Stretching Zone!

Functional Flexibility:
Complex Made Simple

By Lenny Parracino, CMT, FAFS

Whether training for golf, football, baseball, or any sport, most athletes realize the benefits from a strength training program, yet rarely recognize the importance of a flexibility program. Flexibility is the foundation of what we do! In fact, without flexibility the body will not exhibit optimal levels of power, strength, cardiovascular fitness, or muscle endurance. Flexibility is the cornerstone of rehab, performance, and preventing injuries. However, flexibility programs seem to be less popular, most likely for a variety of reasons – one being research shows mixed reviews which often leads to confusion.1 When reviewing the principles (or lack thereof) behind most research it is easy to understand why the mixed reviews exist. As professionals, it is important that our decisions on what technique to choose be determined by a principle-based approach that is specific to each person's intended need, not an arbitrarily designed guideline. To assist in determining what technique to choose, we will first explore three primary principles that should be considered, followed by a strategy to assess and address your patient's/clients functional flexibility.

Three Primary Principles of Functional Flexibility
1. Individual and Task Dependent
2. Three-Dimensional
3. Mobility / Stability System

Functional flexibility is flexibility that allows us to function better. It allows one to perform tasks optimally and efficiently.2 The exact function is individual and taskdependent.3 Therefore, general stretching techniques designed for muscle origininsertion will not provide us with an optimal functional outcome. Instead, the practitioner must appreciate the function of the muscles during the task. In other words, what a muscle does is task driven not textbook driven. This doesn't make the textbook authors wrong, their right relative to the position, motion in which they concluded function at that time. When the body changes angles, positions, etc., its function changes; this is why for flexibility to be functional the techniques must look like the intended function. Therefore, we need to understand how the muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments, nerves, joint capsules, and joints are moving three-dimensionally during the exact task; not only how much motion but also how well. This is the principle of mobility-stability, the right amount of motion with the right amount of stability in all three planes specific to the individual (not textbook) and intended task (all tasks require different levels of motion-stability).

To help simplify this complexity, we would like to share a practical strategy applying our three principles. This strategy can be used practically during your next assessment / evaluation...

First and foremost, understand each unique individual and task. Once you understand the individual's current condition, limitations, concerns, and what they want to do, assess the intended task with as much authentic function as possible. The key is in understanding what they want / need to do and what they currently can do successfully. From here build a strategy to lead them in the right direction as quickly and safely as possible. For example, start with level one and only move to level two and three as needed per individual, per task.

Level One: Task Specific

Assess the ability to perform the exact task. For example, walking, lunging, squatting, pivoting, stepping, reaching, running, balancing, picking up a specific object, sitting while reaching with right hand, etc. If this produces pain, discomfort, and/or lack of confidence, create authentic support to assist in the task. For example, one may reach forward at knee height from a split standing stance and feel low back stress. What if you changed the height of the reach to waist height? Same discomfort or less? If less, is it the back or the hips inability to allow the back to be successful from the range first assessed? Become a detective by changing body angles, positions, heights, drivers, ranges, etc. before leaving the intended task. Figure out a way to gain success in what they want/need to do. If this fails, progress to level two (although level two will look like level one).

Level Two: Task with Outside Support

Subtly add outside support or points of stability to the intended function. Using our example, simply add outside support such as in a True Stretch or a doorway. The outside support will allow you to position your patient / client in a specific range or zone to then apply authentic drivers. As their driving motion, use your palpation skills to assess the entire chain reaction searching for the "weak-link." This is the application of the motion-stability principle. Then the body perceives stability it will exhibit mobility, providing it's there. If one suspects the mobility is not there and desires to assess structural tissue texture, tension level three can provide information regarding the suspected structure (not exact function).

Level Three: Structure Specific

Provides an environment for a structural assessment such as a plinth or table. This deviation from the exact functional task must be understood as a deviation and the results then correlated and integrated back into function, if function is the desired outcome.

Traditionally many techniques have been taught to start from the symptom or structural tightness to level three eventually getting to level one. In this paradigm shift, we allow the exact function to dictate how far away from function and into isolated structure we go. This strategy saves time but most importantly gives hope to your patient / client – function feeds function. Although function is complex due to its always changing nature, we can simplify function by simply following function. Use what your patient / client is saying, what they have experienced, and how they are moving as your guide to improving their wellbeing. When we apply the principles of Applied Functional Science (convergence of physical, biological, and behavioral science), flexibility takes on a new meaning. Functional flexibility recognizes the individual as a whole. Once you understand the dynamics of the whole, you derive, at least in principle, the properties and patterns of interactions of the parts.

1 Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2003) 7(1),1
2 Gray G: Functional Video Digest. Functional Flexibility Enhancing Life. V2.11
3 Gray G: Fast Function. Flexibility, Mobility. 2006

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