Stretching Reduces Muscle Tone, It Does Not Increase Muscle Length

I decided to write this blog following a recent post I uploaded after I received a variety of very confused questions, and rightly so. Tone is a very confusing subject and it took me a long time to get my head around, as it is not a word used commonly in the non-medical world. 

So what is tone? Now, being toned and having tone are two completely different things. Everyone has tone but not everyone is “toned”. The word “toned” is actually just slang. 

Tone is defined as the muscle’s resistance to a passive stretch during its resting state. <<< great definition that makes little sense to 99% of the world (myself included).  Put simply, tone is always in your muscles, it is a readily available function of your muscles at rest so that when you want to move your leg/ swing off your trapeze, then it is able to contract on demand. It is always available and helps you to maintain your posture throughout the day. 

Tone is recorded along a gradient from low to high. Athletes with high tone are not necessarily stronger than those with low tone. An athlete with high tone is usually one that will engage in explosive movements such as a sprinter, whilst an athlete with low tone is likely to be more flexible such as that of a dancer or yogi.  

Now, lets look at tone from a stretching point of view. 

When we stretch, we speak to our nervous system by telling it to reduce its excitability to allow us to sink deeper into positions. This relaxation of our nervous system will in theory reduce our muscle tone, which improves our flexibility. 

Makes sense? Maybe not. This is a topic that is very complicated so don’t worry if this is difficult to get your head around, it takes most medical professions a while to understand too. 

Each time we stretch we further decrease our muscle tone in this position, which is what allows us to see improvements in our flexibility after several sessions of repetitively targeting specific muscle groups.

Muscle tone differs from muscle length. Our muscle length never changes when we stretch. If it did after we stretched when we stood back up we would either fall over because our muscles would be very floppy, or contortionists would be the tallest people on the planet because their muscle length would be huge. 


Hypermobility vs Flexibility: Do you know the difference?

Hypermobility vs Flexibility: Do you know the difference?
Hypermobility is something most dancers, contortionists, gymnasts and aerialists envy because those that have it obtain positions easier and quicker e.g. box splits, than they have been able to achieve. But should they be?

Whilst flexibility refers to the ability to lengthen muscles, hypermobility refers to a laxity in a person’s ligament or ligaments.

A brief overview – A muscle is a tissue that produces movement when it contracts and a ligament connects one bone to another. Ligaments do not contract, instead, they provide stability to our joints to allow our body to move in a way that we require.

Hypermobility refers to a condition involving laxity of our ligaments, due to a genetic anomaly that influences the extensibility and elasticity of our connective tissues. Severe joint hypermobility includes conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos and Marfan syndrome. These conditions as well as including severe laxity of the ligaments can also cause widespread joint pain, repeated injuries and joint dislocations/subluxations, poor proprioception, fatigue and more.
A lot of people may have hypermobility in one or two areas of the body, but only a small percentage of the population will have all over hypermobility and will score 9/9 on the Beighton Score, which is derived from observation of:
• Bilateral knee hyperextension beyond 10 degrees
• Bilateral elbow hyperextension beyond 10 degrees
• Bilateral flexion of the wrist to touch the thumb to the inside of the forearm
• Bilateral ability to place the palm flat on a table and lift the middle or index finger to a vertical position
• Ability to place the hands flat on the floor without bending the knees
Each position is rated as 1 in the athlete can achieve this position of 0 if they cannot, thus achieving a total score of 9. Recent work has shown that a score of 7 points or more may require additional attention from a physiotherapist.

So, what happens when we stretch?
When we stretch, we are attempting to reduce the tone of our muscles (this is a whole topic or another blog but simply put, we don’t alter length of our muscles but if they got longer then contortionists would just be a gangly mess of long floppy limbs). This tone will either continue to reduce as you continue with regular stretching or, it will return to its original state. Ligaments however, do not return, once they are stretched then that is it for them. A lax ligament will no longer support the joint which can result in pain and injury for many of those who do not know how to properly strengthen the appropriate muscles surrounding the joint. Overstretching a ligament is therefore a great big “no no”.

Is stretching if you’re hypermobile safe?
If you are someone who has hypermobility in one or two areas then the answer is yes, but, if you score 7 or above on Beighton’s score then you may benefit from a consultation with a doctor or physiotherapy first. These appointments can help to reduce pain and risk of dislocations, improve muscle strength and fitness and improve posture and balance. Like with every condition, each individual is unique and what works for one may not work for another. Strength-based training is ultimately the way forward with most clients having to work on body weight based exercises initially. Those who have true hypermobility sometimes say that gentle stretching actually eases their pain and also find yoga a helpful tool as this improves their muscle strength around their joints and improves their stability. This being said, it is advised that you:
• Take your time and pace yourself as some find an hour long yoga class too intense initially
• Look after your joints – hypermobile people may not often feel the stretch initially but may experience pain the following day, therefore it is recommended that you start off slowly and gradually go deeper each time, reviewing the pain the following day (trust me! I have hypermobility in my hips and I participated in intense stretching one day and the following week I had to get my boyfriend to put my shoes and socks on for me because the pain of bending was unbearable)
• Watch your positioning – lack of proprioception (your bodies awareness of where you are in space) means that it is easy to ‘over-bend’ into positions so working in front of a mirror if learning a new pose, having a qualified yoga instructor or taking photos could benefit you
• Don’t slump into your joints – actively engage in your stretches so that your muscles are holding you and not your ligaments. A sustained passive stretch could increase your risk of injury.
• For more information I recommend this blog https://jboccupationaltherapy.co.uk/yoga-hms/ that was created by someone with personal experience of yoga with Ehlers Danlos.

What about contortion?
Again, each individual is unique. Whilst some will struggle with pain daily as a result of their condition, others can utilise their hypermobility and indeed create more to further push their limits. The golden rule for contortionist as stated by Betsy Shuttleworth (a professional contortionist) “stretch what you strengthen and strengthen what you stretch”.
If you are looking to take up contortion, making sure you have an experienced coach such as Hannah Finn (UK) or Catie Brier (USA) is essential.

Any questions? Drop me a message via email fizzylemonphysiotherapy@gmail.com , facebook or instagram – Fizzylemonphysiotherapy

Is my pain normal or am I overtraining?

Is there such a thing as good pain and bad pain? Yes, but what is important is knowing the difference between muscular ache/pain from normal training loads and demands, and muscular ache/pain from overtraining/injury.

Muscular pain/ DOMS
Tough training session the day before and struggling to lift your arms to wash your hair or put your jacket on? Yeah we’ve all been there. Generally, muscular pain post exercise can range anywhere on the pain scale from 0-5 and can be incredibly inconvenient but after a few days you will find that this eases off.  This ‘pain’ that you are experiencing here is called delayed onset of muscular soreness (DOMS) and isn’t something to be majorly worried about IF it goes away after 2-3 days.

To define pain, Physiotherapist’s use the VAS scale (visual analogue scale) which ranges from 0-10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the absolute worst pain in the world. To help work out how much pain you are in, I have attached a modified VAS for you.

 

DOMS occurs after an intense training session which results in the muscles sustaining micro trauma (tiny tears). This leads to an inflammatory response causing swelling, altered muscle firing and that dull ache you commonly feel. Don’t worry these microtears aren’t bad but are actually necessary in order for you to get fitter and stronger. But, they are a nuisance so, how can we get rid of them?

Aiding the recovery of DOMS is simple and can be enhanced by following a few steps:
1. Warm up efficiently
2. Stretch it out
3. Hydrate yourself
4. Cool down efficiently
5. Ice baths (if you’re really brave enough … I am not)
6. Self massage/foam rolling
7. Improve your nutrition

a. Eat blueberries, cherries and other dark fruits which help to eliminate waste products produced during training (don’t consume until an hour after your protein shake or milk as the effects will be nil and void.
b. Consume almonds and nuts to accelerate the repair of damaged tissues
c. Add cinnamon to improve insulin sensitivity for faster tissue repair and glycogen replenishment – add to protein shakes, tea, coffee, yoghurt or place on your veggies.
d. Cook with turmeric and ginger to accelerate recovery with their anti-inflammatory properties

Followed these steps but found that your pain is persisting for more than 4-5 days or is greater than 5 on th VAS scale? Maybe you’ve sustained an injury or are overtraining and this is something that needs to be looked into further.

Overtraining pain
Overtraining is extremely misunderstood and most clients physiotherapists see in their clinics are patients who have injuries as a result of overtraining. It’s so common because we love what we do and as a community you can often hear the phrases ‘circus hurts’ and ‘no pain, no gain’ shouted out across the studio. So, how do we identify overtraining, what are the signs? Difficult question, as overtraining in its early stages is often unrecognisable but,  stage 1 of overtraining can appear as a slight decrease in performance, feeling lethargic, having injuries that never seem to heal or a cold that won’t go away.

If you’re a coach and you know your client well and what their form is generally like, it is important that you can recognise these symptoms and guide them towards a recovery week! They may feel down at first but interestingly, big gains can be made afterwards if true recovery is taken (see previous blog post about how to make the most of your recovery day).

Stage 2 of overtraining can appear as a euphoric episode, where a ‘second wind’ occurs. Due to the increased stresses you’re putting your body under, an increased energy will be felt as the adrenal glands kick into high gear to cope with the extra demands. This can present as an over excited state, feeling restless and a feeling of not requiring any sleep. Whilst this feels fantastic, your high cortisol levels can lead to increased insulin, reducing fat burning and dun dun dunnnnnnn increasing your fat storage! And nobody wants that! If you find yourself desperately craving carbs this say be a sign of being in stage 2 overtraining. To combat this to prevent you heading into stage 3, look at what recovery is going to be required to get you back on track and monitor your dietary requirements accordingly.

Stage 3 results from chronic overtraining. Now stage 3 is very serious and if you see yourself landing in this zone you need to take a step back and fully evaluate your lifestyle and training demands. Stage 3 can lead to serious brain, muscle and metabolic imbalances due to the excessive exhaustive demands being placed upon the body. The most notable side effect of stage 3 is severe exhaustion and can lead to people burning out and potentially taking early retirement from their desired sport as a consequence. Not only that, but, it has the potential to damage your health, increasing your risk of recurrent injuries, recurrent illnesses and infections and increasing your risk of chronic diseases of the major organs. Landing in this zone unfortunately isn’t just a quick fix and can sometimes take athletes years to recover from. A good example I read of an athlete in stage 3 can be found in the link below:
https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/overtraining-can-kill-you-the-3-stages-of-overtraining-part-2 

Now, this blog post isn’t intended to scare you, it’s intended to make you think. Think about how your training is going, what are your energy levels doing? Do you need a rest? A change in diet? Modify your lifestyle? Increase your rest days? It’s YOUR body, listen to it, the signs are there you just need to stop, take a step back and listen.

Rest days aren’t just about muscle recovery

 

Rest days are so important! Boring, yes, I’m fully aware, but I speak from experience when I tell you that having a rest day is as important as all the conditioning and training you put your heart and soul into on a daily basis.
In my naivety when I first started contortion training, I overtrained my splits and sustained 3 injuries which took me 6 months to recover from. So trust me when I say rest days are a crucial part of your training.

So, what is a rest day?

A rest day plain and simple is what it says on the tin … an entire day of rest. No, this does not include yoga or a long walk, these are still forms of exercise and whilst a rest day may come easily to some, others find it hard to hit the pause button. This is because we, as a circus community are so passionate and dedicated to achieving our goals that we see this rest in a negative light as SLACKING! So we overwork, we overtrain, we get ill and we continue to train through this perceived period of weakness until we burn out!

The benefits of rest aren’t just purely for muscle recovery, they encompass a variety of factors contributing to your overall well-being. The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being’. So, what can you do to optimise your rest days and boost your health?

  1. Catch up on sleep – Sleep is a large attribute to an individuals well being, with studies finding that sleep deprivation has a negative impact upon numerous biological and neural functions including reduced concentration, a depression of the immune system and impaired creativity and planning skills. It has been found that as little as 1.5 hours of sleep deprivation per day (recommendations are for a typical 8 hours) can impact you performance by as much as 26%. So catching up on those zzz’s can be a huge benefit to your rest days.
  2. Decrease stress – The body reacts to stressful situations by a ‘fight or flight’ mechanism which was beneficial thousands of years ago whilst dealing with a bear attack. Although now a day, we don’t have to deal with these intense threats, the body reacts in the same way. In our modern society, we live in a state of high arousal (stress) as a result of challenging work-personal-family life balance, obsession with competition and the desire to be perfect (instagram definitely hasn’t helped these idealistic expectations of life).
    When it comes to thinking about how stress affects performance it is important to mention that not all stress is bad. If you weren’t a little stressed when you perform you wouldn’t be able to full off that desired move at the end of your routine when already exhausted. But, if your body is in a constant state of flight, high levels of cortisol and Adrenalin will build up, causing you to feel increasingly fatigued, sore, achy and unable to perform to your highest potential. Not only this but the high levels of cortisol can physically block other useful hormones such as dopamine (which aids with happiness), lower your metabolism and can even slow down your fat burning rate which …. dun dun dun … equals weight gain. Now, if that doesn’t make you take a proper rest day then I don’t know what will! So, do something for yourself to decrease that stress, whether that is cooking your favourite meal, having a hot soak in the bath, getting your hair re-touched or my personal favourite is mindfulness, which is a form of meditation. Try using the app headspace, but to really see a difference schedule in 5 mins of this app during your daily routine.
  3. Diet – a balanced diet blah blah. We all know how vital a balanced diet is to optimal performance, yet we neglect our nutritional intake often, maybe to look slimmer for that on stage performance. But how detrimental can a lack of nutrients actually be? Did you know that performance is impaired when an individual is dehydrated by as little as 2%? It has been found that if an inidividuals dehydration exceeds 5%, this can decrease their peforming capacity by up to 30%! Did you also know that not getting enough protein in your diet not only affects muscle recovery but can cause additional problems such as a weakened immune system and lack of energy? Finally, were you aware that if you’re trying to aid with nutritional protein deficit and hate protein shakes, chocolate milk is as, if not more effective. Tasty.

So remember, rest days are as much about letting your body recover as about letting your muscles recover. They are as much a part of your goal planning as the times you put your all into training. Enjoy it and listen to your body thank you!

References:

  • Sleep and the elite athlete (2015) Shona L. Halson, PhD
    https://www.gssiweb.org/en-ca/Article/sse-113-sleep-and-the-elite-athlete
  • Effects of sleep deprivation on neural functioning: an integrative review. T.W.Boonstra, J.F.Stins and P.J. Beek (2007)
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2778638/
  • Stress: a social issue (2018) https://www.brunet.ca/en/advices/stress-a-social-issue.html
  • Dehydration and it’s effects on performance by Asker Jeukendrup and Michael Gleason
  • Cirque Physio Blog
  • Stretchitapp Blog