If you are trying to improve your flexibility, sometimes it can feel disheartening because the progress seems slow. This blog will explain how muscle lengthens over time and understanding it will hopefully give you some patience with your body.
If we zoom into a muscle we find individual muscle fibres, running along the length of the muscle. If we zoom in even further we can see that the fibre is made up of units, called sarcomeres. Think of sarcomeres as beads on a string. Each sarcomere is made up of overlapping filaments. It is the movement of these filaments over one another than shortens the muscle fibre and contracts the muscle.
When we spend time in a position that shortens our muscles (for example sitting in a chair which shortens our hamstrings) the sarcomeres are bunched up i.e. there is a lot of overlap between the filaments. This is not an advantageous position for the muscle as it cannot generate much force. The body recognises and responds by removing sarcomeres from the muscle fibre. There are now fewer beads along that string and the muscle becomes, quite literally, shorter.
While it is a good thing that our bodies are able to adapt to our most frequently used positions, it is also problematic when we spend long periods of time in the same positions. Chairs, sofas, car seats, waiting room chairs, seats on the bus, train and planes all put our hamstrings in that same shortened position. Overtime the muscle gets shorter and our mobility suffers as a result.
Lengthening the muscles isn’t just a case of stretching something that is tight, it is a case of re adapting the muscle to a longer length and encouraging additional sarcomeres to be added. We need equal information to lengthen as we give the muscle to shortern . This requires spending plenty of time in positions where the muscle is lengthened. For the hamstrings this means walking, standing, sitting on the floor with legs outstretched. Over time it does make a difference.
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