While the concept of muscle pliability has increased in popularity in recent years, it’s been around since at least the early 1990s. In a 1994 Chicago Tribune article, “Flexibility Is Out, Muscle Pliability Is In, Says Expert,” Stretch and Strengthen author Judy Alter explains, “Your goal is not flexibility. Muscle pliability is what you want for better movement.”
In that same article, personal trainer Carmen McFadden says that men are generally less pliable, since “they want bulk and forget about lengthening muscles,” but also adds that a good number of women have tight hamstrings from the power bursts of high-impact aerobics classes.
“Bodybuilders can be so much more pliable without losing size,” says McFadden, noting that the size of a muscle doesn’t have to inhibit its ability to work a joint. She also explains that runners could lack muscle pliability because their muscles adapt to the shorter range of motion of that exercise.
So, what exactly is muscle pliability and why does it matter? Let’s take a deeper look.
What Is Muscle Pliability?
Many people have made the word “pliable” interchangeable with “flexible.” However, as Sean Peters, a spa coordinator and massage therapist in Boston, Massachusetts, explains in this AskMen article, there’s a lot more to pliability than being flexible.
“Being pliable, especially in terms of muscle, is a lot more than being able to touch your toes or wrap your leg around your head,” he says. “Being pliable isn’t muscle tissue that is squishy to the touch. It’s muscle tissue that’s adaptable to the demands on the muscle.”
Dr. John Rusin and Dr. Joel Seedman, strength training and exercise physiology experts, tell STACK that while the term “muscle pliability” is ambiguous and could mean many different things, they believe that it’s likely an umbrella term for several qualities, including flexibility, mobility, neural tone and length-tension relationship.
They explain that flexibility refers to a muscle’s ability to lengthen, with a more flexible muscle able to lengthen further than a tight muscle. Mobility refers to functional movement, with mobile athletes able to move their joints in the required ranges of motion for their sport and training. Neural tone refers to the activity of a muscle group, not muscle tone in an aesthetic sense. If there’s high neural tone, then there’s more tension in a muscle and it becomes shorter. Reducing neural tone allows a muscle to relax.
“Decreasing neural tone of tissues should carry over to functional activities, increase usable ranges of motion, open up active ranges of motion, and allow an athlete to not get bound down with chronic aches and pains,” says Dr. Rusin.
As for the length-tension relationship, your muscles have an optimal length, according to Seedman.
“There’s an optimal length that a muscle needs to be firing at, and you can make the muscle too long or too short. If you have too much shortening of the muscle, it won’t produce enough force. If it’s too lengthened, you will lose force.”
These are all important aspects of a traditional strength and conditioning program, and they should always be factored in.
Why Does Muscle Pliability Matter?
Pliable muscles can move through full ranges of motion, carry weight over certain distances and react quickly.
Chris Lauer, DC, a chiropractor at LifeClinic in Chanhassen, Minnesota, says that when muscles retain their optimal function and range of motion – a full contraction and a full relaxation – you build resilience to injury and perform at your best. However, wear and tear over time, or not recovering properly, can lead to injury and the body “splinting up” micro-traumas with scar tissue that shortens tissues, according to Lauer. Therefore, the normal contraction-relaxation motion is altered, leading to pain and potentially further injury.
“When you focus on only strength, you tend to lose pliability, mobility, and flexibility,” Lauer told AskMen. “When we lose that and we can’t fully contract a muscle, we lose strength. We need to focus on both sides of the coin.”
How Can You Incorporate Muscle Pliability Into Your Routine?
Pliability – via massage, foam rolling and more – can shorten the amount of time you’re sore post-workout, increase your body’s ability to switch into “rest and digest” mode, and maintain healthy ranges of motion.
Massage therapy is a beneficial treatment for maintaining and improving flexibility and motion. By working on muscles, connective tissues, tendons, ligaments and joints, regular massage can improve your flexibility and range of motion, keeping your joints more fluid and making them less prone to injury.
If you’re on your own, but still want to experience the benefits of a massage, you can give yourself a self-massage.
Neck/Shoulders – If you want to give your neck and shoulders a self-massage, drop your shoulders, so that they’re not hunched by your ears, then slowly tuck your chin to your chest to stretch your neck, according to the TODAY article titled “How to give yourself one heck of a killer massage.” Place two or three fingers on the back of your neck, where your neck and shoulders meet. Press firmly and hold, releasing when the muscle feels more relaxed. Then, roll your shoulders forward and back slowly, repeating as needed.
Hands/Forearms – To give your hands and forearms a self-massage, Jennifer Durkin, a massage therapist in Worcester, Massachusetts, says to relax one arm, palm up, on top of your thigh, then push the heel of your other palm slowly along the forearm in the direction of your wrist. Use enough pressure to feel some heat, but not to give yourself a brush burn. Do the same thing across your open palm all the way down toward your fingertips, then again over the mound of your thumb. Repeat this a few times, Durkin says, then switch hands.
Lower Back – Place a tennis ball on the floor and lie on it, or position it between your back and the wall. Move your body slowly up and down and side to side, so that the ball massages any areas of muscle tightness (avoid your spine to prevent injury). Press hard enough to squish the ball a little, but not so hard that you’re feeling pain. Just a few minutes of rolling is sufficient.
Like massage, foam rolling stimulates pressure receptors beneath your skin, says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, in a TIME article, “You Asked: Should I use a Foam Roller?”
“When you stimulate those pressure receptors, that stimulation increases vagal activity in the brain, which has been linked to relaxation of the nervous system, reduced levels of stress hormones like cortisol and improved pain tolerance,” Field says.
A review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests that foam rolling and roller massage may be effective interventions for enhancing joint range of motion and pre- and post-exercise muscle performance. A study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation also found that foam rolling combined with static stretching could increase range of motion in the hip more than stretching alone.
Two to three sets of foam rolling lasting between 30 and 60 seconds – that’s per muscle, not total – seems to be effective at reducing pain and improving flexibility, David Behm, a professor of human kinetics at the University of Newfoundland, tells TIME. Behm says to roll before exercise if you want to boost range of motion or performance, and to roll post-workout in order to prevent soreness.
If you want to up your foam rolling experience, there are higher end foam rollers with vibrating functionality, which could further increase circulation, relax and loosen muscles and prevent soreness.
Any good post-workout stretching will counteract any shortening of the muscle from aerobic activity or weight training. This is effective because the muscles are still warm and able to pump out the lactic acid buildup from exercise.
It’s also important for you to stretch before you exercise. Brent Bishop, a Toronto based fitness expert and owner of Think Fitness Studios, recommends dynamic stretches (moving through a controlled range of motion) before working out rather than static stretches (holding one position for up to 30 seconds), according to Best Health. By taking part in dynamic stretches before exercising, Bishop says that you’ll not only reduce the chance of injury, but you’ll also improve your performance.
“It primes your nervous system, increasing circulation to the joints and muscles,” Bishop says. “This is essential to making them more pliable for the activity that you’re going to be doing.”
Dynamic stretching also helps increase your mobility and range of motion, and doing static stretches without a warm up could actually lead to a pulled muscle.
“My main message is to listen to your body,” says Alter in that previous 1994 Chicago Tribune article. “If you feel it in your joints, stop. Warm up the muscles, not the joints.”
More than 25 years later, that still sounds like good advice to us.
Disclaimer – This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice.