Anne Tierney: Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching (LBP 022)

In this episode I talk with Anne Tierney of Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching. Discovering myths about stretching and flexibility (as well as discovering what actually works!)  has been a recent obsession of mine lately, and with all I've discovered Ki-Hara looks to be one of the most promising options out there for obtaining gains not only in flexibility, but also in strength. Anne and I talk about what the advantages are of this kind of eccentric training, why alleviating global imbalances is the name of the game, how all of this can lead to a pain-free life, the dangers of overstretching, and why the results of this kind of work are more lasting.




Show notes:

Anne Tierney and Steve Sierra have created Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching. It's a form of bodywork focusing on eccentric trainig and balance in the body. So while it is a flexibility program, there is a big focus on strength. Mainly on balancing muscle groups.

The muscles are being contracted and lengthened simultaneously. Eccentric is lengthening under contraction. Most people are used to relaxing into a stretch, but if you contract a muscle while you stretch it you don't over stretch it and it creates its own safety mechanism.

I reference Jules Mitchell interview (on the podcast in the past, linked at the bottom of this post) and that if your nervous system can be in control you can get more out of it.

When you think about being stretched it's a very vulnerable thing. You're just trying to push yourself farther and farther and you don't know if you're engaging the muscles, or if other muscles are substituting. We say when you can't resist anymore that's the end range of the stretch. That's it's own built in safety mechanism. That way there is an actual neurological connection so you know you're working the muscles you are supposed to be working. That prevents you from injuring yourself from stretching.

[Brooke:] You're saying people talk about it [being injured from stretching] a lot, but there are some communities- some yoga forms and even some athletic disciplines- where there is a belief that there is no amount of stretch that is too much. There isn't an idea that there is too much- the more gumby we can get he better off we are, but people really do injure themselves that way.

What it usually is is that they don't have the strength in the range, or it's that their body is so unbalanced. If you see people with really long hamstrings and their quads are really short... If you have one muscle that is underactive, and the balancing muscle is overactive, that's where injuries occur, because you have nothing stopping the other. That's the really problem with stretching too much- it can't fire when it gets in those really long ranges. if it doesn't have the strength to come out of those really long ranges we consider that damaged muscle. It isn't working properly.

The question isn't can you do the splits, but can you pull yourself out of the splits?

[Brooke:] There is research showing that eccentrically trained muscle is stronger than concentrically trained muscle. (in resources)

If you're in the gym and you are weight training with a 20 lb dumbbell that you're gong to do a bicep curl. Raising up that dumbell might be harder, but the lowering is easy. You see people trying to raise these heavy weights swinging their whole body, but lowering it is no problem.  That shows you right there that an eccentrically trained muscle is stronger. It takes about 2x the force to stretch a muscle as to contract a muscle. An eccentric muscle is able to handle a lot more load than a concentric muscle.

[Brooke:] And this creates more powerful and explosive movements when you are training eccentrically.

You can load it more, you're going to get more range out of it, and if you have the power at those end ranges and can go farther, that creates the more powerful more explosive movements which is really key for athletics.

[Brooke:] You also touched on that you are not really so interested in spot treating things, you are looking at these issues of global imbalance.

A lot of great therapists don't treat the symptoms, but try to find the source. Let's say a pulled groin or adductor muscle- they are going to ask what can i do for the adductor muscle? We re going to ask what is going on in those abductor or outside muscles that is causing the inside muscles to pull like that? The outside muscles are usually way too dominant, and the inside muscles are too weak and don't have the force to overcome it. We are always balancing muscle groups. Or we're gong to find he right combination. Steve always says it's like a lock, and you try to find the right combination to unlock it.

So if someone has back pain, we're not going to look at their back, just like a lot of people wouldn't. A lot of times the source of that pain comes from the front of the body, not just he abdominals, but the quads, or the iliopsoas being really tight and pulling on the lower back...

It's about altering this balance of the length-tension relationships in the body.

The length-tension goes along with the eccentric training. Basically we are trying to broaden that length-tension curve so that as you lengthen you still have tension. Every muscle group of the body has a different length-tension curve. When we do it manually we can focus on every different muscle group and treat it all differently. And we view every person as being different and every body part as being different.

[Brooke:] If I were going to get a session with you, how would that go?

First we'll do some basic evaluations and assessments- we'll watch you walk and sit, we'll ask you if you are having any aches and pains, see if there are any muscles that seem not to be firing, to be not connected neurologically. We get a feel for what is not working and what is working.

[Brooke:] Do people usually work with you long term or for a session?

If people come to us with pain things can typically be resolved in anywhere in 5 to 10 sessions- that depends on their lifestyle too- but they usually still come back because is it feels good.

[Brooke:] The results do seem to be lasting, clearly you are talking to the nervous system in the way that it can digest the information and keep it.

It's pretty bizarre. We've seen it over and over again. People can't believe it when they haven't been able to touch their toes for 15 years and they can touch them after the session. And when we see them next time they can still touch their toes even if they didn't do their homework.

[Brooke:] I'm putting out on the site soon a guide on just rehabilitating short hamstrings because I hear about that issue so much (in resources).

Stretch the quads and strengthen the hamstrings! Usually people need strength in the hamstrings and glutes. And if it can't fire under a loaded contraction- you can't stretch a muscle that's not strong. You need both. A lot of people focus on one or the other- stretching with yoga, or hitting it hard and lifting in the gym. But you need both.

Sitting- I think in the article that brought you here (in resources- the piece I wrote on Breaking Muscle) if you're sitting all the time the tissue starts to get adapted to that position. If your arm has been in a bent arm cast for 4 or 5 weeks they can't stretch it out. That's because they couldn't move it and so the body decides that's how they want it to be. The body thinks it's helping you.

[Brooke:] It does what we tell it to do!

[Brooke:] Speaking of that casting analogy- one of the articles you had sent over to me is about the sarcomeres and that with the Ki-Hara work it actually shows an increase in sarcomeres.

I'm not an expert in sarcomereogenesis by any means, but the research shows that the eccentric contractions can increase the sarcomeres especially at the end ranges over time. This allows for increased range of motion and control of the end ranges. To e able to create more sarcomeres is an incredible thing, we've seen it time and time again that the eccentric stretching concept is really working.

[Brooke] You've worked with a number of high level athletes, probably most notably the Olympic swimmer Dara Torres.

They are the hardest working, most dedicated people and are in a league of their own when it comes to being focused and working hard. They usually have something really special about them. They are genetic freaks in some ways, along with their drive and dedication.

Dara had some of the best tissue we've ever worked on. She was tested at some point and she has more type 2 muscle fibers than all the other Olympians- type 2 is the fast twitch. Ki-Hara really hones in on that and makes more type 2. So it was a marriage made in heaven.

What are some of the things you are currently fascinated by either in your work with other people or in your own daily movement practice?

I have a 3 year old son, so he keeps me pretty busy. I'm fascinated by the things they can put their bodies through. I'm very intrigued by athletes and their recovery. It's amazing how much athletes can abuse their bodies and continue to do it. I'd like to see more of them take better care of their bodies. It's the best investment they can make. Dara put a lot of money into her body and it can pay off. I'd like to see other athletes realize that if they take care of themselves they can play longer and just feel better.

It's counterintuitive [contracting while lengthening] but it really works and we have some amazing trainers across the country who are really genuine people and work really hard. It's great for the everyday person too, just to give their body some relief from the routine.

We do something called mashing which is the bodywork with our feet (in resources), the stretching itself helps regenerate things. The more the muscles are being eccentrically loaded, the less sore they get. As you go on you get less and less sore and you train harder.

Home play!

Anne Tierney was kind enough to give me permission to link to 3 of their YouTube videos in the Liberated Body Guide to Short Hamstrings. So what better way to get a feel for Ki-Hara than to try it out! Here is Dara Torres demonstrating 3 resistance stretches for the hamstrings muscle group:

Video 1 is for the medial hamstring

Video 2 is for the central hamstring

Video 3 is for the lateral hamstring


Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching

Eccentric training (article by Pam Pedlow summarizing the research on gains from eccentric training)

Liberated Body Guide to Short Hamstrings

My article on Breaking Muscle: Stretching Doesn't Work (the Way You Think it Does)

Data - Altering the Length Tension Relationship with Eccentric Exercise: Brughelli and Cronin: School of Exercise, Biomedical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Australia (this includes the information on sacromerogenesis)

Dara Torres training program

Ki-Hara athletes

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Jules Mitchell: The Science of Stretching (LBP 009)

I got a chance to talk with Jules Mitchell right after she turned in her Master’s thesis on the science of stretching. Jules’ work blends biomechanics with the tradition of yoga to help people move better, and while looking into the research on stretching she discovered some pretty eye-opening things! For example, the idea that we can persistently stretch a muscle and have it grow longer, it turns out, is not true. We get into many other myths of stretching- and it seems there are plenty- what really works, what’s really risky, and what a better model of viewing the body might be when we put aside the “stretch tight bits to make them looser” paradigm.




Show notes

Exercise Science is a field of science with many different aspects. Jules focused on biomechanics in her Master's work, which is a science of forces and how the body responds to loads.

Yoga therapy can mean many things, but for Jules it means the application of biomechanics into yoga. It takes into consideration how the body is responding to loads, and how individuals have a loading history based on what they have done in the past, so you can't give people a blanket yoga practice.

Her Master's Thesis is basically the science of stretching.

About 1 year into the research she discovered that what she had learned from the yoga community was not supported by the science.

She went through a pretty big transformation from that and had to allow herself to unlearn and approach the science with a blank slate, and then to re-learn.

The concept of stretching in itself, at least in the yoga community, this idea that if you stretch more and stretch harder that it will get longer and you will increase your range and you will get more flexible has very little truth to it. In reality that's just damaging it [the tissue].

If you hold a rubber band and stretch it, then you release that- you release the load- it goes back to its original shape.

Lack of range of motion is not realty about lengthening. It's much more an issue of tolerance. It' s a use it or lose it thing. If you never work in that range of motion your body doesn't understand it and doesn't want to go there. So your nervous system limits your range of motion.

That argument is the hardest one to come to terms with- that for the most part range of motion is an issue of tolerance and not mechanical length.

"Tolerance" means can they go there? When they hit the end of their range, that's their nervous system limiting their range. If they were under anesthesia, they would have a full range of motion.

For those who are dealing with limited range, or flexibility issues, what can they do? Gentle, passive stretching to the point of tolerance where they can relax into it and their nervous system feels safe there, and be there for 30 seconds to no more than 1 minute.

If you really want to see changes it's really about using it. Create muscle force at that range of motion. It's active, your body has to be in control.

Jules does more strength training at these ranges of motion than passive stretching and that's where you start to see the results, because your neuromuscular system starts to work in cooperation.

Pectoralis minor (images here) if that's my issue and I want it to get longer, what would it look like to do this with strength training?

Jules says she is not going to use the word "longer" because the range won't increase. And it's not just pec minor, it's all the connective tissue around it, the ligaments of the joint, all the neighboring muscles, etc.

How that would work, you would bring the shoulder into a range where the shoulder is limited, and then you would work in that range on flexing the muscle to get it as strong as it can at that limited range. It's kind of like resistance stretching. You are stimulating the fibers so that they can communicate with your nervous system back and forth, and that's one of the most effective ways because you are developing strength and control in that joint position.

At the opposite end of that she would refer them to Restorative Yoga which is based in props. You wouldn't try to stretch as hard as you can. When you stretch as far as you can what's already compliant is going to stretch first so you're not going to hit your target tissue. But if you properly use props now there's a more equal force distribution, and you can be in that pose for a long time and communicate to your nervous system.

We are dynamic communicating organisms vs. lumps of clay that can be molded. It's all about how our nervous system regulates our muscle tissue, which transmits a force to our connective tissue.

We have to look at the tensegrity model where muscle fibers literally embed into connective tissue. If you think about it your muscles are contractile tissues- that's what they do. They produce force. the sarcomeres are literally transmitting force to the connective tissues all around, not just length-wise but also radially outwards in all directions and dimensions.

If you don't have the ability to control the muscle force in all dimensions you run into weakened muscle force. We want our muscle tissue to be strong enough to move.

[said another way] We want to be stiff- just stiff in all ranges of motion, not just one range of motion. In a full range of motion "stiff" makes us powerful beings and now we have a full range.

This idea that the more flexible we are the better off we are- when reality those people have more trouble "holding themselves together".

How does someone get "tight" in the first place?

Jules does not use that word, because there is no definition for tight. It's not a mechanical term.

If we're going to go with air quotes "tight", or talk about limited range of motion- that you can only take your joint in certain positions- that happens, 9 times out of 10, because it hasn't been used there, so the nervous system doesn't put it there. The muscle fibers aren't strong enough to maintain that force regulation through the body. It will go to where it's safer. It's not a matter of tightness, it's more a matter of communication.

Jules mentions Van der Wal's article (which is linked below in the resources). He was groundbreaking in this research. He was an anatomist and he realized that our mathematical models for human movement weren't fitting in to how we viewed anatomy. We really aren't a collection of muscles. There's never any part of the body that's slack. His work was groundbreaking for understanding tensegrity. Force transmits radially through out the body, so everything is always under some degree of tension.

One of my favorite Dr. Rolf quotes of all time: "Wherever you think it is, it ain't"

Stretching an injury: we have a cultural misunderstanding of stretching. We have an idea that if it hurts, stretch it. People who are in pain should just leave it alone instead of stretching it and instead move it and use it so the muscle fibers will direct the loads where it's supposed to go.

If you have a tendon or ligament tear, that you want to wait before you stretch. A big problem is that the inflammation goes down within a few days and they no longer feel the injury and so are ready to go right back to stretching it. It's a good 6 weeks before the collagen can take stretching. And that's conservative; A safe measure would be 1 to 2 years.

Most often it takes some re-injury before people are willing to hear that advice about not stretching.

Nobody cares about stretching the way the yoga community does. In the research and in the Exercise Science community there is no interest in these extreme ranges. In fact, in the research Jules was looking at- in many cases people who practiced yoga did were excluded from the studies because they don't expect these extreme ranges.

The biggest surprise was that there was very little research on yoga and flexibility. She found one short study. The yoga community has done some great research but more on mental health and relationships.

However in 2012 Yoga Journal did a study on the 18 million Americans that practice yoga and the number 1 reason they were practicing yoga was to increase flexibility, so there' s a big disconnect [between the research and the reasons people seek out a yoga practice].

When flexibility is the issue for a person, stretching is not going to help. Moving frequently in more full ranges of motion and incrementally increasing the load is actually the answer.

Jules believes that is what yoga was meant to do- yoga is using your body weight in a bunch of different positions.

But we have gone in this "push harder, harder, harder" mentality and you have 80 people in a classroom, and some have been doing handstands for 10 years, and some just got off their couch, and you're giving them the same class. That's scary.

You can't expect a yoga teacher, or any other fitness instructor, in a group setting to be able to fully take into consideration how you have used your body for its whole history. And you have to keep that in mind.

In her own practice Jules is currently playing with decreasing her flexibility. She was never hypermobile, but she's learned that she was really flexible and she was really weak in these full ranges of motion. Increasing the muscle contraction at the end range has got her feeling better than she ever has.

Home play!

I am in the process of finishing the first Liberated Body Guide (short guides of what works for what) and the first one will be the Short Hamstrings Guide ("short" in air quotes, but Limited Range of Motion in Your Hamstrings makes for a wordy title...). Because my world is fairly hamstrings-centric right now due to the guide, let's play with load instead of stretching to see how the hamstrings respond. For one week play with swapping out any stretching protocol you might have for squatting, lunging, or a Founder (from the previous episode with Eric Goodman) and see what response you get. I'm talking about body-weight movements that are not high velocity or high quantity. This is good for both the "tight" types and the Gumby types, so everybody wins!


Jules Mitchell's site

Jules' most current blog post which covers in more detail what we talked about in the interview: Stretching and Muscle Control

Restorative Yoga

Jaap van der Wal article  (It's exceptional, print it out and digest slowly...)

Jules' post that I refer to in the home play section: Are You Really Stretching What You Think You Are?