Guest Blog from Vive Recovery Centers
In the quest to improve movement quality & efficiency, as well as reduce the risk of injury, pliability has become a popular topic.
This guide will help you with ways to improve muscle pliability.
What Is Pliability?
Pliability describes the quality of muscle tissue. Function focuses on effective/efficient movement. It’s not just about how much muscle, how much range of motion, or how much force.
Pliability is an underlying tissue quality that improves those things.
Sports medicine and tissue professionals use the term to describe muscle tissue. Three components that they incorporate into the concept of pliability include;
- Elasticity – has spring after yielding and while absorbing force
- Smooth – layers of tissue glide freely, without adhesions
- Supple – muscle may be dense but it is adaptable and unrestricted
Those are great descriptions of the qualities we want in the muscle of any active person or athlete. So improving muscle pliability is a worthwhile goal.
“Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” — Lao Tzu
Is Muscle Pliability the Same as Flexibility?
No. Muscle pliability is not the same as flexibility.
Flexibility is the ability of joints and tissues to move through a full range of motion. Its just a quantitative measure of passive motion.
Pliability, on the other hand, involves the tissue’s ability to move, and the quality it moves with.
You might be able to move through a specific range of motion, but you can still lack pliability. Without pliability, that motion could come unevenly, with added stress, or lack of elasticity to spring back well.
So how far you can move and stretch a muscle, doesn’t entirely reflect if it is pliable.
Why Is Improving Muscle Pliability Important?
Movement and muscle contraction transmit forces through connected chains into the tissue of your body.
These forces can be dissipated effectively across tissues and joints or overload them.
The forces can be used elastically like a new rubber band, or damage tissue like ones that are ragged and worn out.
The question of whether you can use that force effectively is answered by whether your muscles are adequately pliable.
The most important ability for an athlete is availability. Injuries are the greatest setback for anyone who wants to be fit, active, and do the things they love.
Pliability is key to your body remaining resilient when you go out and push it hard playing, training, and living.
Is Pliability Only a Muscle Quality?
No. In humans, you can’t anatomically or functionally separate the muscle from connective tissue completely.
Muscle is surrounded by layers of fascia and connects to bones through tendons. Fascia also is a tensional network transmitting forces through the body (Schleip ed. 2012). It’s interwoven with-in your muscles like a web helping to give it structure and affecting its elasticity.
So while people commonly refer to “muscle” pliability, in fact, its “tissue” pliability that includes muscles, tendons, and fascia.
Is Muscle Pliability Based on Science?
Muscle pliability is more than just a term used by professionals, its a valid physiological construct (Science Direct) although there can be some confusion in popular media. The elements making up pliability are measurable and based in science.
First of all, the elasticity (Uffmann 2004) and compliance (Simons 1998 ) of myofascial tissue can be measured.
Secondly, muscle tone (Gubler-Hanna 2007) and stiffness (Prune 2016) can be measured in several different ways.
Furthermore, MSK ultrasound imaging visually shows how much fascial layers are sliding and it can be measured (Soares 2021).
So, pliability is not be universally defined or used appropriately in some social media posts. However, these are real, measurable qualities of muscle, tendinous, and fascial tissue.
How Do You Improve Muscle Pliability?
Pliability is key for movement, and it has scientifically measurable qualities. Therefore, improving muscle pliability is important. So, what can you do to make it better?
Movement is key to tissue pliability. “Motion is lotion” is a saying that emphasizes a scientific fact.
The contraction, relaxation, and stretching/sliding of muscles, tendons and fascia does in fact lubricate the joints and tissues. Forceful contractions positively influence the hydration and chemical composition of muscles.
Lack of movement causes both functional (Campbell 2019 ) and physiological (Williams 1984) changes to tissues. Furthermore, pliability gets worse when you don’t move enough (Cowman 2015).
Moving through a full range of motion helps prevent adhesions from developing in the fascia. Additionally, it helps to prevent the densification of tissues.
Here are few things to consider to move well;
- Train with full motion: Training in multiple planes of motion (up/down, side/side, rotate, front/back) is a great step. Too many athletes start using the same motions again and again. That is to say, it’s also important to work through a full joint range of motion.
- Different speeds of movement: Grinding out slow heavy lifts or steady hikes are great. However, sometimes you need to be moving faster, and bouncier. Muscles need to move in different ways to stay pliable.
- Active mobility work: Mobility (both flexibility and stability) needs to be trained with specific intention, not just left to chance.
Hands-on Tissue Work
If you want to improve muscle pliability you can take a page from elite athletes and teams and focus on professional tissue work.
We aren’t talking about a relaxing Swedish massage (although they can be great!)
The changes in tissue compliance and elasticity before and after tissue work (Jędrzejewski 2020, Costello 2016) are measurable.
Trained therapists use the skill of their hands along with specialized tools to get the results you need. These approaches can be highly targeted to specific tissues, structures, and myofascial chains.
Tissue work targets both physiological structures and nervous system function.
In short, for improving muscle pliability, skilled hands-on tissue work is the gold standard.
Hydration is a crucial factor in muscle pliability. Muscles that aren’t hydrated begin to look and feel like beef jerky instead of Grade-A steak. Consequently, they can’t absorb the forces thrown their way.
Proper hydration is critical for just about every biological process, including performance, recovery, and overall health.
Did you know that muscles are ~75% water?!
Water is needed for lubricating the tissue of fascia and muscle as they slide freely.
Therefore, if you aren’t sufficiently hydrated, your muscles won’t perform, respond, or recover optimally.
Nutrition is also a crucial factor after hydration in ensuring muscle pliability. What we put inside of our bodies has a direct impact on our muscles and in particular, our bodies’ inflammatory responses to certain foods.
A good diet is important for improving muscle pliability because ongoing inflammation in your tissues can lead to the degeneration of those tissues (Howard 2020).
As a result, if you do this long enough, your tissues will lose elasticity. Firstly, this occurs by changing the extracellular matrix composition and fiber alignment.
Secondly, instead of aligned and sliding collagen fibers in your connective tissue, chronic inflammation can stimulate crosslinks that restrict motion
Stretching is Not Enough to Improve Muscle Pliability
Stretching is a piece of the puzzle to gain or maintain your muscle pliability, but it’s not enough on its own. Movement through a full range is more effective because it stretches the muscles along with contracting them which has a greater effect.
For one thing, stretching helps more with the neurological control of muscle tension, not the actual physical muscle pliability (Ylinen, 2009).
Additionally, stretching doesn’t create the same stimulus for changes to the extra-cellar matrix in your connective tissue that influence pliability.
Foam rolling has become one of the go to practices in the fitness world as a way to “release” muscle adhesions. However, in recent years its taken some criticism as the pressures applied aren’t enough to actually deform fascial tissue or adhesions.
While true, this criticism may be missing the bigger picture. Foam rolling can aid in an individual’s awareness of muscle pliability. It increases their neurological input to the brain. Accessing the nervous system can help “release” muscle tension and trigger points neurologically, not structurally.
So along with moving, and between tissue work sessions, use that foam roller to help maintain your tissue quality!
Start Improving Your Muscle Pliability Today
Muscle pliability is a term that describes optimal muscle qualities. Pliable tissue is elastic and yielding. Furthermore, it is unrestricted, smooth, and supple.
Pliability is about more than muscle. It includes complete myofascial chains of muscles, tendons, and fascia.
If you want to move better, stay healthy, and enjoy the things you love more, then focus on improving your pliability with these basic strategies.