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Why the Body Chooses Stiffness over Stability & How To Fix It

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 04 March 2020
Hits: 6401

One of the most confusing things I come across when working with people who have chronic injury is why the body chooses to stiffen joints and continue using this strategy even though it is causing itself considerable pain? Our instincts and common treatment strategies to get rid of stiffness in many cases only serve to make it worse if we ignore the reason behind the stiffness in the first place which in all cases will come back to poor stability and movement skill. This is definitely one of those topics that can be really confusing to get your head around at first for the solution goes against common logic. However, once you understand WHY the body is using this strategy you will appreciate that the solution is not just to remove stiffness but it replace it with a better alternative. In this article I will show you how.

What Causes Stiffness of Joints?

Something I often see in the gym is where a person with a knee or hip injury appears to be much more stable on the injured leg than the good leg. On assessment of single leg balance the injured leg performs much better than the non-injured side? This makes no sense for if it is injured you would expect it would have a hard time stabilising itself. So why does it balance better? And if it is more stable, this means it should be much stronger and not in pain. So why is it in pain?

I struggled with these questions for a long time and even with many of my own injuries. There is many reasons this might be happening but often what is really going on is the body has stiffened the joint in order to protect it. In the short term the stiffness is a great strategy to protect from further harm but over the long term it is a disaster on multiple levels.

Often stiffness starts from repetitive bad habits such as gripping, or poor training techniques that lead to poor posture and a faulty compensatory movement being produced over and over to a point where this is the only way the brain knows how to do this movement. This in turn creates shortened range of motion through the joint for the faulty movement is weaker than the optimal movement. No pain may be present but you can noticeably see a restricted amount of movement. However, if you were to force the person into the optimal range, pain would be the instant result as the body would sense it cannot stabilise itself at that position, so a message to stiffen the joint is sent from the brain to protect itself and prevent the deep range being achieved.

"Stiffness is a false result of stability, and the body's attempt at creating its own version of stabilisation."

Now where it gets even more confusing is how you need to correct this. Our instincts would say we need to improve the mobility of the stiff joint so it can move through the full range and this is often the thinking behind many of the current treatments by health professionals. It seems logical right, a joint is stiff so I will loosen it and it will go back to normal. Unfortunately this is very rarely successful if this is all you do. Especially if the person has been dealing with a chronic injury for some time and the stiffness is the only thing holding them together.

There is no way the body is going to release the stiffness until it is shown a better version of stability. But how do you improve stability while the joint is too stiff to move?

Mobility problems are movement dysfunctions. They are a by-product of inappropriate movement, the result of poorly managed injury (which we see a lot with ACL injuries), physical stress, postural stress and even emotional stress. All these issues on their own or together can reduce mobility of the body. Loss of mobility sometimes is the only way the body can hold itself together for it has lost so much stability, stiffness is all it has left. It has no other choice.

Before we jump into answering some of the complex questions posed earlier we need to define what stability is. Firstly stability and balance are not the same thing. 

Stability is where joints are perfectly positioned for movement and is not limited to the legs. This is where we look at areas like the rotator cuff of the shoulder, the feet and even the various muscles providing hip stability. This is where you often see great core strengthening exercises like the horse stance often used. This is not balance training, this is more about trying to find optimal alignment of joints.

It is believed that impaired “joint position sense”, when overlooked in a rehabilitation program, may be a leading cause for recurrent injuries and hence this is when people look for stability exercises. Unfortunately many make the mistake that any type of balance work is good, which may cause more harm.

Balance we rate more as a skill and much differently in relation to use with injury as it may interfere with the joint’s ability to position correctly. If a person has trouble aligning perfectly on the floor they will be much worse if you place them on a balance board. There is nothing to be gained from using this approach while their basic positioning is faulty. This does not mean it is not useful for rehab, it may be a perfect choice for the person who can squat with great form on the floor to encourage activation of the reflex stabilizers.

You have to know exactly WHY you are using some balance exercises when working with rehabilitation and injury, for if the challenge is too great the exercise could cause more harm than good. This is evaluated on a case by case situation.

You can read more about this in the article - Is Balance and Unstable Surface Training a Useful Tool or Dangerous Gimmick?

Okay now that you are clear on what stability is let's answer some of the confusing questions from earlier.

Stiffness Being Used As A Protective Mechanism

I am going to give you two examples of stiffness being used as a protective mechanism to help you understand why this inferior strategy develops and why in some cases it is absolutely necessary. I will also explain why it will never go away if you fail to address the reason it was created in the first place.

Example 1: Knee Stiffness

The first example is where we see stiffness at the knee joint that appears to help improve single leg balance. This begins to explain one of our questions from the introduction as to how someone can have better stability on their injured leg.

Below is a video of a client who has trained with me for many years and suffers with this exact scenario and you can observe how her right leg appears to be much worse than her injured leg. Her left knee has lost significant mobility following a full knee reconstruction whereas her right knee has full range.

This is something I see quite a lot with people who have had chronic knee pain for some time. And the simple answer is that the body has found a way to create stability of the knee using a stiffening approach. The stiffness has enabled the person to protect the knee but it comes at a huge price to their ability to move freely, especially with the hips. These people will find running impossible and great leg strengthening exercises like squats and lunges extremely awkward to do. Over time they will often experience back pain due to the hip dysfunction.

The body has sacrificed its hip mobility to prevent excessive movement around the knee. The hip has changed its role from being a joint primarily concerned with mobility to now a joint creating stiffness. The complete opposite of its design.

While this sounds good to the knee it exposes massive problems to your ability to complete tasks that require hip mobility such as lunges and squats. When the hip locks itself up like this the lumbar spine will be forced to find the lost mobility by sacrificing its stability! This is how a serious back problem like a bulging disc injury can develop from the knee stiffness. Basically you have solved one problem only to create another more serious one!

It is also where we see the good leg constantly fatigued and develop niggling muscular strains and sprains due to over-use as the body constantly compensates and avoid using the compromised leg.

Example 2: Back/hamstring stiffness

The second example is where a person has very stiff hamstrings, suffers with back pain and unable to touch their toes no matter how often they stretch. Poor toe touches will have more to do with hip mobility and the hamstrings are actually tightening up to protect you.

Last year we covered this in great detail in our article Back pain myths busted and once again the loss of hip mobility here is the real problem.

If you’re unable to shift your butt backward as the upper body half of your body leans down and forward, your hamstrings will contract to prevent you from losing balance and falling forward. In this case, the hamstrings are merely acting as parking brakes to stop you from hurting yourself. And if you are locked in extension you will also have problems bending over. In both cases the chances of you using your lumbar spine to fully flex on itself to complete the task of touching your toes is very likely. Repeatedly doing this weakens the stabilizers and exposes the discs to complete rupture. As the brain senses the threat it begins to limit any activity that involves this movement and the hamstrings go into protective mode.

Remember the lumbar spine wants to remain in neutral as much as possible as this is where it is the most stable and strong. The hips should be providing the mobility and not the lumbar spine. Simple everyday movements performed poorly can be enough to make this happen. Watch the video below to see more about this.

Why Does the Body Choose to Compensate, if it Causes Pain Elsewhere?

Another great question and the answer here lies in the body's survival instincts.

The body is very smart and can anticipate pain before you even move. It can instantly rearrange and change motor programs and movements to protect itself from immediate harm. It does not question if a movement is good or bad or try to predict future problems, it is only concerned with the task at hand safely and efficiently with the tools it has at its disposal. This is a good thing in a life and death situation as it can save your life. Long term side effects are irrelevant if you do not survive this current situation so the body is designed to only think about what is happening in the immediate situation.

This is why learning correct techniques and training them to a point where they are automatic as the body will pick these patterns up in its catalogue of programs to use. You can see why we say technique is everything.

This is a big factor to consider when observing a faulty movement and to avoid making the assumption that it is one muscle to blame. For what appears to be a tight muscle or a weak muscle, may just be compensation in that particular movement.

Read our article - Why You Cannot Blame A Single Muscle For A Movement Problem

You will see their lack of "true stability" revealed whenever you challenge the body with full range of motion. This is not just limited to knee pain either we see this regularly with shoulder problems and even the lower back.

What Happens If You Leave Stiffness Unchecked?

If stiffness is left unchecked for a long period of time the end result is inevitably osteoarthritis. Poor alignment of joints that has been temporarily resolved with stiffness does not prevent the inevitable destruction of cartilage. Once again the body does not predict future problems it only resolves the current one. It is up to you to recognize dysfunctional movement and rectify it before it is too late.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition of the joints, which over time become painfully inflamed. If you have joint degeneration without pain, the condition is known as osteoarthrosis. With both conditions there is deterioration of the joint ‘cartilage’ – a smooth substance that covers bone endings, allowing bones to glide over each other with minimal friction. Cartilage also cushions force as it is transmitted through the joints and when you have used it up, there is no way to create more!

"Osteoarthritis, more accurately described as degenerative joint disease, is just one manifestation of poor movement strategies and is not simply a process of getting older" - Dr Evan Osar

The reason we see osteoarthritis surface in older adults is the length of time the person has spent moving poorly that eventually ends up completely wearing and tearing the joints, cartilage, ligaments to a point where bone is rubbing bone and pain sets in. Added on top of this is a lack of muscle and you now have the perfect recipe for unstable joints that create stiffness, osteoarthritis, and eventually chronic pain. This is why a person who has never played sports before can suffer with pain from simple activities of life like walking.

And if you are thinking surgery is the solution you can think again. Remember surgery does not change the faulty movement that caused the problem. What do you think is going to happen when they clean the joint out or even replace it for that matter and you go back home with the same movement you had before the surgery? The body will continue to use what it was doing before for it knows nothing else and you will be back to where you started in no time.

Read the article - What you need to know about osteoarthritis for more detail on this.

Why Mobilising the Joint Will Do Little To Change Stiffness If That Is All You Do

Okay so we are now up to the part where we need to correct the stiffness. As we discussed in the introduction logic tells us we need to mobilize the affected area with stretching, massage and various other techniques to restore full range of motion.

This is partly correct for it is true that we need to find ways to restore mobility but HOW you do this will vary a lot from person to person. The trick is to find the pattern where the stiffness is used the most and change the mobility within this pattern. Easier said than done, but that is the only way to get rid of the stiffness for good. You have to convince the brain that there is a better way to move than its current compensatory pattern and it will only trust this new program if it is learned enough times to become automatic. And that means you must use exercises to improve the timing and strength of weak and inhibited muscles that have been lying dormant for some time.

If mobility is improved a very small window of opportunity will appear in which the body cannot rely on stiffness as its method of stabilizing as you have just disabled the muscle/s responsible. In this window is where you can begin to strengthen muscles primarily responsible for stability and begin to involve them in the process of movement again. You have to be very careful with how much you do for too intense or excessive volume will turn the stiffening muscles back on. The exercises must challenge the stabilisers enough to retrain them but not so much that it fatigues them excessively. Usually bodyweight exercises are enough to do this and keeping the reps to small amounts that encourage quality.

For example let’s say we could improve hip mobility with the guy who cannot touch his toes using a series of hip stretches and foam rolling. It may even allow for his core to reset itself instantly as a result. While all of this is great it is useless to the brain if it only knows the previous motor program of bending it had prior to the stretching. We need exercises that teach him how to bend correctly to complete the process . This is also where people skip the mobility work and go straight to the exercises, but this will also encounter problems. For remember the stiffness in his hips is stopping him from bending correctly. You have to work on both things simultaneously but always in the order of mobility work first and then instantly apply the new way of moving which we would classify as stability training.

Round and round you go with this method of mobilizing and then instantly stabilizing until the body can begin to move confidently with full range and using stability instead of stiffness. This will take some time to do but the effort is well worth it.

You can watch a video below of me putting this to practice with the bending action.

Now there is tons of stability based exercises you can use and I could go on forever with ideas of how things you can try. It all depends on the person and how they move. There is a great FREE REPORT you can download below that gives you a ton of information about how to do this.

The last thing to consider is where people may develop stiffness due to TOO MUCH MOBILITY, otherwise known as hypermobility. Its ironic that their incredible flexibility now comes back to bite them!

Lying on the ground they are often incredibly flexible as there is no need to stabilize so the muscles let go and relax. Yet the minute they stand up and stability is required they move with stiffness as if the muscles are tight. If they do not have enough stability the body is forced to use stiffness to protect itself during movement and it will instantly give up this incredible flexibility to protect itself. Any mobility work with these people will make matters worse for you will be loosening a joint that is already too loose.

They actually need to be tightened up to loosen up. If you suspect you are hypermobile make sure you read the article below as this includes some tests you can use to determine this.

Everything you need to know about hypermobility

This is the similar problem we see with older adults who have lost considerable muscle mass. Their body has tightened up due to inactivity. Stretching these people is a waste of time for there is no way the body is ever going to loosen up if there is nothing to support it. The more you try to stretch these people the more pain you give them. They must learn how to move more efficiently and develop strength into these movements as seen in the video below.

I know this might be hard to get your head around so I do encourage you to read the article below that help to explain this in more detail.

Why strength training is the best anti ageing exercise

Exercise Methods You Can Try

As I said earlier there are endless exercises and methods you can use to achieve the goal of improving stability, you just have to find the right one for the person you are working with. All of our online programs for knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, piriformis syndrome, and ACL injuries all follow this process of improving mobility and immediately following up with stability, strength and lastly power.

We refer to this as the success formula.

If you are suffering with any of these injuries right now and would like more help in designing your corrective program click on the image below of the program you require.

   

It is important to understand that strength can never be obtained if stability is not present first. Again this is a big mistake people make looking for strengthening exercises without addressing the motor program coordinating movement first. Strength cannot over-ride poor movement. This is where isolated strength training exercises can create more trouble if they are not used in conjunction with movement pattern retraining. 

Kneeling exercises are fantastic for training stability of the hips and core for it removes the need for strength in the legs removing much of the unwanted stiffness and allowing you to focus on the small stability muscles concerned with timing and reflex control. 

Below are two video examples where we use this method to correct a knee problem and a hip problem.

Summary

I hope I have been able to explain this concept effectively to you today and you now have a better appreciation of why the body actually needs stiffness if you do not move well. There is no point just releasing a stiff muscle if that is what is holding you together. You actually would not want it to release the stiffness for the consequence could be much worse such as a dislocation or fracture.

Applying a process of improving mobility first and immediately following up with the corrective stabilising drill will teach the body a new way to move. With perfect practice and time it will become the new motor program that no longer relies on stiffness as its strategy. And when this happens is when you are pain free and can move with full range of motion comfortably and efficiently. Getting fit is now much easier and safer and you will enjoy exercise more than ever before.

If you enjoyed this article, live in Melbourne and would like to organise a Free Consultation to discuss how we can help you improve your strength and movement fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist