Static stretching is one of the most entrenched exercise habits in the western hemisphere, especially for runners. It doesn’t do any favors to our running economy, our injury rates, our long-term development of power—and yet it endures.
You would think this means that we have an unabashed cultural acceptance of stretching, but that isn’t so. No matter how positively we speak of stretching, or how much we proselytize its benefits, the language that we use to describe it (and its effects) continue to carry hints that it isn’t—and will never be—a real solution.
The latest issue of Runner’s World ran an article on page 50 titled “What can I do about perpetually sore calves.” The background image depicts someone’s calf muscles being stretched, with a little blurb next to it, which reads: “Fend off postrun tightness in your calves and hamstrings with the Downward Dog yoga pose.”
The language is telling: according to the author, all you can do about this perpetual, recurring problem is to “fend off” its symptoms by doing a particular yoga pose. Even though you could think of it as nothing more than a cutesy way of catching someone’s attention, we already know from previous cultural examples that these sorts of sound bites, regardless of how innocuous they may be, describe important cultural phenomena and social systems.
A great example of this is the phrase “boys will be boys”—a phrase which has been used to justify a wide array of oppressive social systems, from bullying to rape culture. This is a rhetorical tautology—a phrase which describes something by repeating or rephrasing the subject in the predicate, with the intention of making the assertion logically irrefutable. However, rhetorical tautologies are not merely assertions of supposed facts; they are used to convince someone of something, by using the tautological structure as an argument. In the case of “boys will be boys,” the logical irrefutability of the phrase is used to sell some sort of existential irrefutability: this is how boys are in this culture, and you can’t question that. The point is that the kind of structure or semantics of the phrase tell you very important things about the specifics of the system that this language describes. It is almost as if, embedded in the cultural unconscious, the very real knowledge that bullying is an oppressive system (which serves to maintain the status quo) “leaks out” into our use of language.
This language is what in systems thinking we would call a linguistic artifact—a clue that the problem that we are describing with language belongs to a particular systemic archetype. In the case of static stretching, the archetype in question is Shifting the Burden.
Shifting the Burden systems form when there is a problem that can be addressed by a quick-fix (a solution that only addresses the symptoms), or by a fundamental solution that addresses the underlying problem. However, in Shifting the Burden systems, the “symptomatic” solution has a side-effect that inhibits the system’s ability to solve the underlying problem. The burden for solving the problem therefore becomes shifted away from the fundamental solution towards a symptomatic solution. The system is rendered less and less capable of addressing the fundamental problem until the only possible recourse—unless something else changes—is to “fend off” the symptoms using the initial quick-fix:
It isn’t unexpected that the system in question is shifting the burden away from some fundamental solution onto a symptomatic one. Most of our culture specializes on quick-fixes: drink to loosen your tongue. Take pills for back pain. Buy the latest phone to feel fulfilled. Now, while it may not be unexpected, it is completely counterproductive.
But at least we have a linguistic artifact that helps us identify the problem. As soon as we hear or read the words “fend off,” we can be reasonably sure that we are dealing with an example of shifting the burden, and therefore that it is time to start looking elsewhere for the real solution. When soreness occurs in the rear muscles, such as the calves, we know that it has to do because the anterior (frontal) muscles are too weak. As I’ve discussed before, this occurs because the posterior (rear) muscles have a mechanical advantage over the front muscles; they can move the joints more easily, and therefore are easier to train and develop. So, the fundamental solution in the case of sore calves and hamstrings is to train the anterior calf muscles and the quadriceps, respectively. The Gait Guys capture the fundamental solution of this shifting the burden system into an easily-digestible sound bite:
“Develop anterior strength to earn posterior length.”
By developing the anterior calf muscles, we can stop “fending off” calf soreness and tightness and actually begin moving in a direction that solves the problem. On the other hand, Runner’s World seems to be unaware of this fundamental solution—or that “fending off” the problem, any problem, is never the answer. Indeed, as Peter Senge mentioned in a recent workshop I took, one of the main problems with shifting the burden systems is that all too often, what we think of as the fundamental solution actually turns out to be the symptomatic solution. Perhaps the writers or the editors simply don’t know about anterior strength, or they think their readers too unsophisticated to care (or to implement a fundamental solution), or they are too risk-averse to challenge the status quo.
Who knows? But I’ll tell you this much: the answer to that particular question, “What can I do about perpetually sore calves?” isn’t to “fend it off” with anything. If you do that, they’ll be perpetually sore, and you’ll find yourself perpetually fending off that soreness. No amount of debate, insistence, or rationalization, will change the fact that we are dealing with a shifting the burden system. Static stretching masquerading as a yoga pose isn’t the answer—and never will be.
P.S. You can find an exercise to help with posterior strength at The Gait Guys’ blog, here. A telling tidbit from the blog post I linked to:
“Anyhow, STOP passively stretching your calf muscles !!!!!!”