You might have heard the term “muscle pliability.”  Its become popular among some NFL athletes and fitness gurus. But what does it really mean and is it good?

While its an awesome term, we are going to shed some light on what this really means and how to get it.

What Is Pliability?

So lets start by figuring out what it means.  According to Miriam-Webster Dictionary here’s what pliable means;

Definition of pliable

1        a : supple enough to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking
b : yielding readily to others
2        : adjustable to varying conditions

Those are great descriptions of the qualities we want in the muscle of an athlete (or any active person for that matter). 

So it’s a good concept for something we want to achieve in our athletes. However, its being mixed up with a lot of confusing statements.

Certified Athletic Trainer, Misao Tanioka has worked with Olympians and National Teams around the globe from Volleyball to Snowboarding.  “The word pliability in my opinion depicts the ideal muscle tissue quality.  It is similar to suppleness, elasticity or resilience in my viewpoint.  Unfortunately, however, I believe there is some misunderstanding…”  she shares.

3 Common Myths About Muscle Pliability.

Muscle pliability is an important concept, but there is a lot of confusion about what it means and how you get it.

So to create better muscle pliability definition, here are the four most common myths people have about it.

Myth 1: Muscles that are “soft” are better than dense…

That depends on what qualifies as “soft” muscle.  Vive Recovery Specialist Cindy Vick has worked on hundreds of elite athletes including NFL players and Olympians in many sports. 

“Soft isn’t a word I would use for an athlete. When I’m working on an elderly client, I often feel muscles that could be called soft.  It’s not dense.  That’s not what I feel when working on elite athletes.  The athletes who are healthy and performing well have muscles that have density.  At the same time those muscle also aren’t over tense and they can move freely.  It’s smooth and supple.”

The quality of your muscles is affected by many things.  Factors such as; stress, competition, nutrition, training, and recovery. 

At Vive, maintaining tissue quality is a constant endeavor.  The different assisted stretching techniques and manual tissue work by our team are all part of the equation.

Myth 2: Dense = stiff muscles = easily injured….

Using the words and relationships this way is both an over-simplification and in some ways completely wrong.

You have to start with that word; dense. 

Tanioka says, “Dense tissue can be elastic.  Would that really mean the same as stiff and easily be torn?”  

Imagine a rubber band. 

Muscle pliability and elasticity from tissue work
Elasticity like a rubber band is one component of muscle pliability.

Dense isn’t bad, but unable to move is.  “If they are talking about a muscle with adhesions, or wont move evenly and smoothly, yeah that’s a problem”, adds Cindy Vick.

Scientifically, stiffness is how much a muscle resists stretch under tension.

Practically it’s more like thinking about the elastic qualities of a rubber band.  The harder it is to pull, the stiffer it is.  If a muscle can’t give and stretch when it needs to, that’s bad.

However, imagine a rubber band trying to protect your joint. When a muscle has to exert force against the impact of an opponent or gravity, stiffness can help resist the joint & ligaments being overloaded.

If someone is using “dense” muscle to describe restrictions, thats another story! Restriction isn’t good.

Densification is a process that create “adhesions” within soft tissues. Fibrotic scarring from injuries is also a problem. Those “dense” tissues aren’t what we would consider pliable.

Myth 3: Strength training makes muscles short…

“It’s an old wives’ tale that took hold when body building training had a big influence on strength & conditioning.  A muscle can be incredibly strong and still have a full range of motion,” according international expert, and President of Vive Recovery Centers, Ken Vick.  Vick has worked with athletes in 11 Olympic Games and helped organize recovery centers for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games so he’s spent a lot of time focused on muscle tissue quality.

“I’ll give you two great examples.  Gymnasts are pound for pound very strong and incredibly explosive, yet they are known to be some of the most flexible athletes.  Olympic weightlifters, clearly some of the strongest athletes in the world are also generally very flexible.  They practically spend every day doing strength training and their muscles aren’t “short”.

The key is how the athlete trains and recovers.  When strength is also combined with dynamic mobility, movement training and recovery you can have both.  Together they help athletes get strong, without limiting the range of motion.

Myth 4: Pliability just means flexibility

Flexibility is the joint and tissue ability to move through a full range of motion.  Its really just a quantitative measure of passive motion.

Pliability, on the other hand involves the tissue ability to move, and the quality it moves with. 

“Flexibility is well and good, but most people don’t want to be Gumby,” quips Vick.  “Pliability involves the concept of muscle that can move but also smoothly resist motion and apply force. So it essence its not just about the muscle tissue, but the nervous system input to that muscle as well”

Flexibility can be useful, but without considering its movement quality, you are missing the point.

Can pliability help you avoid muscle injury?

Is pliability in your muscle something that can help you stay healthy and avoid injury?

“The importance of the ability to lengthen, relax and disperse the high velocity, heavy incoming force to avoid injury.  Absolutely,” says Tanioka.

“However, I think that it is also necessary to be able to exert maximum [muscle] power whether actively generating the strong force or counteract passively against the incoming stress, which requires the ability to shorten and be taut and firm as well.  The tissue quality is just as important to be durable and contractile against injury as being able to elongate and soften.”

Muscle Pliability Is A Good Thing

Vive’s founders recognized decades ago the challenge of conveying the quality of tissue from therapists to athletes and coaches. That information is vital to coaches working with elite athletes.

A therapist gets their hands on the tissue and has years of experience.  They can tell a lot about the state of the athlete’s tissue and how well an athlete is adapting

The pliability of muscle tissue is one of the key factors.  Pliable muscle is healthy muscle and a healthy system.

PNF assisted stretching
Assisted stretching is a good tool in maintaining muscle pliability

So how do you increase muscle pliability?

It starts with the training and fitness activities you do. Secondly, pliability is enhanced or maintained with your recovery habits

TRAINING

  • 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.  It’s also important to work through a full joint range of motion.
  • Different speeds of movement:  Grinding out slow heavy lifts or a long steady hike is 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 a specific intention, not just left to chance.

RECOVERY

Make Your Muscle More Pliable

All in all the concept of muscle pliability is important.  A simple muscle pliability definition is: tissue that is smooth, supple, and springy.

Pliable muscle strikes a balance between the density and suppleness we expect in the muscles of athletes and active people.

Tissue that is pliable lets you do the things you enjoy the most.  When that pliability is lost and tissue becomes restricted, fibrous, and weak, you won’t be doing those things you love for long.