When people wake up in the morning complaining of a “stiff back,” the remedy might include taking a hot shower, doing some yoga, swallowing aspirin, or visiting a physical therapist to loosen up. Stiffness is typically view as unpleasant and can limit one’s physical activities. Surprisingly, though, for elite athletes like professional basketball players, muscle stiffness is not only something that is necessary, you could say it’s their superpower.
As a physical therapist and researcher who works with National Basketball Association players; so I’m interest in understand the key factors that help to minimize injury risk; also maximize performance in elite athletes and understanding stiffness is an important part of that.
Movements including walking
Physiologists think of muscles as being like bio mechanical springs. Muscles contract to produce forces that help you move and stretch to allow enough range of movement. Stiffness is a way to talk about how springy a muscle is. It is a characteristic of how much it can lengthen in response to an apply force. The spring of a muscle allows it not only to stretch; but also to recoil during muscle contraction. This process allows for movements including walking, running and jumping.
Lower extremity stiffness is important for optimal basketball performance; so because athletes who appropriately use greater stiffness characteristics can take advantage of the elastic energy it creates. A muscle can only stretch so far because its length is limit by its degree of stiffness. So, like a spring or a rubber band, when the muscle is stretched; so that stiffness helps to create elastic energy that can then be use with a muscle contraction to help you run or jump on the court.
However, there is a point of diminishing returns. Too much muscle stiffness can lead to reduce joint motion and a decrease ability to absorb shock at the joints. This can place one at greater risk for stress fractures or even osteoarthritis, the wear and tear of cartilage that can cause joint pain. Evidence suggests that too much stiffness may lead to injury.
Appropriate range of motion
And on the other side of the spectrum; so a player needs a certain degree of flexibility and joint mobility; hence to support the proper elongation of muscle and tendons that allow for the appropriate range of motion. So players need to balance these extremes; so landing in the sweet spot of optimal lower extremity stiffness: not too much, which can lead to high levels of force and loading rates and a greater risk for bony injuries.
My research team is investigating these relationships in an attempt to help elite athletes minimize risk of injury; also maximize performance. The first step is in understanding what “normal” clinical measurements are for elite athletes. Textbook values have establish for the general population but this information is lacking for NBA players. For example, a typical value of ankle flexibility for the average individual is about 50 to 55 degrees.
Research related to better understanding the continuum between stiffness and compliance can help physical therapists and trainers when working with basketball players. They need to know dosage how much to stretch or strengthen. Work is underway that contributes to this endeavor.
There are also initiatives that aim to understand player load and the cumulative physical demands that elite athletes undergo when generating fast and powerful movements. Researchers also need to understand what the best methods and technologies are for monitoring these loads. My colleagues and I theorize that there is an optimal level of compliance and stiffness that helps keep our basketball heroes super.