What Really is 'Natural' Flexibility?

Updated: Dec 26, 2018

I started flexibility training about 7 years ago. Back then if you wanted to learn flexibility you either went to yoga classes or track down and learn from a contortionist who had been doing it since they were 4. There were no ‘flexibility experts’ when I was learning (in KANSAS of all places), and especially not for adults. I was lucky enough find and attend contortion classes, although they were far more advanced than my beginner level. At the time I was super weak, which caused me to be super-stiff. I suffered from back-strain pain from years of bad posture, yet here I was in contortion classes with a few kids ages 8-12 that are natural noodles. Aside from the lovely instructor, I only had those kids to compare myself to and it was really frustrating. But I didn't want to give up because I really wanted to do contortion as long as I can remember. I didn't want to just be flexible, I wanted that official contortionist title. There was really no other reason behind it other than it's just how I felt.

Standing Split in the Wetlands of Las Vegas, NV

Overtime, I stopped comparing myself to the bendy children in my class and the professional contortionists that had been training for years. I was in school at the time and changed my major last minute to Exercises Science, allowing me to study more Kinesiology. This was only the beginning of me starting to learn and understand why my progression was different from the progression of children and ‘naturally' flexible adults. In my opinion, I think genetics plays a very small roll in ‘natural’ flexibility unless you have an actual disorder or structural deformation. Hyperextension of joints like elbows or knees and high arches in the feet are often passed down through genetics. Genetics generally affect structural or neurological portions of our physiology, and not so much the muscular aspects. From the personal data I have been collecting over the past several years, I find that a lot of flexibility actually stems from how we move through life from birth. Our ROM as it is today all depends heavily on what habits (good or bad) our body has developed over our lifetime. 

Looking back, I truly never did anything as a kid that would have ever made or kept my back pliable to help progress my backbends easily as an adult. Had I habitually repeated random acts of backbending up until I started contortion training, I probably would have adapted better and faster to the flexibility training. What do I mean by "habitually repeated random acts of backbending"? These are actions we do every single day as a habit, like washing our hands or brushing our teeth. Here are several real examples I have found from students and friends who have natural backbends or are more flexible on one side of the back than the other:

- Arching back over a chair since grade school multiple times a day

- Purposefully twisting and cracking the spine every morning since childhood

- Arching back over a bench after weekly piano lessons

- Twisting heavily when reaching for toilet paper that is placed beside the toilet tank every day

- Arching back over the side of the bed multiple every morning since grade school

- Sitting at a desk and twisting the one side to face computer since high-school

These repeated motions overtime develops the muscles for that action until it starts to feel natural. It would be the same as carrying a purse on one shoulder since high school. At first its a little awkward and heavy, but eventually you will develop a natural lean to counter the weight. Then years later the purse is the same weight if not heavier and it feels like a feather. But now you have structurally developed: a lifted shoulder, a lean away from the bag, (which makes your opposite side of your torso bend more) and a twisted hip (because your purse is heavy not only beside but also behind you) so you need to bring that opposite hip forward to balance the weight. And yet as you walk around all crooked, it somehow feels natural and you don't even notice all the imbalanced extensions and flexions of the torso you have created by repeating this motion over and over again for years.

Now, I have noticed that adults that who gain flexibility quicker have been doing specific repetitive motions throughout their entire lives that just so happen to also benefit their ROM. For 'naturally' flexible individuals there muscles have been habitually repeating an action multiple times that make them appear 3 steps ahead of the 'naturally' stiff person today. When you stop and think about it, flexibility didn't come easy for these individuals. They have been working on these actions for years, even decades! They have put in a lot of time to get there muscles to appear 'naturally' flexible. So there is no need to scoff at what seems to be unfairly handed to those individuals who have been putting in the practice without really being aware of it. If you just started working on stretches and exercises that you haven't done in years or ever, you shouldn't expect to be as proficient as those who have been executing variations of these movements for a lifetime.

I can knowingly say that I never did any backbend motions as a kid. I remember not trying or even thinking to try any type of backbend. I spent most of my childhood and teen years hunching over and getting told to stand with my back flat against a wall by my mom because I looked like a hunchback. How did I end up like a hunchback? Well, 90% of the time I would lay on my tummy with pillows under my chest and chin while I read or did homework for hours at a time. This position extended my neck and rounded my upper back causing weak upper and mid back muscles. Since the placement of my pillows was primarily under my upper torso, physics-wise it made my hips sink into my mattress causing heavy flexion of my lower back. This gave me pretty strong lordosis (sway back) and excellent lengthened hip flexors. Add that all together and throw in the genetically inherited hyperextended knees and you get a human that stands like the letter S, which I actually had been called that growing up.

Also since childhood I habitually stretched my legs without really putting any thought into it. I also practiced ballet since I was about 8 years of age, which is all about leg extension. Sadly I did not practice equally on both sides, which has left me fixing 12 years of bad muscular habits that affected my structural development and anatomy. Ballet however did help tremendously with the development of my active leg flexibility. Here are a few examples of movements I did since childhood that developed ‘natural' flexibility in my legs:

- Sitting in butterfly pose pushing my knees down to the floor for long periods of time.

- Sitting in a wide straddle with my elbows to the ground in front of me. SO COMFORTABLE!

- I was never very good at just sitting normal on the sofa, I would often have one leg propped up high or pulling my leg in towards my chest for a split.

- I read books in a variety of split poses while laying on the floor: straddles, pigeon position, butterfly pose, frog pose, splits, etc.

- I sleep with my legs literally sprawled as wide as possible, so I find it difficult as an adult to sleep in a small space as my hamstrings cramp up and hips and quads get achy.

I continued to habitually repeat these actions into adulthood. Heck, I have my legs extended now while I am typing. My body has been doing it for so long that it just feels more natural than sitting upright at a desk. Although my overall backbend has improved so much, it still isn’t as ‘naturally' flexible as my splits. Although I will say that after introducing back bending into my life several years ago and habitually working on a variety of backbend exercises for that long, it has become much easier for my body to quickly get into deep backbend positions. It took me about 6-7 years to make my body crave back bending. Those first 2 years were the hardest because it was difficult. It wasn’t fun because it wasn’t easy since backbending wasn’t natural to my body yet, and I wasn’t always doing it 100% right. Around my 3rd and 4th years of training, I started to develop more action-specific muscular habits, which boosted my internal awareness tremendously.

These days I can absolutely do a cheststand without warming up, but it doesn’t feel fully comfortable. I have to repeat it a few more times for it to get warmed up enough that it feels good with feet flat. However, with my legs I can do standing splits with no warm up and it feel so great on the first try that I don’t have to do it anymore after that. I may not feel like a million bucks when I get into a cheststand cold YET, but looking back I used to warm up for 3 hours to attempt a bad cheststand and now I am able to do it comfortably after a few attempts. The way I see it is that all these years of backbend practice is becoming more and more natural to my body. It has taken me 7 years to undo 21 years of slouching, which I think is really good considering I started after my muscles and bones where fully developed. I am honestly excited to see what my body can do after 10 years or training!

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