Rethinking Flexibility!

Updated: May 22, 2019

It is human nature to treat something the way we view it.

· If we see something we view as beautiful or exciting, we react positively.

· If we see something we view as ugly or angry, we react negatively.

· If we see something we view as worrisome or scary, we react with caution.

· If we see something we view as new or interesting, we react with curiosity.

And as many of us have experienced, our views can change based on how much knowledge we have on a topic.

· A girl you once viewed as cute and witty, you now view as self absorbed and untrustworthy after 7 years of dating.

· A coworker you once viewed as odd and mysterious, you now view as funny and thoughtful after having a few conversations over lunch at work.

· A neighbor you once viewed as kind and helpful, you now view as a predator after hearing he’s been secretly raping and killing people.

· A stranger you once viewed as dangerous and threatening, you now take pity on after hearing they were falsely accused of a crime they never committed.

The list goes on and on. So how does this relate to flexibility training? Well, its all about how YOU as individual view the term flexibility training. For example, when individuals inquire about training with me the most common requests I hear and read are:

· I want my shoulders to be more flexible so I can grab my ankle in needle scale.

· I want my back to be more flexible so I can do a cheststand.

· I want my hips to be more flexible so I can do splits.

Unless you have gone to school for it, most people don’t know the kinesiology behind the movement or pose. This means understanding the muscles of the body and what their job is in relation to the bones and other muscles in order to achieve poses such as need scales, cheststands and splits. If you do not really have any knowledge about anatomy or physiology, you wouldn’t know what to do or where to start with flexibility training. This means that most of us go to stretch classes to learn or just do our best at home with tutorials we find online. We often assume that the individuals teaching us flexibility have a wealth of knowledge about it because they are teaching it after all.

A typical flexibility or contortion class will have you hold a lot of static stretches. An instructor may come around and quickly help push or pull you deeper into a position until you feel like crying and then move on to the next person. The bases of these classes are to relax and stretch. First off, pure stretching itself should not be a painfully intense feeling especially if you are relaxing. If someone is pushing you down, and your mind and body are resisting and you feel frozen in pain… that is NOT normal. Being uncomfortable is completely normal, but pain is not and should never be brushed off as something you need to deal with. Our body has these amazing protective systems that sends signals to us when something is wrong. Our body actually has 3 major ones: fight, flight and freeze!

· Fighting through the pain by grimacing and pushing through it until something eventually pops, tears, snaps or dislocates.

· Flight, as in fleeing from the pain by quickly coming out of a stretch because your body just forces you exit.

· And freezing up in pain by tensing your muscles and resisting the position you are being pulled or pushed into.

If you have been experiencing any of the above for long periods of time, you have most likely conditioned yourself to believing that flexibility is supposed to be painful, and you will never be flexible because you don’t know how much more pain you can handle. So how do you undo that kind of trauma to your mind and body? Or better yet, how do you AVOID causing that type of trauma? Well, understanding what you are trying to achieve in these 'stretches' would be a good step.

So ‘flexibility training’ isn’t what most people view it as. Flexibility is not stretching. Flexibility is Flexion. It is the ability to flex one part of our body to lengthen the opposing side. For example, the biceps and triceps along with other surrounding, smaller muscles work together to allow you to bend and straighten the elbow. When we want to bend your elbow, the biceps muscles contract and at the same time, the triceps muscle relax. The bicep is the flexor, and the tricep is the extensor of your elbow joint. Other muscles that work together are the quads and hamstrings used to bend and straighten the knee, and the pectorals and trapezius are used to move the arms and shoulders back and forth.

When we are trying to gain greater range of motion, what we really should be thinking about is strengthening the muscles surrounding the joint that we are trying to gain more range in. Let’s not get confused though. Strengthening muscles around your joint doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym and lifting weights to bulk up. It means to do specific exercises to target, engage, strengthen and develop individual muscles to do a very specific job. The stronger the individual muscles get, the more helpful it is going to be for actions that require it to work in a group of muscles.

Now… all the sudden we decide we want to make cool and unusual shapes with our bodies. But most of us are not able to achieve these dramatic curves and extensions because the only muscles in our body know how to work are the big ones. Over our lifetime the big muscles submit to working overtime based on how we move though life. This makes the smaller muscles take a back seat and become a bit uneducated about their function in the grand muscular system. So when we begin practicing new actions that require the little muscles to work and help, they cannot because they aren’t trained to help in that way YET.

For instance, you want to have “flexible shoulders,” but putting your arms up on a chair, mat or wall and pressing your chest down towards the floor isn’t make your shoulder more flexible. Well the reason behind this is because you aren’t stretching your shoulders. You are actually stretching your triceps (depending on the angles of your arms) as well as your pectoral and chest muscles. And if you aren’t using the flexion of the muscles behind your shoulder and around your shoulder blades, then that means you are passively putting pressure into your shoulder joint causing stress to the tendons and ligaments.

Anatomically, the arms can only go back so far with the amount of tissues we have around them. If we want to reach behind our ears we need to use the muscular engagement of the shoulder girdle and upper back. These muscles help pull our arms up and back to create that curve in our upper spine, which makes reaching our arms back look even more dramatic. If we spend too much time passively bent over a chair, mat or wall, we will never build the muscles behind our shoulders to actually reach our legs in needle scale or bridge. All we will have is moderate pectoral and tricep extension and weak shoulder joints.

In addition to training the shoulders ineffectively, many students are being told that they need to stretch their back more to have a better backbend. Well, technically stretching our back would mean performing the opposite of a backbend. Stretching the back would be any type of forward fold where we engage our core to curl forward towards the toes, while a full body backbend typically requires us to stretch and elongate the triceps, chest, abdominals and hips and quads. That means the opposing muscles such as the trapezius, rhomboids, teres, lats, erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings need flexion strength to curl us back. The stronger your flexion is, the more dramatic your backbend will become.

Think of backbending strength similar to performing hamstring curls while in a lunge position. We engage the hamstring to bend at the knee and bring the heel toward our glute. This lengthens the quad and hips flexors. If the hamstrings are weak and the quads and hips are tight, getting our heel to actually touch the glute muscle will be very difficult at first. After training this motion for some time (weeks, months, years) the hamstring will get stronger and the flexion will increase when bringing the heel closer to the glute. Back bending is the same idea. The stronger the OVERALL flexion of the spine becomes, the more dramatic a backbend can be achieved.

Backbending involves many muscles. Remember what I mentioned about the shoulder joint girdle having little muscles sitting around not knowing their flexion function? Well, the whole back has muscles that are uneducated about their function during backbending in addition of the shoulder girdle, pelvis and hip joints. Backbending takes a whole team of different muscles purposefully performing opposing actions to achieve a pose or motion. To maximize our training efforts this means we have to actively think about what we are doing in these positions. We have to locate which muscles are underperforming and condition them so they can be recruited into the backbending team.

So all that being said, remember that flexibility training is not pure passive stretching. Do not cringe at the thought of flexibility stretching. Change your perspective. Flexibility is Flexion. It is the ability to flex and curl up one part of our body, which just so happens to lengthen the opposing side. Flexibility is still an exercise for parts of our body that are not usually exercised. Strength of flexion varies based on how much muscular development a specific muscle or group of muscles has for that action. Bridges, needle scales and cheststands require you to use flexion of the entire back side of your body to elongate the front side of your body. Middle splits require you to engage the outside of your thighs to pull open and lengthen the inside of your thighs. Rather than focusing on the passive lengthening, we should actually be focusing on building strength in our opposing muscles.

Rewire your mind. Rethink your training.

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