How many of you do not think they are flexible? Please, raise your hand. How many of you cannot touch your hands to your toes? Uh-huh, that’s about what I thought. How many of you think that foam rolling, daily stretching, and stretching pre- and post-workout are things that you should add into your daily routine? Yup, pretty predictable.
Here is the thing about stretching and flexibility – it is really not all that it is cracked up to be. I know that we think that there are a lot of benefits to flexibility but, as I hope you learn in this article, it is not flexibility we want, but mobility.
What Does it Mean to be Flexible
What exactly is flexibility? Dropping into the splits? Touching your toes? Getting your hands to touch behind your back? Yoga? We all have different ideas of flexibility but what we think flexibility is, is not what it actually is. Most people think that flexibility is being able to do all of the things listed above. But these feats actually take a combination of being mobile and flexible. I will get into this powerful combo later.
To bend easily without breaking is the definition of being flexible. But when talking about flexible in human anatomy context the definition changes to the range of motion in a joint. Now this can vary from person to person and joint to joint.
What we think, in our competitive human brain, is that there are certain positions that constitute flexibility. So, we try to get into the pose and train ourselves to do these movements by stretching in all sorts of funky ways. But why then do so many people have tight hamstrings, or tense upper backs and necks? If stretching, foam rolling, etc. worked so well then how is it possible that we are so tight? Because we are chasing a symptom when we change the tightness.
The Root Cause to What is Keeping You from Being Flexible
Basic anatomy lesson coming at you. Muscles move bones via the use of tendons, a part of the muscle that attaches to bones on either end. Bones connect to other bones via ligaments that help to keep the structure together. Now while muscles move bones, bones actually set something called a length-tension relationship for a muscle. Think about a muscle like a rubber band. When it is shorter there is little to no tension, but when you stretch it long then there is a lot of tension.
When Does This Change?
Now, naturally (and I am talking out of the womb, babies and shortly thereafter) our bodies are very capable of going through their full range of motion with ease. Because we are so naturally curious at this age, we tend to explore most ranges of motions which keep us flexible. The older we get the less diverse our movement diet becomes and the more our ranges of motions decrease. This happens for two reasons:
- Our bodies move away from alignment. As the bones change position, they change the way the muscles sit, which can make them long or short, and cause undue stress. The less aligned we are the less “safe” movement we can create. If we are properly aligned, then we have a solid range of movement to move through that is supported by other muscles and joints. If our joints and muscles are already compromised at the start, then we cannot do as much movement.
- The less we do a movement the more foreign it is to our bodies. The only reason that most of us are really good at walking is because we walk every day. If we danced instead of walked or walked on our hands, then these movements would be the norm and we could do them with ease. Our brain, bodies, and nerves would not have to react and think about the movement, it would just happen. So, the less we do a movement the more obstacles we need to get through mentally and physically to those movements again.
Why Stretching Doesn’t Work
Before I get into what you actually need to “get flexible” let’s talk about why stretching as a whole does not work.
Posture wise, when stretching, we focus on changing muscles, not where the bones sit. If we have no way of more permanently changing the where the bone sits then not matter how much we try to change the muscle, they will keep going back to their pre-set tension. Why? Because the bones are the structures that determine each muscle’s length-tension relationship.
Nervous system wise, when we stretch, we usually try to take a joint and surrounding muscles past their normal range of motion. Think really straining to touch your toes, or spreading your legs apart and seeing if you can get past your knees to your ankles, etc. Now essentially what we try to do here is to stretch the muscles. But we all know what stops us here. That nerve sensation of tightness and like if you do any further something is going to snap.
Say hello to your muscle fiber spindles and Golgi tendon organs. The former is located in the belly of the muscle and the latter is located in the tendon that connects the end of each muscle to our bones. Both of these amazingly intelligent mechanisms measure for one thing, tension. If the tension comes on too fast, which happens when we stretch with cold muscles or wrestle ourselves into a position, we are met with these little receptors yelling back to our central nervous system to hit the brakes. While annoying, this is the way that our nervous system protects us from injury.
In order to see and feel the difference we want to see in our flexible, we need to focus on posture and the nervous system over the muscles themselves.
How to Increase the Strength in Your Joint’s Range of Motion – Stable + Mobile = Flexible
Think of becoming more stable like getting your body back into alignment. Now the reason this is so important is because if we can get your body aligned you joints will be more stable. The more stable your joints are the further they can move and more dynamically they can move without pain, injury, or issue. Think about it like two games of Jenga. One that has been played for the last 10 minutes and the other that has a brand-new setup. The one with the new setup is stable. You can bump the table and be a little freer when it comes to picking a piece to remove. The other one that is missing pieces, has been bumped out of place, and the like is just one bump from falling over.
Which is why the closer we can get your joints, meaning your bone structure, into vertical and horizontal alignment the safer support you have.
Mobility is the ease with which you can move your body or have your body freely moved. I like to think about this as the true version of what you want muscles to be. Think of what it would be like to correctly call on all of your muscles with ease? If you wanted to walk, run, jump, climb, Olympic lift, or anything else you could easily and automatically call on each and every muscle needed and nothing more. When I say nothing more I mean, how many of you can lay on your back with your feet flat on the ground and only contract your glute muscle? Not your hamstrings, not your lower back, and definitely not your abs. Just your glute muscles. Yes, it is much harder than you think. Why is that?
Most of us can easily have our glutes moved if we are laying down flat on a massage table. But when it comes to us being able to contract or relax our glutes on command without the help of other muscles, we are at a loss. We cannot mobilize those muscle fibers on demand! Once you have stability then your muscles are no longer out of their proper length-tension relationship. This means that you have a proper amount of overlapping muscle fibers which makes it easier to move the muscles, but just as a baby, you must learn how to control them first. After being unstable and needing the help of other muscles to move it, each muscle must again mobilize on its own.
You see, being flexible for the sake of being flexible is nothing. Anyone can get themselves into a dangerous position with the help of gravity and force. So, you can get into the splits? Okay, but can you get out of them without injuring yourself because you have gone past any normal range of motion you can control? Can you do the even more impressive standing splits – which calls for stability and mobility more than just the mere flexible joints?
Without the strong and safe structures that come with stability, being flexible would be a balancing act on a crab fishing boat at best. Without mobility we have to wrestle our bodies and muscles to get into the “flexible positions” while compensating all over the place. While we compensate no matter what when “being flexible” there is usually less compensation because all parts of our bodies move better than they would if we were not mobile and stable.
Other Things More Useful than Stretching
- Posture Therapy – This is where you can gain all of the stability and mobility basics. With different ways to relax your body, engage your muscles, and reset your skeletal structure posture therapy is the answer to a lot of your basic how-to body questions. If interested in more about this please follow the link to my contact form or my posture therapy services.
- New and Interesting Movement – The more diversity we add to our movement diet, the more movements our body can get accustomed to, neurologically. This helps in the constant quest for getting the body comfortable and ready to trust us.
- Jumping – Hydrating to our fascial tissue which keeps it from getting solid and hard. This can actually be very beneficial in your quest for a more flexible body.