So what is flexibility? Dictionary.com defines flexibility as “capable of being bent, usually without breaking; easily bent.” A great synonym is “limber”, which is referred to as “ease of movement”. I like to define human movement flexibility as “the ABILITY for the muscular system to take joints and bones to their end of range of motion, with control, and ease.” Another phrase my friend Charlie McMillan told me years ago is “flexibility is a derivative of strength”. WOW…mind blown, right?
Ok, to explain this a little simpler, let’s talk about the STUFF that’s involved in making bones, limbs and joints move.
Muscles. They have one job. To contract. When muscles contract, there is this fabulous mechanism that occurs with input from the nervous system, and a series of events using sodium and calcium, until there is a mechanical end range of motion, or until the muscular system runs out of energy. Muscles will contract more, or less, but they are always contracting!!
Tendons. These guys are fabulous… They attach muscles to bones, and sense tension in the muscular system. The more tension, the harder the signals are sent for the muscles to contract, which in turn moves the bones & joints.
Ligaments. This tissue helps to control motion, and protect the joint structure at the most vulnerable positions. They attach bones to bones, limiting how far the joints can move I like to think of them as the guardrails of our joints.
Fascia. This tissue is loaded with nervous endings, that similar to tendons, will sense tension. Fascia is EVERYWHERE in the body, and has a random arrangement, usually in line with the force of pull of the muscular system, but there are other random arrangements as well. Fascia holds all of our organs in place, and all of our tissues together.
Bones. Without these, we’d just fall over. Because everyone’s bones and joints are shaped differently, the shape of the structure will also determine how someone will move or be limited in motions.
Ok, so why does all of that matter? Well, if you can understand the role of the different tissues in movement, you can begin to learn how to increase your flexibility without stretching.
Let’s talk about the 3 most common types of stretching, and why some may be better than others, and how to safely increase your flexibility. There are more types, but let’s just focus on these 3 for today.
This is what most people think of when they think of stretching. What is interesting, is even looking things up on the internet (because everything is true on the internet, haha), there are various definitions. The best way to describe passive stretching is while relaxed, a limb is moved to an extreme range of motion, where tension is felt. Usually, it’s held for 10-30 seconds, and repeated a few times on each side. No studies show any long term gains in range of motion. Many times clients feel better because the tissue being lengthened is put under enough force to actually decrease the neural drive to the muscular system. So if there is no signal, there is no tension. But wait….muscles create tension. Probably not the best solution.
So instead of being relaxed, one actively moves to the position they want to increase the range in. Think of lying on your back, keep your left leg straight and on the floor. Bring your right hip to 90* and slowly start to straighten your knee. Now, most people will feel their hamstrings “tighten” GREAT!! You want them to!! But what I want you to concentrate on is your quadricep. That is the muscle that is actually straightening your knee!! How about that!
Simply put, add resistance to active stretching!!! Now, it doesn’t have to be a lot of resistance, just a little. Take that same exercise, but move to a chair. Sit up tall, straighten your knee. The weight of your lower leg may be resistance enough. If not, gently lift your leg up off the chair. That will allow you to strengthen everything you need to help increase your hamstring flexibility. Holding this position or by gently pushing into something turns this into an isometric!!! This is by FAR one of the safest and most effective ways to not only increase your strength, but also your flexibility!!
Hopefully this sheds a bit of light on the idea of stretching or flexibility. You don’t have to spend hours stretching or lifting super heavy weights to become limber. If you can remember this one phrase…”flexibility is the ABILITY of your muscles to take your limbs to every position, even to their end ranges. It’s not the ability of lengthened tissue to “let go”, as we don’t want things to tear ;)!!!!