The Importance of Flexibility
Last year, I came across an article discussing stretching as a thing of the past. It was a scientifically-based article about the strength and performance of athletes as it related to stretching, citing some pretty good data to back up the idea that static stretching as flexibility training is unnecessary and possibly even detrimental to performance goals.
As a yoga teacher, I was immediately defensive. Who was this guy to tell people that stretching isn’t an important part of their fitness regime? Unfortunately, he was right. Static stretching, as many of us understand it, is an outdated way of giving our muscles and joints what they need. As a yogi, a strength coach, and a functional, mobile human being, I would propose that we extend our understanding of flexibility.
Why is Flexibility Important?
I use this analogy with my clients all the time: Muscles are like rubber bands; If the band gets too strong and tight, it can’t stretch enough to do its job. Alternatively, if it gets dried out and brittle from a lack of use, it will break. Functional flexibility is a balance between strength and resilience in the tissue and the ability of the tissue to lengthen and slide. While flexibility is important, it MUST go hand-in-hand with strength to promote ideal muscle function.
That said, if your muscles are bound up and inflexible, an enormous amount of strain is put on your joints, your spine, and your nervous system. Nearly 90% of the clients I see who complain of knee or low-back pain find relief from flexibility and tissue work on their hips and legs. A regular flexibility practice can ease pain and discomfort that many people assume is an intrinsic or structural issue. Something to consider: just because you can’t touch your toes doesn’t mean you aren’t flexible. Bone length, connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons, and muscle quality all play a part in your ability to reach your piggies. Joint mobility and freedom from pain are far more important than doing the splits.
While functional flexibility allows joints and muscles to work together, the process of releasing physical tension can have an enormous impact on your levels of stress and overall wellbeing. As an experiment, make a fist and squeeze as tight as you can. Release and notice how you feel. Now, open your fingers wide and allow the muscles of your palm to stretch. Release and notice again. Big difference, right? Tension in your body translates to your brain as stress. The process of opening and releasing tension in your body can drastically change your outlook and your ability to cope with stress.
So assuming your gym teacher was wrong about touching your toes as a sole determinant of flexibility, what is the next step? Massage yourself, or pay someone to do it. Our entire musculature is held together by a thin layer called fascia, made of collagen fibers that can tangle and snag, and the muscle fibers themselves can develop “knots” or adhesions that make stretching inefficient. My first recommendation for any flexibility program is to grab a foam roller or a lacrosse ball, or see a massage therapist. Once the fibers in the tissue layers are able to slide and move appropriately, elasticity in the muscle comes much more rapidly.
Stretch when you’re warm. Stretching before your workouts or when you’re cold is a recipe for an injury. Pre-workout, stick to dynamic warm ups designed to prime your joints and muscles for upcoming movement patterns. Any static stretching needs to happen when your muscles have adequate blood flow, so keep stretching practices to when you’re warm. One of my favorite times to stretch is after a shower or an Epsom salt bath. There are conflicting reports on hot yoga these days, but one fact remains: stretching when you’re warm just feels better.
Stop stretching your hamstrings. Let’s go back to our rubber band analogy for a moment; When the hip is in flexion, as it is when we are seated at a desk all day, the hamstring is actually in a stretched/loaded position. If you were to keep a rubber band stretched to its full elasticity at all times then pulled on it a little more, what would happen? SNAP. An injury. I would suggest that, before you do any static stretching on your hamstrings, you spend some time doing some hip hinge (deadlift) and squat patterns to increase the integrity of the rubber band. They’ll be stretched in the process of the lift and you’ll also get some great tensile strength out of the deal.
Focus on your front and side body. Low back pain? Outer hip pain? Your side body is the key to lengthening and opening the low back and outer hips and, once your side body is opened up, your front body can begin to unwind all the hunching tension that is causing the pain or lack of range in your lower and back body. Try this a few times each week:
1. Seated Side Bends: Seated on a block or bolster, take your right hand to the floor for support next to your right hip and stretch your left arm up and over your head toward the right side. Breathe deeply into your left ribs and try to move the breath all the way down your left waist. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the right side.
2. Hip Flexor Stretch: Kneel in a low lunge with your left knee on the floor, right knee at 90 degrees and sitting up vertically (NOT a low runners lunge). Take your right hand to your right thigh and take your left arm overhead. Isometrically “pull” your left knee forward and take your tailbone toward your front heel. Keep reaching overhead and look for a stretch deep in your front left hip. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the right side.
3. Seated Back Bend: Sit on your block or bolster again. Take your hands to the floor behind you, fingertips pointed away, and begin to open through your chest. Low back stays neutral; keep your focus in your front upper ribs and draw your shoulder blades down your back. Hold for 10 breaths.
Try a yoga class (that is appropriate for you) for at least two months. Yoga works and yoga requires patience. It’s a process of slowly and gently asking the body for change in the musculature and structure – something that we are not particularly adept at accepting as a slow process. And yes- they’ll have you stretch your hamstrings, but a good teacher will lead flexibility practices in conjunction with movements that build a strong posterior chain in the body.
And if you take away nothing else from this article – please let it be this: You don’t have to be “flexible” to do yoga or have a flexibility practice. Flexibility isn’t defined by acrobats and super-yogis. It is about having a pain-free body that experiences ranges of movement that work in daily life. So stop abusing your hamstrings and start opening up to parts of yourself that could really stand to see the light of day.