Improving flexibility is a major challenge that faces most trainees. The real problem however, is a lack of understanding of the purpose of stretching and mobility drills. As a result people stretch all wrong and never make progress.
The most important thing to understand while training for flexibility is that real improvements in flexibility do not come from changes in the muscle tissue and ligaments, but from the nervous system. Basically, while some amount of lengthening is possible, it is only upto 6% of the current tissue length, and anything beyond that is obtained by damaging the tissue by overstretching it. Therefore, trying to physically lengthen the tissue is at best worthless and at worst extremely damaging to the joint structures.
The best way to improve flexibility is to understand why your flexibility is limited, and what you want to achieve with stretching. All muscle tissue can lengthen to enormous degrees, making almost any range of motion possible. The body then restricts this range of motion to only a fraction of its true length in order to prevent injuries and joint instability, by tightening up the muscles. Therefore all flexibility training must ultimately do three things-
- Improve Joint Stability
- Reduce the chance for injury
- Reduce the tension in the muscles.
Thus there are basically 5 reasons why your flexibility could be restricted-
- You are weak and the body is protecting your joints by restricting your flexibility. The only way around this is to get stronger in a full range of motion exercise.
- There is an impending injury and the body is protecting the joint by creating tension. Figure out if there are any imbalances around that joint, for example if one side is weaker than the other. Any imbalance will always restrict flexibility. Key areas to look out for are glutes, hamstrings, upper back, rear shoulders and abs. Relative weaknesses here can cause tightness throughout the body.
- The joint has never been taken through its full range of motion before and is stiffing up to protect itself just in case. The only solution to this is daily frequent stretching. Don’t stretch hard, just stretch often.
- Due to overuse and misuse the tissues have deformed are are unable to relax correctly. The only solution to this is frequent foam rolling, massages and some passive stretching.
- The muscles have lost the ability to relax and are chronically tight. This is what everyone thinks is the problem but 95% of the time is not. The best solution to this is traditional passive stretches while focusing on relaxation.
The real trick is to figure out what your problem is and then focus on it. When in doubt, I simply recommend doing the afitgo agile 10 (a variation of the Defranco agile 8) before and after every workout and do this in conjunction with any sensible long term strength and conditioning plan, like the afitgo training plans, starting strength, dinosaur training, 5-3-1 or even bodyweight training plans like convict conditioning, the soon to come afitgo home training system or dinosaur bodyweight training. Almost 100% of the time consistent and frequent stretching, combined with a well rounded training program will deliver results faster than most specialty stretching systems. The actual choice of stretches, or the mode is stretching is relatively unimportant as much as the commitment to improved flexibility.
In the next post we will cover how to identify your problem and how to select and perform the correct stretches.