First off, everybody has his or her own definition of “flexible,” so I’m basing this off my own definition. No, I’m not a gymnast, a ballerina, or made of play-doh. I’m a typical active adult in my 30’s who can touch his toes, squat below parallel, and reach my arms straight over my head…I know, none of these are jaw-dropping, but you’d be surprised at how many people my age and older can’t come close to any of these…or at least without pain.
Let’s get back to my definition of flexibility real quick. My definition of flexibility is simple, it’s “being able to move through regular planes of motion without pain or restriction.” So what are “regular” planes of motion? To me, it’s movements we do every day…we squat/sit down and we lift things up (sometimes over our head) as the two most common movements. So you could see how not being able do these well, or pain-free, might be an issue.
As we age, our body adapts to the movements we do most often. So for the Average Joe, that’s sitting (with bad posture) and bending (with our back and not our knees). These two poor movements contribute to the two most common issues adults face, tight hips/hamstrings, and tight shoulders/upper back. Those same people incorporate those bad habits into exercise, it then becomes ten-fold.
So what’s the correction…?
Your typical “static” stretch barely scratches the surface when it comes to correcting or preventing these issues. Static stretching is holding a stretch for an extended period of time (ex: 10-30 seconds), then releasing. Think of static stretching (aka your muscle) as a brand-new rubber band out of the package…if you hold that band stretched out for 30 seconds, then let it go, it goes right back to the same tight band you just took out of the package. Now if you do that one, two, or three times a week, you may make some progress over time, but not much. This is how most people stretch thinking they are helping their flexibility. Now take that same rubber band and continuously stretch and release it (close to it’s max stretch) 100 times every day (without holding)…I bet you see a different in the elasticity much quicker than holding it stretched for 30 seconds, 1-3 times week.
So what am I saying? I’m simply stating that range of motion (aka flexibility) comes from moving in full ranges of motion with proper mechanics over and over, as much as you can…. specifically when exercising (especially with resistance added).
Doing this is a simple nervous system response that tells the body “it’s okay” to allow (you) to do that movement without injury or restriction. When you restrict yourself (intentionally or unintentionally), that’s when the body deems it unsafe if you every try to work past that range of motion. This is exactly why it’s important to use proper mechanics and work a “full” range of motion with every exercise, every workout session. I’m talking about squats, lunges, deadlifts, pull ups, push ups, dips, overhead pressing, everything! When you incorporate bad mechanics with already restricted areas, that’s an instant recipe for injuries. Working full ranges with good mechanics is like continuously stretching the rubber band 100 of times a day (aka your workout). This is what truly allows the body to move freely and without pain. It will take time and patience (and probably a lot less weight/resistance in the gym than your ego can handle) but eventually you will start to move better, feel better, and maybe even touch your toes or squat without feeling like your going to detach a muscle.
Moral of the Story: STOP static stretching and start focusing on form and improved range of motion with your exercises.