8/05/2009

UltimateFlexibility(almost/so far)

I have two questions for you

  • Are you happy with your current level of flexibility?
  • What are you doing about it?

Most people I meet are not happy with their flexibility. Even people who are really flexible seem to want more. Yet, its the last thing most people spend time on. I have even been guilty of this myself. This issue is meant to slightly change the way that you think about flexibility, and give you a step by step approach and some specific tools that can lead you to results - if you take the time and do the work that is needed. You'll probably have questions so feel free to ask.

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST PEOPLE'S FLEXIBILITY PROGRAMS The top 5: not doing the stretches that are right for YOU; doing the same few stretches over and over again; not stretching for long enough; using brute force instead of your brain to stretch the muscles; and, neglecting the strengthening component of a flexibility program. So many people try to improve, don't see much progress and every day, leave the gym and go back to the same desk or lifestyle and the problems start over.

ARE YOUR MUSCLES TIGHT? OR IMBALANCED?
Probably both. If a muscle is tight, think of it as being short --- therefore, the opposite muscle compensates by being long. Or does one muscle get too long, and the opposite compensate by shortening? Maybe both at the same time. Some of us are born this way, but often our lifestyles are important factors. If you sit all day, the muscles that you sit on (glutes and hamstrings) tend to get all stretched out and the hip flexors and quadriceps get all tight. If you work on a computer all day, the muscles in front of your chest and shoulders get tight as the muscles behind get stretched out. The same think can happen from driving and biking. I've written about this before...we call these opposing muscle agonists and antagonists. You'll improve your flexibility if you can identify the tight muscles and stretch them, and identify the weak muscles and strengthen them.

STRETCHING IS IN YOUR HEAD You know that stretching is done to make a muscle longer.. but exactly how do you do that? By pulling it to the maximum possible length? Or by getting your brain to do the work? Actually, its the brain and nervous system that controls the length of your muscles, you can do some damage by pulling to much or in the wrong way. There are numerous effective stretching techniques, all of them rely on stimulate sensors in the muscles to send a signal to the brain, and electrical impulse that says "relax me." Those impulses travel through the nerves and spinal cord, then the brain sends messages back to the muscle fibers telling them to relax. It takes at least 7-10 seconds for this process to initiate, so that guy who you see grabbing the front of his shoe and pulling his knee back for 3 seconds and then running off...he's not stretching. Nor is that person who pulls so hard that they overstretch the ligaments while the muscle doesn't increase in length.




STRENGTH TRAINING CAN IMPROVE FLEXIBILITY Sometimes a movement is difficult because a muscle is tight, but often it is because the opposing muscle is actually too weak and extended. I see this a lot with the inner thigh, biceps, and hips/glutes. In some cases, the opposing muscle is literally asleep, and when you try to perform a movement it barely wakes up and you get that stiff feeling like rigor mortis setting in. You can stretch the tight muscles as much as you want but only see limited improvement, so fight back by strengthening the muscle opposite the one that is tight. Which brings us to another issue...

YOU REALLY DON'T NEED TO STRETCH EVERY MUSCLE The are all kinds of group stretching classes, yoga, etc, which are really nice and have helped many people improve their flexibility. Keep in mind that these classes offer a generic one size fits all set of stretches which may not be ideal for your specific needs. You may actually be stretching muscles that are already all stretched out. This goes for the programs that I've included in the sidebar on the left, they're good programs but generic because I haven't assessed you yet. A physical therapist, massage therapist and some personal trainers can assess you and identify which muscles need stretching and which need strengthening. This is an ongoing process: I often do on the fly stretches during a training session when a client has difficulty performing certain movements.

HERE'S AN EXAMPLE OF A FLEXIBILITY PROGRAM THAT IS WELL TARGETED TO PEOPLE WHO SIT A LOT AND MAY EXPERIENCE FOOT PAIN (PLANTAR FASCITIS) OR KNEE PAIN, POSSIBLY ACL INJURY. It aims to correct postural disortions such as feet that turn out, knock knees, tight hips.

STRETCHING BEFORE EXERCISING...AND AFTER TOO
Depending on your posture, fitness level and goals, some stretching before working out can be beneficial. The goal of this stretching is to relax those tight muscles so that the joints are in proper alignment before working out...because if the joints are in proper alignment you can work the muscles better and reduce risk of injury. Some forms of stretching may cause a short term reduction in the amount of force a muscle can generate, so you should avoid them before your powerlifting competitions or choose other forms of stretching. Other forms of stretching?

THERE'S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO LENGTHEN A MUSCLE Most people are familiar with two types of stretching: static stretching, which involves stretching in a stationery position and holding the stretch for about 30 seconds; and, assisted stretching, which is basically the same except your trainer or someone else helps you do it. There are many other techniques that may work for you, depending on your fitness level, exercise program and goals. I've summarized a few in the sidebar. Periodization, changing your stretch routine at regular intervals, can also be helpful in many cases.

LIKE GIVING YOURSELF A DEEP TISSUE MASSAGE
Myofascial release is a technique for working out knots and adhesions that limit the extensibility of your muscle tissue. Pressure is applied to the knotted area, and after about 30 seconds, the brain sends a signal to the muscle to relax. If you have some persistent tight spots, you can do this yourself using a foam roller. They're available in the gyms, and if you'd like one for home you can order one online for about 20 bucks. The most common areas that benefit from the attention with the foam roller are the calves, IT Band and quads, but you can actually use them in almost any part of your body. I've got a program that illustrates how to use the foam roller for many different body parts. Click here to view/download the program and choose those stretches that target your own personal tight areas. Do the foam rolling before your regular stretching routine for maximum benefit. Feel free to let me know if you need some help in learning this technique.