Hips Don’t Lie: An Oversimplified Examination Of Flexibility
I am not a doctor. Nor am I a physical therapist. I’m not even a chiropractor or podiatrist or university-level researcher. I am simply a strength coach who is obsessed with how people move. Seriously obsessed. I spend all my free time watching, reading and researching how movement, strength and health relate to each other. And in my not free time I watch actual live people squat, press, deadlift, pull, clean, jerk, snatch and perform about a hundred other exercises for thousands of reps each week.
So I feel like I am somewhat qualified to speak on what I have seen and what has removed the barriers to proper movement in people who no longer just automatically move as well as a 3-year old picking up his Spiderman action figure off the floor.
But maybe you don’t. Perhaps you feel the need to only glom information from someone who has earned an advanced degree, wears a lab coat and dissects cadavers on the reg (I am by no means bad-mouthing any of this. I read and listen to such people incessantly). But, if you find yourself in a position of only trusting a source with a bunch of fancy letters after his name you should probably stop reading and do something else with your time. I hear the first season of Narcos is pretty good. No hard feelings. I’ve learned long ago not to take the internet personally.
For those of you who are sticking it out I want to share with you what I’ve learned about mobility and flexibility as it relates to muscle length, nervous system signaling, muscle tightness and general positioning of your body’s structures. And I am going to make that above sentence the most technical sounding of the entire post. Because I want everyone to have a basic understanding of these principles and how they affect the way you move and feel.
The Flexibility of a Dried Cactus
I do not enjoy performing mobility warm-ups and flexibility training. Any time my pre-training warm-up has me on a foam roller or in some sort of compromising position so I can stretch out my posterior hip capsule I am usually thinking ‘this is not what I got into training for.’ And, honestly and quite regrettably, I used to skip out on flexibility work all together, always citing authors who claimed it was ineffective or unnecessary. Two things changed my position.
First, I got into the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. I’ll spare you a discussion on the details of the sport but weightlifting has tremendous flexibility requirements, particularly if you want to be successful. And this eye-opener lead me to the realization that if you want to be good at anything in the gym you need to have an appropriate level of flexibility and positioning to do so.
Notice I say “appropriate level” and not “maximal amount”. Essentially you need an appropriate level of mobility to do the task (whether it’s squat, deadlift, snatch or even pick your child up off the floor) and probably not a whole ton more. Because remarkable levels of flexibility often come with dangerous amounts of instability. So you may be able to get into crazy positions but if you can’t express strength or stabilize your joints under any level of load while in those positions you are on the fast road to being incredibly weak at best and badly injured at worst.
The second factor that had me focusing more on my flexy game was age. Not so much as I was getting more brittle as I got older but more the fact that I could no longer bounce back quickly from the pain I was experiencing from trying to move heavy loads without acceptable levels of mobility. To put it simply, I was asking my body to move big weights (often quickly) when it couldn’t move into those positions well without heavy loads. You can only take so much of that before things start to hurt. And as you get older your ability to spring back from these signals of pain is diminished. As someone who likes to train hard and often I didn’t like being held back so improving the way I moved was important to insuring I could keep on doing what I love to do.
Hopefully I have convinced you that if you want to do what you want to do in the gym optimally, whether that’s weightlifting or gymnastics, deadlifting or squatting, even benching and curling, making sure you have good range of motion that is under your control is your key to doing it well and in the long term.
The Two Keys To Improving Flexibility
Remember, this is an oversimplification. So in keeping with that spirit we are going to limit our discussion to the 2 most misunderstood factors of flexibility and how you can change your approach to optimize how you move and feel.
The first is that your muscles are “short” and need to be lengthened. Unless you have had some serious injury where your limbs have been casted in a certain position for a period of time or your muscle has been cut during an accident or surgery, the chance that your muscle is actually physiologically “short” is very small. More likely is that your muscle is tight or, more technically speaking, is holding tone. This is not so much a fixed structural issue but a neurological one. Simply, your brain is signaling that muscle to hold tension or tone and inhibiting it from lengthening all the way. Why? Usually those muscles are being called upon to do a job that is supposed to be shared with other muscles and those other muscles simply aren’t working properly. So to keep your body safe and functioning these muscles are always switched on so you can function and not get hurt. A good example of this is hamstrings. Hamstrings feel very tight on people who tend not to have well functioning glutes and/or a weak pelvic floor. If the glutes and abdominals were working normally, the hamstrings would no longer have to do more than their fair share of the work. This would allow the hammies to release tone and move more freely. And before the internet police turn on the sirens and jump all over me, yes it’s not completely that simple and yes there can be other reasons for hamstring tightness.
The second important concept is one of structural positioning. Daily life and tasks in the modern world are not necessarily designed to keep your skeleton in optimal position. Your skeleton is the framework of your body and your muscles and tendons attach to different pieces of the skeleton to make you move (I told you I was keeping this simple!). So if you move the framework out of position, of course the muscles, even at rest, are going to be stretched, pulled an manipulated in a way that does not lend itself to optimal flexibility. Your hips being tilted, your shoulders rounding forward, your ribs sticking up in the air – these are all common issues that people dealing with every day challenges such as driving a car, sitting at a desk and carrying around kids face. And it’s hard to move well or feel loose with these types of positional changes.
All this leads up to the most important sentence of this entire post – to improve flexibility we must reposition any structures of the body that are out of place and make sure that all the musculature responsible for tasks such as lifting, pulling and carrying are working as they are supposed to. This is much more critical than endless bouts of static stretching, foam rolling, yoga and other modalities that people associate with flexibility improvements. Not that these strategies don’t have their place, they do. But they are so overly relied upon and on their own just don’t deliver the results that the flexibility challenged are looking for.
We’ve identified the key problems. How do we fix them? This is where I leave you with a series finale, cliffhanger-like ending and tell you to tune in next Fall when all will be revealed. However, this series is getting cancelled. There is no next Fall. Because trying to fix your specific issues (I don’t even have any idea what they are) with a general blog post is a recipe for disaster. We do a good job of addressing some of these issues in our mobility and warm-up work but if you are really struggling with flexibility particularly to the point of experiencing pain, you should see an expert. We refer all cases like this in NYC to our friends at Resilient Performance Physical Therapy but if you are reading this from the far reaches of the globe (apparently we have a huge fan base in Djibouti) seek out a reputable and like-minded specialist wherever you are.
OK, I realize this is a lame ending. Even lamer than the big reveal that the alien’s weakness in the movie "Signs" is water (really?!? water?!?). So instead I’ll leave you with some flexibility-related cocktail party material that you can throw down next time you are at your cousin’s wedding and one of the bridesmaids has a crazy anterior pelvic tilt.
Flexibility Fast Facts
There is actually not a ton of literature or studies on flexibility as compared to other training-related modalities such as endurance training. This makes many of the conclusions about flexibility observational as opposed to clinical.
Hypermobility (excess flexibility) will actually put you more at risk for injury than hypomobility (less than optimal flexibility). On the surface it’s easy to think that if you have access to a lot of range of motion you can mitigate injury. However, if you have this excess range you must me able to be strong and control these end ranges of motion, which takes work. In other words, you are responsible for being strong in whatever range of motion you have – so if you have a lot of range you need strength in that range. Not easy.
Much has been made about static stretching before training having a reducing effect on power output. And while this may be true to a rather minimal degree, if the bout of static stretching is followed by any type of additional warm-up (dynamic stretching, bar work) those negative effects dissipate entirely. So if you feel better stretching before training, feel free. Just make sure you do some additional warm-up and not jump right into your heavy, maximal sets.
There is no evidence that stretching lengthens existing muscle fibers nor does it create additional muscle fibers that would make the muscle longer. Repeat bouts of stretching merely improve tolerance to stretching. So your physiology doesn’t change, your body just accepts that you can now safely go into that range of motion. Any fitness studio or trainer that tells you they can give you longer, leaner muscles is just flat out lying to you or simply doesn’t understand how things actually work. Neat-o.
I fully admit that flexibility work is not fun. That’s why no one puts it on Instagram. However I hope this primer on why you may have issue getting into positions and just how much solving these problems will improve your training will spur you onto a vision quest for improved mobility. Or at least have you considering why your hamstrings are so tight and your neck always hurts. But what do I know? I just watch people move for a living.