This post is simply to share some of the things about developing flexibility I learned while studying Exercise Biology at UC Davis. Some of them may shock you, so continue at your own risk.
A few interesting facts about flexibility…
Static stretching is not all that effective. There. I said it!
But it is true. Active stretching, where you are activating the muscles that pull into and out of the stretch, is the most effective way to get more flexible. It will also encourage the development of active flexibility versus passive flexibility.
To apply this, when you get into a stretch, try to fight your way in. For example, instead of slowly lowering your self into splits, try sliding in very slowly from standing. Once in, raise your hands off the ground and, using only your muscles, slowly try to lift out of your splits. If you’re like me, that means you will rise about an inch before falling back to the ground. Repeat about 10-20 times. Apply this same method for all of your stretching.
Moving onto more shocking information…
Stiff muscles and tendons are actually desirable for some athletes. Runners, for example, want to use their tendons like rubber bands. To store energy, then release it without having to activate the muscle each time. It allows them to use much less energy, letting them to run longer and faster. These athletes often use plyometrics to encourage the tendons to stiffen by creating a network of cross linked fibers in their tendons.
When a muscle is put through a slow, eccentric contraction (a lengthening contraction), cross links in the tendons are broken. This creates a more pliable tendon.
To apply this, think about what muscle you are trying to stretch. Let’s use the bicep. During a bicep curl the muscle shortens, bringing your wrist closer to your shoulder. This is a concentric contraction (shortening). If you put a weight in your hand, once the bicep was fully contracted, then slowly lowered it down, the bicep muscle would still be working, but is is getting longer. This is an eccentric contraction. If you have tight biceps (first off congratulations) and want to increase flexibility, you could do these slow, lengthening contractions all the way to full extension of the arm. Another added bonus of this type of contraction is that it is great for tendon health!
Another interesting fact is that the body is made of muscle pairs. For example, the quad straightens the leg and the hamstring curls the leg. When the quad is maximally activated, the hamstring cannot be since they work against each other. For this to happen the body tells the quad to fire. But, it also tells the hamstring not to fire, to loosen in fact. Meaning, that activation of muscle can increase flexibility in the opposed muscle. An application of this would be that strengthening the back muscles will help loosen the abdominals.
My last little tidbit is that muscles function best in certain angles. If I asked you to carry a 50lb grocery bag, without thinking about it, you would likely carry it with a bend of 110º- 90º rather than 20º. When we are hand balancing, in many cases, we are asking our joints to be maximally flexed or extended while also being maximally activated. This goes against normal function of a muscle and is often why joints feel unstable and weak when we are in the “correct” body position. It is important when doing flexibility to also strengthen the surrounding muscles when fully extended or flexed for joint health and great active flexibility.
Looking to apply this? Check out my flexibility series!