Hello Dear Danglers! It’s been a while! Know why? I’ve been training my a$$ off. It’s been great, it’s been hard, it’s been up, it’s been down. Literally. One of the MOST fabulous things lately has been a wonderful increase in my flexibility – GLORY BE! I’ve been workin’ it hard, and figured I would share my Magical Secrets with you today (hint: they’re neither magical nor secret).
Pursuing Functional Flexibility
How flexible do you really need to be? Is all flexibility “good” flexibility? WHEN WILL I SIT ON MY OWN HEAD?
Great questions. Different disciplines call for different degrees of flexibility. For example, as an aerialist, you will probably want a sassy split, a nice back arch, and strong but mobile shoulders. As a contortionist, you’re gonna want to pursue extreme front and back bending, over-splits, handstand strength, etc. You NEED to be flexible enough to move safely and confidently through the range of motion necessary for a particular skill (functional flexibility) – everything else is gravy. Does that take a bit of pressure off? I hope so, because sitting on your own head is probably going to take a while.
Now. Contrary to what Instagram would have you believe, all flexibility is NOT necessarily desirable flexibility, and no conversation about bendy-boos would be complete without its partner in crime: strength. As an aerial coach, uncontrolled flexibility is TERRIFYING – it’s like training a hot noodle. I’m not even kidding. You’ve gotta control that shizzle! If you’re flopping around like an oiled rubber band on steroids, you’re courting major injury.
There’s a sweet spot to aim for – strong & controlled, but bendy. Know what’s great for getting you there? A good coach to whack your butt into alignment! A fabulous physical therapist is also a must – even when you’re not injured, they can help KEEP you injury free by identifying weak areas you betta strengthen pronto.
OK – Yeah Yeah – How do I GET the Flexibility?
Exercise science has come a looooooong way – if all you’re doing is passive stretching a few times a week, or – God forbid – pushing students into stretches they’re not ready for, the 80’s called and want their training back. People – it’s 2017! Time to re-evaluate.
It’s worth noting that I’ve always been stronger than I was bendy. I have to fight for every inch of flexibility – it ain’t natural! There are a range of techniques that can produce good results; today, I’m going to focus on what’s produced big results in my own training: tissue prep, end range control exercises, and active stretching. Imma break down my process in 5 easy (HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!) steps, and point you towards my favorite resources. Here we go!
- Step 1 – Get with a program. Set a goal (straddles, shoulders, all-over general flexibility, etc.). My favorite thing is to find a stretching program, guide, or coach that addresses this area (see below for my favorites). A good program or class will address at minimum both the stretches and the strength moves required for meaningful gains; a great program includes tissue prep, nerve glides, anatomy, etc.
- Step 2 – Set your schedule. There are two kinds of people when it comes to stretching: those who say they want to get more flexible but never actually take the steps to make that happen, and those who do the work. Guess which group actually sees increases? There is no substitute for consistency. Set a schedule and stick to it (I watch trashy reality TV while I stretch – my IQ may be dropping at an alarming rate, but I now have an over-split!).
- Step 3 – Actually stretch. Most well-rounded programs include a variety of stretching techniques, each appropriate for different parts of the body, or different days. I prefer active or moving stretches, with short (30-60 seconds) passive periods when it feels right, and use lots of approaches to keep myself out of a rut and injury free – see below.
- Step 4 – Measure your progress. Depending on the stretch, find a reliable method of measuring your progress. It can be an actual measurement (distance of straddle to the wall, for example), a feeling (a feeling of greater mobility or ease), or progress in a connected area (like easier handstands because your hammies are more flexible).
- Step 5 – Evaluate, educate, change it up. If you’re making progress doing what you’re doing, great! If you’re finding the process miserable, regressive, or (GAH!) you’re getting injured, time to change it up. You’d think stretching was a pretty DIY kind of thing, but not so much. Having a good coach and physical therapist can make the difference between an over-split and a perpetually torn hamstring! Take the time to learn good technique (and have it evaluated by a pro), brush up on your anatomy & physiology, and get current on new techniques and exercise science. I also recommend changing it up here and there, as boredom makes you less likely to stick with a program.
New Flexibility vs Re-Finding Old Flexibility
For the sake of this post, let’s refer to “old flexibility” as the range of motion you had within the past 3 years (rolling thru middle splits as a 9 year old doesn’t count, unless you’re 11, in which case this blog is NOT for you! Go clean your room.).
Regaining elasticity is generally easier than courting new flexibility. For example, a few years ago I could easily get my cooter to the floor in an open split. In May of this year, I couldn’t (that’s what happens when you stop training, people). Regaining that cooter-to-the-floor splits is way easier than if I had never felt my lady bits hit the ground. Many students have a nice initial jump in flexibility simply because their bodies “re-find” what they’d had, and are disappointed when that progress slows down. But here’s an important concept:
90% of your effort will always be spent on the final 10% of your goal.
My goal is in INCREASE in flexibility – it’s my final 10%. I should expect it to take a good long time. Months or years, not days, people. If you’re looking for fast and easy, may I suggest taking up another pursuit? ‘Cause circus ain’t it.
To recap – set a goal, find a coach to check your form and progress, and set up a stretch routine for yourself (I alternate programs – upper back one day, then straddles the next, with a quick “all over maintenance” routine daily). And actually do it (that’s the sticky wicket, am I right?). Love and pull-ups, Laura
Here are some of my FAVORITE resources – enjoy!!!!
- Jen Crane/Cirque Physio, Catie Brier, & PhysioFlex – amazing training designed by a circus PT and contortion coach. HIGHLY recommended, especially if you’re (ahem) of a certain age.
- GymnasticBodies.com – good stuff!
- Easyflexiblility.com – Haha – not easy. I do like the methods though – the dynamic/active stretches work well for lots of bodies.