Just how flexible do you need to be?
Recently I’ve been looking at the advantages and disadvantages of different levels of flexibility which raises the question of ‘how flexible do I need to be?’
During my early training as a dancer the answer was always ‘as flexible as possible’. Being able to ‘do the splits’, put hands flat on the floor with straight legs or the gymnasts ‘box splits’ was something to aspire to. Sadly I could never do any of these without a great deal of effort. My body simply wasn’t made to be that flexible.
Over the years working as a full time fitness instructor I stretched my body on a daily basis and did achieve an above average level of flexibility. Over the years I noticed that a number of clients would comment that the seated stretches (reaching for the feet) gave them backache. This made me question the validity of these exercises, to question why we need to do them at all and how much flexibility we actually need.
The answers to these questions took me through Postural Assessment techniques looking at the effect of our day to day posture on our bodies. From here I looked into Bio Mechanics, how each part of our body interacts with another and the effect that muscle imbalance has on our posture.
The way in which our bodies respond to exercise varies as our bodies are all slightly different. A stretch for one person will result in a strain for another. An exercise may be designed to strengthen and/or stretch, but in a specific individual it may create imbalanced strength and strain rather than stretching. The key is in finding exercises which strengthen and stretch without straining while keeping the body in a balanced position. This is an individual process. The level of stretch depends on a variety of complex relationships within the body. Many people with rounded shoulders (kyphotic posture) will have lengthened inactive muscles across the shoulder area and weakness in the pelvic area. Those with a hollow back (lordotic posture) are likely to have tightness in the hip flexor which can make it difficult to stretch the hamstring without impingement.
Sitting on the floor leaning over towards the feet puts a huge strain on the lumbar region of the spine. Many stretches allow the pelvis to twist encouraging instability in an already unstable area. Bio Mechanic training shows how often (especially in women) the pelvis twists to give a greater degree of movement in a hip stretch. This results in no stretch to the area which is being targeted.
Why do we do these stretches? How long do your hamstrings need to be? If you are an Olympic hurdler then the answer is likely to be very different to someone who sits in the office all day and plays a little golf at the weekends. For the average person the amount of flexibility we need is surprisingly low. When did you last need to kick your foot above 90 degrees?
Then, there are a whole group of people who have the opposite problem – hypermobility. These are people with joints which move beyond the normal range of movement. They are prone to sprains and dislocations and in later life frequently arthritis. They need exercise to stabilise the joints and to learn what a normal range of movement is. For this group strength and stabilisation is far more important than stretching.
In a group exercise class it is easy to be carried with the group and stretch as far as possible regardless of your body’s ability or needs. As well as not being good for you this could actually be harmful.
Next time you think about stretching bear the following points in mind:
How much flexibility do you actually need to live your life and do your activities comfortably?
Do you ever have backache after an exercise session? This could be due to the stretch positions putting unnecessary strain on your back.
Do you have hyper mobile joints? It could be that you don’t need to stretch at all, or need to stabilise the joint prior to assuming a stretch position.
Once you have considered these points you can choose how far to take each stretch and gain the maximum benefit.
If having read this you are unsure how your body reacts to stretching and would like to check your positioning and technique in the exercises you currently practise at the gym, in a class or at home do contact me to book an appointment.