Is It Possible To Be More Flexible Without Stretching?
Is it Possible to Be More Flexible Without Stretching?By Evan Osar
I was recently watching a group exercise class at the facility where I train. The participants were performing a set of bridges with their feet on top of a BOSU. After the set was completed, the participants stretched their backs by pulling their knees into their chest. I have witnessed many similar type group exercise classes that perform resistance exercises followed by stretching. At first glance, it seems like a reasonable strategy – perform a resistance exercise followed by a stretching exercise. However, thinking about this strategy raised a question for me. Why should our clients need to stretch after performing non-maximal type resistance exercises? Why do our clients feel tight after they exercise and need to stretch so much just to feel looser? And is there a way to perform resistance training that actually encourages flexibility so that our clients don’t have to go to yoga or spend 20 minutes stretching out after they work out? In this article you will discover one of the most common reasons your clients get tight, why resistance training commonly contributes to increasing their tightness, and how you can create a winning strategy for your clients that simultaneously develops stability along with flexibility.
Why Do Our Clients Get Tight?
If we are going to be the solution to the health care crisis that our clients need and want, then we must become the specialists in understanding what governs optimal movement and likewise, in designing effective exercise programs based upon these fundamental components. One of the keys to understanding how to create optimal movement patterns lies in understanding why our clients get tight in the first place. We are taught that tightness is caused by a sedentary lifestyle – and this is true. We are taught that injuries can create compensatory patterns that lead to tightness – and this is true as well. We are taught that a well-rounded exercise program should incorporate strength training as well as stretching. Unfortunately, this is where we have been misled or at least, not been given the entire story. Am I suggesting that the stretching proponents are wrong and that we should simply abandon stretching and usher in a new training paradigm that stresses stabilization and movement over stretching? And what about yoga? Haven’t people been doing yoga for thousands of years? Again, we must understand what makes our clients tight in the first place.
Secondary only to stress, tight muscles are the result of the nervous system’s response to instability. Think about walking on ice or on a wet tile floor. Do you walk tall with full, rapid strides or do you walk with a more flexed spine posture and shorter, less confident steps? Of course, our nervous system chooses the latter response as its’ strategy to unstable situations. Rather than work on stability, too often we turn to stretching as a means of improving our clients’ flexibility. Additionally, we are instructed by several leading fitness institutions that flexibility, along with cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength, is one of the essential components to a well-rounded physical fitness program. Unfortunately, there is little agreement as to what constitutes ‘normal’ flexibility. A word used in yoga practice is ‘sthira-sukha’ which defines yoga postures or asanas as the ability to be both ‘stable and comfortable’ or ‘firm and relaxed.’ Unfortunately, many current approaches to yoga postures have become anything but ‘stable and comfortable.’ In fact, take a quick look into many yoga classes and you will see anything but stable and comfortable postures. In fact, similar to what you will see if you observe the way many personal trainers stretch their clients after a session, you will note many individuals stretching into uncomfortable postures, far beyond their ability to stabilize these positions. And here is where the problem lies – not in the stretching itself, but in its’ application without a regard for stability. Are individuals generally more ‘flexible’ after stretching or doing yoga? Absolutely they are. However, except in rare instances, these individuals are also more unstable meaning the flexibility they achieved during their stretching or yoga session is only short-lived and they will likely soon become tight as their nervous system attempts to compensate for this instability.
So how do we develop flexibility while simultaneously making our client’s more stable – and without stretching? First, let’s define exactly what we mean by flexibility. For our purposes, let’s consider flexibility as an individuals’ range of fluid motion that he/she can functionally control while optimally performing the seven fundamental movement patterns (pushing, pulling, rotation, squatting, lunging, walking, and running). Additionally, we can include that this flexibility should enable the individual to safely and effectively accomplish their functional goals whether they be to simply perform their daily activities, their occupation, or recreational sport. Our training program should then enhance our clients’ flexibility and improve their ability to accomplish their functional goals. So just how do we do this without stretching? By focusing on the principles that govern human motion.
The Three Principles of Human Movement
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
As Emerson so eloquently states in the preceding quote, there are only a few principles that govern human movement. However, in an effort to remain ‘fresh’ and on the proverbial ‘cutting edge’ of fitness, our industry has increasingly adopted more extreme methods of exercise such as training the general population as if they are professional athletes, running boot camps and group exercise classes as if the clients were literally going to go from their exercise session onto a battle field, and even turning yoga into a competitive sport by adding weights and more extreme postures. It is important to note, these are ‘methods’ of training, not principles that govern how clients should move.
So just what are the three principles of human movement and how can they help our clients achieve flexibility? First, our clients must be able to achieve optimal respiratory patterns so that they can simultaneously develop efficient oxygenation of their body with optimal stabilization. If our clients are unable to achieve an optimal respiratory strategy, they will make their neck and chest tight as they over-utilize our accessory muscles to breathe. If they are unable to achieve optimal respiratory patterns, they will be unable to optimally stabilize their core and have to over-utilize their erector spinae to stabilize themselves thereby over-compressing their spines which leads to many of the degenerative joint and disc problems so many of them suffer from. If they are unable to breathe efficiently, they will lose trunk control and subsequently alter joint centration and therefore alignment and posture as well. This in turn leads to decreased flexibility in the trunk, spine, as well as the extremities – simply from not breathing properly.
Second, they must be able to centrate their joints. Centration is the ability to maintain an optimal axis of rotation while holding either a static joint position or while performing a dynamic movement. When our clients lose joint centration because of poor stability, injury, or learned patterns, they will experience limited flexibility and tightness.
Third, they must be able to coordinate breathing, with joint centration, while integrating the fundamental movement patterns. If we can help our clients achieve proper respiratory patterns, stabilize their core while maintaining ideal alignment then we can utilize the fundamental movement patterns to increase flexibility. It is when our clients lose the ability to breathe properly (which is the large majority of them), lose the ability to centrate their joints, and/or use resistances that are too heavy and /or perform exercises beyond their ability to stabilize, that they start to get tight.
Here is one simple test to determine if your clients’ exercise strategy is helping or hindering their ability to develop and maintain flexibility. Have your client stand against a wall prior to their exercise session and measure their height. Then take your client through their exercise program and before stretching them, re-measure their height. If they are shorter, even by a little, their nervous system has compensated by tightening them up. Stretching will likely elongate them however it will not change their nervous systems’ response to the exercise they performed that made them shorter. They will use this exact same strategy the next time their body comes under stress or when exercising. The solution is to focus on improving their ability to efficiently perform the three principles and you will be able to help them restore their flexibility, and often times, without performing any stretching.
This article has defined a common problem with our industry’s current approach to improving flexibility. Additionally, a functional definition of flexibility has been provided that is based upon respecting the three principles of human movement – achieving optimal respiration, developing optimal joint centration, and incorporating these components into the fundamental movement patterns. If we accomplish this goal, then we can safely and effectively incorporate any method of conditioning that we choose whether that be strength training, group exercise class, and yes, even stretching and yoga. If we commit ourselves to incorporating the three principles of human movement into our client’s exercise programs, we will then become the movement solution to the health care crisis that our clients need and want.
About the Author
Audiences around the world have seen Dr. Evan Osar’s dynamic and original presentations. Dr. Osar has become known for taking challenging information and putting it into useable information the fitness professional can immediately apply with their clientele. He is the author of The Corrective Exercise Approach to Common Hip and Shoulder Dysfunction, due to be released in the spring of 2012. He isa regular presenter at ECA events and is the developer of the Integrated Movement Specialist™ certification. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.