Sitting in splits is fine, but it is of limited usefulness in flexibility training for adults. It cannot be the sum total of your flexibility training because passive static stretching—allowing and external force like a strap, another human, or gravity to push as you try to relax into a stretch—is of limited benefit to the adult body for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the adult body is inevitably tweaked. Life, even a life of relative health and comfort, molds our bodies around our habits and predilections. We all end up a little imbalanced, its unavoidable. Add injury, illness and trauma into the mix and you can end up with some interesting quirks. If those imbalances aren’t addressed, when we “relax” into a stretch our bodies follow the path of least resistance, sinking into the parts that are looser and weaker, resisting where we are tight. Thereby we run the risk of exacerbating existing imbalances when we stretch without correcting them.
Secondly, our bodies are heavier as adults. A child’s body may weigh 30 or 40 pounds when she or he starts learning to support these difficult, extreme positions. Add another 100 pounds to that and you have tremendous pressure on fully extended joints that lack the muscle and stability to support those positions. Passive static stretching will increase your range of motion but it will not give your body the ability to safely support or hold that position. The result is a noodley joint, making balance and movement difficult and greatly increasing the risk of injury.
For adults with natural flexibility who quickly extend their range of motion, this is the greatest threat because a joint with a high degree of mobility and low degree of stabilization is very prone to pain and injury. This is a particular problem for adults with natural lower back flexibility who are quickly able to achieve deep backbends but lack the stabilizing muscles and therefore have no control and can develop lower back pain and damage as a result.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the adult body has learned fear. Watch a child learn a cartwheel: they fling themselves into the motion, over and over, toppling to the ground and bouncing back up again until they are successful. Adults don’t do this. We put our hands in the air, take a deep breath, and deep down a voice whispers, “What are you doing, you fool? You are going to hurt yourself!” While we can overcome the voice in our heads, push through the fear and do it anyway, the fear still crouches in our bodies, zinging through our lizard brain and crying out a warning to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight, as the body doesn’t distinguish between an attacking tiger and your local gym class. Both are threats.
This fear is why stretching is so problematic in adult bodies, and why we hold to the myth that adults can’t bend. Without acknowledging and addressing the primal fear of stretching, our efforts will always be thwarted by tension, injury, and frustration.
Muscles are afraid of stretching. Their entire lives they have been conditioned to move within a prescribed range of motion that feels safe, where they know that they are in control. When you ask them to extend beyond this range of motion they freak out, which means they contract.
What happens when you are in a passive static stretch and the poor, panicked muscle contracts? The force goes directly into the connective tissue—the tendons and ligaments that hold muscles and bones together. Connective tissue is not elastic. Pull on it a little and it will lengthen but it will never snap back and the stability of the joint will be forever compromised. Pull on it a lot and it will break. Best case scenario, your connective tissue is tough enough to withstand the pressure but your muscles will not relax and you spend innumerable hours sitting in a stretch with little improvement.
Some muscles are so full of fear that when you stretch them you can experience what feels like impending death (I call these the “puke and die” stretches). We store past trauma in parts of our bodies; I find the hip flexors, inner thighs, shoulders, and neck to be the most common repositories of doom but there are others. When that repository muscle is stretched it releases its burden of hormones into your system and the body experiences what feels like fresh trauma. The muscle will do almost anything to prevent this, fighting your stretches every step of the way.
Passive static stretching does nothing to stabilize the joints, build strength, or comfort the nervous system. That is why any stretching regimen needs to branch out from the traditional passive static stretches to include resistance, active, and slow dynamic stretches.
Coming in Part 3 we will cover the ways that our contemporary approach to fitness undermines the quest for greater flexibility and how we can re-think our workout mentality to work in harmony with our bodies for better, healthier results.