The ideal approach to training flexibility is to use a variety of stretching techniques. Because an over emphasis on passive stretching can leave gaps in your development it is important to have other options. If you are encountering obstacles—pain, injury, poor alignment, weakness, feeling stuck—it may be time to try a new approach. The more tools you have at your disposal the better prepared you are to respond to your body’s needs as it opens up and changes.
All three of the common problems experienced by adults during flexibility training (discussed in Part 2 of the series) occur because passive stretching does not build strength, it only lengthens. Often we think of building flexibility and building strength as two different, even exclusive processes. The truth is that our flexibility in a given area can be hampered by weakness in the joints and muscles around it. Sometimes a muscle is tight because it is weak, and therefore feels like it has to be constantly contracted to do its job. These weaknesses can even be present in someone who is ripped and very strong in other ways. Building the strength that will help with flexibility requires specific techniques.
The following methods are all different ways of building strength, stability, and control that compliment and enhance flexibility. Each one has a slightly different approach.
Active Stretching: Stretching a muscle or muscles by using the opposing muscle group. This means using your own strength to open a joint, for instance by lifting your leg and holding it in place, moving your arm back until you feel the stretch, or lifting into a cobra with no hands. Active stretching is extremely important in developing usable flexibility and in unlocking chronically tight joints. It works to stabilize loose joints and correct muscle imbalances. The greater the difference between your passive flexibility and your active flexibility the greater your risk of injury, the more pain you have during stretching, and the longer it takes to warm up. Active stretching is also effective for very muscular bodies that find it difficult to “relax” into a stretch.
Resistance Stretching: Placing the muscle in a passive stretch and resisting the stretch by contracting the stretched muscle for short (3-5 second) intervals and relaxing in between. This builds strength in the muscle at the full range of motion and may help the muscle to relax and lengthen more than it would with passive static stretching. It is useful for muscles that are chronically tight and weak and need both strength and length. It is best not to do more than three reps of contractions since this can exhaust the muscle and make it more prone to injury, but done correctly it can help to provide strength through the full range of motion.
Dynamic Stretching:* Controlled movement in and out of the stretch, for instance leg lifts, arm circles, flexing and pointing the foot, etc. Proper dynamic stretching means that you are in control of your body at all times, you could freeze if you wanted to, but you keep the body moving as a means of facilitating relaxation, developing strength and control, identifying improper alignment, and building body awareness. This is essential training for anyone who wants to use their flexibility in movement (dancers, martial artists, circus performers, etc) or as a warm up and injury prevention for any athletic activity. It is also very useful when working with a muscle that is full of fear and strenuously resists stretching. Moving in and out of the stretch will allow the muscle to gradually feel safer and relax.
Used in combination with passive static stretching these three methods can be employed for any muscle group to design the perfect workout for your body. Together they can help to stabilize the joints, build strength, and comfort the nervous system, problems not addressed when overly relying on passive stretching.
All four methods have the same goal: to allow the muscles to relax and lengthen with support, creating a body that is supple, strong, and under your control. They all work a little differently, and it requires an intimate, loving, and communicative relationship with your body to know which method will get those cranky muscles to loosen their grip and learn new behaviors.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for the exact ratios between these methods because every body is different, plus your needs will vary depending on what you want to do with your flexibility. A body builder will need a very different set of exercises than a ballerina or a basketball player or an aerialist. A process of patient, careful experimentation will yield new discoveries.
In my experience, adults who would like to become more flexible excel when we approach our training with a devotion to the process rather than as a slave to the results. The desire to achieve a particular goal “by any means necessary” may deliver a speedy change but it will not give you quality results that will last and be good for your body. Taking the time to feel your body, learn a variety of methods, and find techniques that work for you will yield lasting and satisfying flexibility.
This short series is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on the vast subject of flexibility and stretching science but a brief overview. It should not be considered a training manual or medical advice; if you are experiencing pain or injury from your training please consult a medical professional. I encourage bendy people everywhere to learn all you can about your body, how it works, and the various approaches to flexibility fitness. The more we know about how we work, the more efficient our training can be. Please stay in touch!
* Dynamic stretching must be distinguished from ballistic stretching which uses momentum to force the body into a greater range of motion (fast kicks past your comfortable range of motion, bouncing in a stretch, etc). Ballistic stretching should be approached with caution as it has a high risk factor for injury.