This morning one of my Pilates clients made a post-holiday remark I often hear: “Oh, I felt so stiff before the class! Now I am much better!” It reminded me that flexibility is one of those things we do not appreciate for its own sake, but we definitely notice its absence, or when we lack it. So, today’s post is all about flexibility and stretching: How do you define flexibility; Guidelines for flexibility training; and How flexible can Pilates make you. And, as a free bonus: How to finally master the splits?
Why do you think many instructors report that flexibility is one of the most neglected aspects of fitness among their clients? Perhaps, because flexibility work often requires relative stillness and time, and in our modern society, there is constant dynamism and the desire to get things done quickly. People want to feel they are doing something and being active.
Yet, it’s worth to find a balance between “doing” and “not doing” by setting aside some time for flexibility exercises. Do you really need to be flexible? If you keep thinking the answer would only be positive if you are going to participate in the Circus de Soleil, and you keep neglecting your all-round flexibility, you may not find you are soon even unable to touch your toes. Who is a good enough friend to cut your toenails for you?
The keynote here is that, on the one hand, there are always some areas in your body that could benefit from adding some flexibility (shoulders, lower back, hamstrings, neck, to name a few). On the other hand, you may also find that some specific stretch exercises may be a pretty welcome complement to your beloved practice, whether it is tennis, dancing, golf, running, or daydreaming!
What Is Flexibility?
Wikipedia defines flexibility as referring to the absolute range of movement in a joint, or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints to induce a bending movement or motion.
To induce some life into this definition, we asked fitness professionals to share their own definitions of flexibility. Here’s what they said:
“Flexibility is … agility. The ability for the body to nimbly move in and out of a range of positions,” – Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis Master trainer Domini Anne
“The ability to move with ease and grace. To have the full range of motion in one’s sport without pain or strain,” – Pilates trainer, Tatiana’s Pilates&Dance Studio owner Tatiana Podvysotska
“I rarely use the term flexible, what I tell people is that we are developing strength in range of motion… it is crucial for functional movement, especially as we get older or have sustained an injury.” Nina Dunham
Obviously, flexibility varies between individuals, not only in terms of differences in muscle length, multi-joint muscles and tissue injury, but also in terms of age, activity level, and gender. And though people usually believe they are old too increase their flexibility, the truth is, any one of any age can become more flexible with the proper techniques and willpower to commit to it.
Flexibility can drastically enhance one’s quality of life
More than that, stretching exercises are highly recommended for seniors to improve and maintain a good range of motion in the joints and to prevent injuries. After all, it is not how old you are, it is how flexible your spine is, and how well you are functioning.
Guidelines For Flexibility Training
“It takes just a bit of patience to loosen up the stiffness, flexibility won’t happen overnight. There is no magic pill or move that will miraculously make you super flexible the next morning. You’ll need to work at it, every day. Be consistent. Don’t take too much time off and then come back. The good news is you don’t have to spend a lot of time every day working on your flexibility. If you take at least five to ten minutes a day, and practice a few moves to help with the stiffness, you will notice a big difference in your range of motion and movements!” – Master Trainer at MOTR by Balanced Body Pilates, instructor at Pilates Method Alliance Patti Eppolito Kreiner
So if you are inspired enough now to take your flexibility to the next level, please, take it very gently. No leaping ahead to advanced stretching routines; “slowly” and “carefully” are the watch words. Even when you are fortunate enough to already be rather flexible (due to your everyday classes, or just thanks to nature), be careful and patient.
It may seem odd, but you never know where your body is right now, and what its shape is. So start with the middle effort, and then proceed to your maximum effort on your way to the end of the exercises. For example, if you have six repetitions of The Neck Pull Pilates exercise, the range of motion should be increased little by little from the first to the last repetition.
We beg you not to neglect this patience issue because your muscles, once they have been overstretched, will remind themselves of it for a very long time.
A few more precautions to keep in mind:
- Warm up and cool down before and after your stretching routine. It is always a good idea to work with warm muscles because they lengthen more easily this way. If you do cardio, you can do some light stretching before a workout, and dedicate 20-30 minutes to flexibility training after it.
- Follow a correct breathing pattern. To assist in relaxation, exhale as the muscle lengthens. Try not to hold your breath throughout the stretch.
- Don’t overdo it. Proper stretching should never be painful or include bouncing. Slight muscle tension is all what we aim for.
- Even if you want be flexible in some particular body part (for instance, you aim to do front splits and stretch your legs insanely), pay attention to each muscle group. Doing so invigorates your progress.
- Keep in mind that our bodies need time to repair, so a proper work-rest regime is essential.
How Flexible Can Pilates Make You?
To keep it short, Pilates can give you the flexibility you need in daily life. For most of us, flexibility is needed to perform everyday activities with relative ease. Regular Pilates training will help you with that, and may even add some grace to your movement. Additionally, being flexible reduces the chance of experiencing occasional and chronic back pain. Sounds nice?
To get out of bed in the morning, to lift luggage when travelling, or reach that canned soup on the top shelf in the grocery store, we need certain level of flexibility. Without adequate flexibility, daily activities become more difficult to perform. With ageing, flexibility tends to decrease, and often a sedentary lifestyle and poor posture habits accelerate this process.
Check out this awesome Posture Correction Guide
We all need more flexibility in our upper back and shoulder girdle, for example, because of our day-to-day work at computer desks. And you know, after you have been seated for a few hours in front of the PC screen, trying to deal with the deadline you’ve been set by your boss, and without any rest, well, it could be great for your promotion, but it is not so joyful for your back and your upper body.
The bad news is that our body and our bones will adjust to the stress applied. This means we may get used to that incorrect posture. The good news is that it is both treatable and preventable by easy to perform flexibility routines. Stretching exercises, Pilates in particular, when practiced regularly, help prevent this loss of mobility, while addressing all neglected muscle groups.
Oh, and one more note: improved flexibility may enhance performance in aerobic training and sports. That’s why specialized programs such as Pilates for golf, Yoga for runners, and so on, are so popular.
Check out the next video for exercises for overall body flexibility both for beginners and advanced students.
A Small Split Talk
Even if you are not a professional ballet dancer you might know that a split is a physical position in which the legs are in line with each other and extended in opposite directions. There are two general forms of splits; side splits (executed by extending the legs to the left and right of the torso), and front splits (executed by extending one leg forward, and the other leg to the rear, of the torso).
Why do splits?
First, the splits is a position which is highly regarded as an indicator of flexibility. And it is far beyond that practical, daily flexibility everyone needs, which I described above.
Second, it might be necessary for advanced movements in martial arts, sports and dance, as well as if you’re going for your Olympic limits.
Finally, it brings aesthetic value to the world and boosts your self-confidence, because it feels awesome and looks impossible!
Here are some tips you are strongly advised to follow:
- Never attempt the splits without stretching. Stretch the upper body first, then back muscles, and only after that – leg muscles.
- Warm up before stretching for the splits: jogging for five minutes or an active, fast walk for ten minutes would be great.
- Wear adequate clothing (not jeans).
- While you are stretching breathe in and out deeply. This will help you reach deeper into your stretch.
- Try to make sure your knees are kept straight.
- When finishing a stretch, come up slowly from the position. Joint capsules and ligaments may not return to their optimal length if they are overstretched because of their elasticity; therefore the risk of injury is increased during exercise. Do it little by little.
- Ideally, lengthening the muscles should be done gradually and should involve a slow sustained posture. Fast or bouncing movements may result in a shortening of the muscle, because of reflex responses.
- To release a muscle, the joint involved should not be taken to the end of its range of motion, and it should be completely supported. Be patient and careful!
- Once you can do the splits, practice every day.