Every New Year my resolution is always the same – to ‘get’ my splits. And, every year, I seem to fail. Last year I got touchdown in my front split but injuring myself in the process has meant that I have been unable to manage it again since August. Although injury is not nice, it has taught me a lot about my body and how it works so I hope that in this blog post I can pass on what I’ve learnt. I’ll explain what it takes to make consistent, injury-free flexibility progress, what you can add to your stretching routine to enhance your progress and why it might take some people (like me!) a lot longer to achieve their goal.
Flexibility training isn’t all about stretching your muscles
Yes, it’s true that to improve your flexibility you need to improve the amount by which your muscles can effectively stretch but muscles are by no means the ONLY aspect you need to stretch in order to become more flexible. The connective tissue that covers the outside of your muscles, your tendons (the things can connect your muscles to your bones), your ligaments (the things that connect your bones and stabilise your joints) and even your skin stretchiness can all affect flexibility and all require work in order for someone to get the splits or achieve a bendy back.
You work all of these elements without realising it when you stretch but what you often don’t realise is that they can all be over-stretched leading to injury and possible permanent damage to your joints. Not good! So, carry on reading to see how to prevent this.
Stretching without stabilising is a huge mistake
Due to your ligaments and tendons having to stretch to achieve these flexibility positions it means that your joints become unstable, leading to more injuries including things such as dislocation. When you put it this way it makes you wonder why anyone on earth would want to get more flexible! But there is a way to minimise the risk of injury and that it to ensure you work to stabilise your joints. Be it in the gym or at home, resistance training (read: weight training) can help strengthen the muscles around the joints so that, when they do stretch, the muscles can help stabilise the joint, thus preventing nasty injuries.
People think that resistance training reduces flexibility. This is only true for those with extreme levels of muscle mass such as bodybuilders (and is also the case if you carry too much fat) OR if you fail to stretch after a weight training or pole session. As long as you stretch adequately (more about what ‘adequately’ might mean for you later) then resistance training can only benefit you by reducing the likelihood of injury.
Genetics, age and gender play a role
Your genes decide everything from the colour of your eyes to the make up of your joints and yes, it’s true that certain people appear less flexible because their joints are made up in a slightly different way to someone else but flexibility can always be improved as long as you listen to your body and take it slowly. As you age, some of the muscle fibres begin to degrade which leads to a reduction in flexibility. But no matter how old you are, flexibility can always be improved it just may require more time and more gentle stretches as you get older. Unluckily for men, their anatomy means they are less flexible that women and have to work harder to achieve the same level of flexibility as the girls. But, the take home message is that, whatever your genetics, age or gender, you can always work on improving your flexibility.
Warming up properly is essential to flexibility training
You should never stretch cold muscles. When they’re cold muscles are more likely to tear and injuries are much more common. Some people may be more ‘naturally’ flexible and drop into a split at the drop of a hat but, for the majority of us mere mortals this takes time…. A LOT of time and can often seem impossible no matter how hard we try! I only ever stretch after a full gym workout or circuits, I just feel that a pole class or just a bit of foam rolling is often not enough time or a high enough intensity of exercise for my muscles to be completely warm. This is only personal opinion and others get on just fine stretching at the end of class but, as I’ll discuss later, everything flexibility-related varies massively from person to person.
Hydration is key
I bet you didn’t realise that dehydration can lead to muscle stiffness and reduced flexibility. Muscles and the tendons which connect them to bones are actually made up of more than 70% water! If your new year resolution is to get more flexible then make sure you hit your water quota for the day. Not only will it improve the pliability of your muscles it will improve your performance on the pole or in the gym too so there’s no excuse not to get drinking.
Consistency is important but this varies between individuals
I find that I can only do one good stretch on each body part a week, this means I only train my splits fully once a week. To some people this is not often enough but any more than this and I get injured and often end up having to skip a week or two. Although I don’t train fully more than once a week I do still always stretch my legs, hips and glutes, shoulders and back out EVERY time I train – be it at the gym or in the studio. Find what works for you and build up your stretching routine slowly. I am looking to introduce a flexibility training programme on the website so keep your eyes peeled and drop me an email if it’s something you’re interested in.
Stretch both sides equally
It’s only after you injure yourself that you realise that the instability that led to the injury was caused because you only stretch one side. Trust me on this one. I know it shouldn’t have taken me this long to figure it out but there IS a reason that you should stretch both sides evenly and that’s because it can lead to imbalances and injuries that take months and months to heal. It also helps improve the flexibility on your strong side as well as when you have to use your ‘weak side’ split or needlescale in a pole move!
The TYPE of stretching you do is crucial
There are so many different forms of stretch and every single one of them plays a role in improving flexibility. These are my 4 key types of stretch/flexibility that you need to know about.
Dynamic stretches (such as leg swings) are key to help the muscles warm up, you should never over-stretch the muscles without ensuring they are warm.
Developmental stretches, held for 1-2 minutes seem to be key in improving flexibility.
PNF (proprioceptice neuromuscular facilitation) stretching where you ‘push back’ against something is key to improve your developmental stretching and tell muscles to relax.
Active flexibility (holding a split or backbend without the use of gravity) is often very important to translate your hard work on the floor into nice lines on the pole.
Don’t push it too far
You know what feels right for your body. Stretching isn’t meant to hurt, just feel uncomfortable. Learn to try and enjoy the process of becoming bendy even though, at times, it is incredibly frustrating. Make sure you give your muscles adequate time to recover from each stretching session and work up slowly from beginners stretches before you hit the contortion level flexibility tutorials.
Don’t give up!
Most importantly to improve your flexibility JUST KEEP GOING!
If you need more motivation why not join my Flexibility Motivation Facebook group to post your progress and get tips from others?