Achieve Your Fitness: Flexibility

In a recent article, we outlined how modern society encourages a sedentary lifestyle.  It also promotes postural imbalances , such as sitting hunched over at a desk all day, cramming uncomfortably on an airplane, or repetitive movements in a work setting.  These postural imbalances restrict proper joint function and put you at greater risk for injury.  So what’s the solution?  Work on your flexibility from several different angles.

I always hear people say, “But I’m just not flexible.”  For the most part, this is simply untrue.  Some people do have certain genetic restrictions to their flexibility, but people who say this often haven’t even tried.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:  “I’m just not flexible, so I might as well not stretch.  See, I’m still not flexible!”  I wonder why…

Do you want to get faster, stronger, fitter, and improve everyday movements?  Then you need to start working on your flexibility every day.  Do you have trouble squatting below parallel?  Can you not get your back into neutral setting up for a deadlift?  Are you having issues getting your shoulder into a safe and stable position in overhead movements?  Then guess what, you are cheating yourself out of your fitness potential.

Position is power, folks.  At Overland Park CrossFit, we teach everyone how to move better.  The foundation of moving better is the ability to get your body into proper, safe, and stable positions.  If you can’t get into those positions, you can’t move as fast, lift as much, be as powerful, and become as fit as you should be.  You also put yourself at greater risk for injury because your body will seek the path of least resistance when performing an exercise, so if you set up wrong, muscles that should be working won’t fire properly and you will compensate with secondary muscles to complete the movement.

Okay, so now that you know why you need to work on your flexibility, let’s talk about an action plan.  First, some groundwork:  Flexibility is the ability to move a joint through a complete range of motion (ROM).  The ROM of a joint is limited by how much you can elongate the muscles surrounding it.  If you have aching knees, a stiff shoulder, or tight ankles, then you need to start hammering the muscles surrounding those problem areas.  So, let’s talk about four major forms of mobility work:

These are stretches that passively take a muscle to the point of tension and are held for at least 30 seconds.  Something like a seated hamstring stretch or child’s pose are examples of static stretching.  The idea is that your body senses a muscle is being stretched (lengthened) which creates tension in the muscle. When held for long enough, your body’s instinct to contract the muscle is overridden by a Golgi tendon organ, triggering a response for your body to relax the muscle, and allowing for greater length to the muscle being stretched.  This is how static stretching works, and if performed consistently over enough time, your muscles will continue to lengthen to a point where they allow for greater joint ROM.  These stretches should be done after a workout (when muscles are shortened due to exercise) and during non-training times.  Static stretching can pre-fatigue your muscles, so it can affect your performance before a CrossFit workout.  Consider this type of stretching your post-WOD work and your daily homework!

These stretches use prime mover and secondary mover muscle groups to dynamically bring a joint through a ROM.  These stretches relax overactive and tight muscles and allow them to elongate.  They do not pre-fatigue the muscles as muscle as much as static stretching and are often performed aerobically during warmup.  An example of this would be a standing abductor stretch where you start in a wide stance and slowly move into a side lunge until a stretch in the groin area is felt.  You hold that for 1-2 seconds and then shift to the other side and repeat 5-10 times.  These can be done both before and after exercise and as part of your daily homework.

These stretches call for force production of a muscle and use the body’s momentum to take it through a full ROM.  An example of this would be leg swings.  These are great for warmups before a CrossFit workout because they increase your heart rate and get your central nervous system ready for exercise.  Some people may have trouble performing dynamic stretches through a complete ROM because they have muscle restriction or imbalances.  If you are one of these people, it’s super important that you do your corrective stretching and active-isolated stretching as homework and post-workout to improve this.  Dynamic stretching has an added bonus in that it also improves balance and coordination.

Do you wish you could get massages all the time without spending the money?  Well, SMR is just that:  A self massage.  This technique works on the fibrous tissue that surrounds and separates muscle.  Using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or length of PVC to apply pressure to knots in your muscle, the muscle fibers begin to smooth out from a bundle into a straight alignment with the direction of the muscle.  Like static stretching, the pressure stimulates the Golgi tendon organ to relax the underlying musculature.  The foam roller and lacrosse ball should become your best friend.  Use it all the time:  Before workouts, after workouts, while watching tv, talking on the phone, reading a book — whenever.  Basically, sleep with it, your significant other will understand… ok, maybe not, but they should!  SMR can also be performed before stretching to maximize the muscle-lengthening benefits of corrective, active-isolated, and dynamic flexibility.

And no excuses about not having enough time — you can do this during TV commercial breaks or when talking on the phone with your friends.  If you have 10-15 minutes to spare, that is plenty of time to get a good mobility session in.  Isn’t that a tradeoff worth improving your recovery, joint health, and performance?

So get out of that hunched position staring at this article on your computer screen, break out your foam roller and mobility mat, and get stretching!  It is key to your long-term health, fitness performance, and improvement inside and outside of the gym.  Next time we’ll go over mobility’s best friend, stability.  (Spoiler Alert: You need both!)