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Let's Dive In!
Anyone who feels uncomfortable stiffness and limited in their yoga practice, or simply in life doesn't need experts to convince them of the benefits of feeling flexible. If you had to pick between feeling stiff and rigid v. bendy and nimble - almost everyone would opt for feeling fluid and flexible. This article will keep it to the basics, but if it scratches your stretching itch, by all means dive in more deeply.
Perhaps like me you have been told that once you are an adult the degree to which you can increase the total potential your body's natural bendiness. A predisposition for flexibility along with training prior to puberty can absolutely result in physical capabilities well beyond average. While we may always be trailing women who spent significant time in gymnastics and ballet from a very young age, for the common person who is feeling stiff they aren't interest in putting their foot behind their head when touching their foot would be a win.
Most of us, when we are feeling inflexible and stiff, aren't seeking out a new threshold of flexibility, but rather are seeking to bring the body back to a natural suppleness that should be (and absolutely can be) present. Comfort and and control of natural range (not a desire for extreme range or contortion) is the pursuit for most.
You may be wondering if there are basic things you can do that help a deeper and more enjoyable practice for your joints. If you're feeling stiff are you doomed to feel that way forever because it simply was the 'way you were made'? And can that knowledge of stretching science help with both safety and physical advancement?
If the answer is a resounding YES then read on . Beware this post is long... so skip down to the end if you want the key takeaways ...
Coming to terms...
First a basic agreement on terms and sensations can help. After all, human beings were moving and stretching their bodies long before they invented language for it, and much longer before what we know as stretch became a topic to study. And, on top of it all, it's a relatively new idea to study this concept!
Often you will have movement experts say things like, "I don't use the word 'flexibility' anymore. I prefer range of motion." This is often because they seek to help their clients find more functional (read: useful) flexibility that can be controlled. But when it comes to the public, flexibility does means function in their minds. When someone feels inflexible they are describing a sensation as much as they are describing a physical state of being.
When it comes to flexibility we typically thing of that as how far we can 'bend'. When we think of inflexible we often not only thing about how far we cannot bend, but the discomfort we feeling about that state of stiffness.
Bendiness is a combination of many things, here are some notable considerations ...
Here are some examples to help each of the above become more clear ...
Extensibility of Tissue
This is the aspect of flexibility we most often think of first - the stretchiness of our skeletal muscles. But there's a lot more than just muscles involved in stretching. We also have ligaments, tendons, and within and around the muscle and the bones they attached to is myofascia, strong thin connective tissue that provides support to the muscles and bones. This connective tissue coexists within the muscle and as muscle cells give away the resulting connective tissue tapers down to be what we know as a tendon.
Healthy, happy, hydrated muscles and connective tissue should be able to move through a full range that is limited by its actual length between bony structures, and when pulled to a moderate degree, springs back. Whereas less extensible muscle tissue may experience stiffness due to lack of hydration, soreness from lack of proper blood flow, rigidity due to scare tissue, or limited of experience (i.e. the muscle hasn't been used that way for a while or ever and there's little memory or skill for it).
Sensing Pain and Sensing Movement
So let's consider that last point - when a joint and it's associated muscles are being introduced to something that is brand new, or is de-trained (hasn't been done in a while). This new or new-ish experience enters into a communication experience between the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that senses threats and may trigger reflexes as mechanisms of safety.
Scientists who study physical movement view the nervous system as the major obstacle to increased flexibility. The key to building a bendy body relies in neurology more than simply the mechanical and structural nature of of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles.
Scientists who study flexibility think that the small, progressive steps that allow us to go a little deeper during the course of one session—and that dramatically improve our flexibility over a life of yoga practice—are in large part the result of retraining the way the brain and the body perceive the situation at hand.
Imagine you are at a party and walk into the kitchen to grab an appetizer, and suddenly you slip on a puddle of melted ice. Your foot starts to slip out from under you and almost immediately your muscles fire into action to prevent your legs from splaying a part. Your muscles have a network of sensors that evaluate stress; as stress on these muscle spindles increases the nerves signal danger activating a reflex loop that triggers an immediate, protective contraction.
Some of us are a little too protected, too much of the time. And because we aren't introducing our nervous system to more controlled (controlled is an important word here) stress through range of motion our spectrum of what is deemed possible by our brain and body gets smaller.
The body has receptors called nociceptors that are in place that detect potentially harmful stimulus. Nociceptors have different types that detect different potential harms such as temperature, chemicals, pressure, and pain. Depending on their location - such as skin, joints, tendon muscles, or viscera - they may be detecting something different. For example, nociceptors in the skin are particularly aware of heat - these are called thermoreceptors.
When the body stretches tissue there are receptors, called nociceptors, that essentially detect signals for damage or - important to this topic - potential damage. The nervous system thus responds accordingly depending on the assessment. So if a certain position is new, and there is not much skill for the task, the brain-body connection may essentially limit the range as a protective mechanism. Familiarity and building control gradually makes way for a sense of safety and the brain-body connection responds accordingly. In the muscles nociceptors may detect a number of painful experiences such as chemical build up (like a cramp from lactic acid) or mechanical changes such as a stretch which may be considered too far for that muscle.
But we also have receptors that not only perceive potentially noxious stimulus, but also give us a sense for the body's position. As mentioned before as a bundle of muscle tissues approaches a bone, the volume of muscle fibers taper down leaving what we call a 'tendon' create a relationship between the muscle and the bone it is meeting. Tendons are simply fascinating and we are learning more all the time about the role connective tissue and tendons play in our sensory understanding of moving through our environment. Important to the basic concern of flexibility, a mechanoreceptor called the Golgi Tendon Organ is located primarily at the junction of muscle to tendon, and more predominately at the insert (as opposed to the origin) of a muscle. GTOs sense tension, and rate of tension and serve as an important communicator between the nervous system and the muscular system as it relates to how fast we might be going, and important to this topic how far we are stretching. When the GTO senses that tension is being applied to the muscle and tendons where it resides it relays that information to the nervous system. In return the nervous system reacts to either inhibit further movement or actually signal to relax and provide more space to the area under tension, depending on the situation.
Independent Joint Range
But there's a lot more than just 'soft' tissues, we also are working with tissues that are harder and less willing to give. The meeting of one bone to another creates a space or relationships, and that is most often referred to as a 'joint'. How far away and how close together the bones can come while maintaining this relationship space largely influences what we consider a joint's 'range of motion'.
Consider someone who you may call 'double jointed' at their elbows. If they held their arm out in front of their body, their upper arm may be straight out from the shoulder, but their lower arm may hang slightly below the elbow. The total degree of range for this person is well beyond 180'. If they have been this way since birth the tissues that dictate proper movement in their arm likely have grown-up around that joint and adapted to it's range. For normal, everyday tasks and quite possibly for most of their exercise, it poses no problem. Similarly we can have less visible but just as impactful bone relationships in any of our other joints. And, when it comes to athletic flexibility, the hips are a common area of interest.
The hip, or the acetabulofemoral joint, is the space where the acetabulum (or the socket made by fused bones of the pelvis) and the head of the femur (the upper leg bone) meet. This meeting, unlike the elbow which creates a hinge, is a ball and socket. This circular shape provides a tremendous opportunity for variety in movement which is why human legs can gracefully move forward, back, side to side, and rotation and in countless combinations with relative ease. The socket itself however can be deeper or shallower, as well as narrowly or widely set in relationship to its opposing leg counterpart, as well as angled more forward, or more offset to the side. These variances create more or less relative stability in the joint. Stability and mobility are typically considered to be inversely related. When a joint is more stable and dense they are typically less inclined to be mobile and lithe.
The surface level solution to the inquiry of flexibility when it comes to hips and bony relationships in joints, is that someone with a shallower hip socket is going to be more inclined to be flexible, and someone with a deeper hip socket is going to be more inclined to be stable - and there is little that can be done to change that. Bones are, as we know, growing and changing as we age, but they don't change so dramatically that we can remodel them to a large degree, at least not without surgical intervention.
But the more complex answer is that when it comes to range of motion in our hips, we are also someone confined by our habitual use (and more often lack of use) of certain joint actions. The good news is that we can be liberated from some of this restriction by identifying which joint actions feel overly dominate and working on the less dominate actions - which in turn stimulates our nervous system to brighten up and clarify those actions providing us with more control.
Interdependent Joint Range and Whole Body Flexibility
When it comes to bendiness in the body, very rarely are we considering it in isolation. If our knee doesn't fully straighten or fully bend, we might not notice until we are doing something that requires our full body effort, such as a trying to touch our toes, perform a squat, press up into a wheel, or even perform the splits.
The relationship of our muscles is such that they can work in isolation to move the bones that host their nearest docking stations. But the reality that the skeleton is actually floating in a bath of intention-tension suggests that when it comes to interdependent flexibility, something else is at play here.
The connective tissue that innervates our muscles, runs together to create tendons, and surrounds the outer sheath of bone is - connected. Our bones (and organs) are held up and in place by tension created by muscle, fascia, tendons, and ligaments woven from the tips of our toes to the top of our head.
Multi-joint moves are typically where we start to notice we have lost our flexibility. After all someone does not normally have perfect posture in their spine while sitting in their desk at work. While their hamstrings are staying long near the bum and short near the knee for a long period of time, their glutes are also staying long and under-stimulated, but if they side with thelr legs wide and relaxed or have one leg that consistently crosses over the other the rotators could be shortened up, and likely they are allowing their spine to round forward. This is creating a cascade effect of issues that may results in someone who acutely feels the inflexibility in their legs, but they may or may not notice the relationship of that issue with their hip and back.
A Static Life is a Stiff Life
By the time we become adults, our tissues have lost a significant amount of their moisture content. Yes this is due to aging, but it is also due to the increased time adults spend not moving. Movement not only encourages blood flow, but it also pumps fluids in the joints, in the spine, in the brain, and helps the lymphatic system operate optimally.
Prolonged static positions coupled with aging means a body will become less supple. As we know what doesn't bend will break and thus stiff bodies also become more prone to injury.
When we stay static, or endure micro-injuries and fail to move our bodies for healing and exercise, tissues begin to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our once stretchy elastic fibers get bound up with connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is almost like the process of turning animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy pliable structure.
Do More Of What We Were Designed For ...
Our bi-pedal body evolved to walk, run, climb, gather, and hunt. It was not designed for prolonged sitting in the same position. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors got the daily exercise needed to keep the human body flexible and healthy.
Move in Many Ways
It stands to reason that before we can do more of the intense experiences that require flexibility, we need to do more of the everyday motions that keep us healthy: standing, walking, lunging, squatting, reaching, pulling, rotating etc.
Add in Dynamic Range of Motion
In the world of exercise we often all this dynamic stretch, which is simply moving a joint through its full range without prolonged holds. Vinyasa yoga is a powerful example of dynamic stretch. The relatively continuous movement and combination of postures takes a body through a variety of interdependent joint actions that both strengthen the body but also offer length to shortened tissues.
In the world of 'stretching' there are different approaches and desired outcome. Static stretching (like the reach and hold) feels good on sore muscles and stiff areas of the body. However it can be limited in its benefit. Which is why adding in dynamic stretching is so important. Dynamically stretching helps take the body through fuller ranges of motions and not just the spots that 'feel' like a stretch.
So what does this mean for you if you are feeling stiff? How can you increase your range of motion? Here are 5 strategies that you can put into play right away!
1. Move more often throughout the day. If you work at a desk job, get up to move around at least once every hour.
2. Add dynamic stretching (continuous movement through your fullest controllable range) instead of just passive stretching
3. Challenge your interdependent - full body - range in a variety of ways every day (standing, squatting, walking, lunging, rotating etc.)
4. Stay hydrated
5. Introduce your body to new stimulus regularly
Hi there! You found me. My name is Julia Marie Lopez. For 20 years I have studied meditation and mindful movement as my primary tools for healing. For the past 10 years I have worked as a wellness coach, yoga teacher, personal trainer, and I am the Founder of Practice Everywhere.