One of the many cheesy lines that I use with my patients is a modified version of one of Voltaire’s famous quotes.
power flexibility comes great responsibility”
I like to tell my patients this because many of my patients often focus too much on general flexibility. Whether it’s patients insisting on doing hours of yoga, or amateur athletes talking about the need to stretch before they exercise.
Now I don’t want to oversimplify. I think Yoga can be very good for you. And I also think there’s a time when you should stretch. But they shouldn’t overshadow what’s really important: you’re ability to move correctly.
Workout Rule #1: WARM UP
Before you workout, stretching may help, but it can also be detrimental. What’s more important is that you adequately warm up your body. As you warm up, your joints will be more flexible, and your muscles more pliable, which will give you improved range of motion. If there is a specific joint or muscle that needs to be stretched (as determined by your inability to properly move) after you have warmed up, then stretch. Stretches are also good to perform when you are done with your workout as a cool down to help decrease post-workout fatigue.
Workout Rule #2: PRIME YOUR MOVEMENTS
After your warm up, go through the major motions that you will have to perform in your sport or your workout. Perform the entire movement, especially at the end-ranges. Slowly build up speed so that you can do your movements in a controlled fashion with any desired speed. Your body will benefit from the reps and will begin to move more efficiently, smoothly and, hopefully, correctly. If you’re doing basic lifts and strength training, do the basic 5 movements (posture, hinge, squat, push, pull). If you play a sport (especially one that requires a repetitive movement), you already know to take warm up reps. You can do this with light weights or heavy weights at slow or fast speeds. Just move and repeat until the movement is smooth and efficient. Baseball players and golfers instinctively take practice swings. Amateur strength trainers should take practice reps.
So where does stretching fit in? Unless you want to move like a robot, you need flexibility. Different parts of your body need to be flexible, and if you’re not in one area, the areas next to it may have to move more to compensate and this can lead to excessive wear and tear on your body. The most common example of stiffness leading to problems are the thoracic spine/upper back being too stiff and the lumbar spine/low back moving too much.
So where does Yoga fit in?
Yoga can be very beneficial as the demands will challenge your stiffness. With a good yoga instructor (and this is key!), you will not be allowed to cheat, and will be forced to move properly with all your joints and muscles. The more difficult poses are the ones where you can’t cheat; to maintain those poses, all of your joints and muscles must be flexible.
So what’s wrong with this? Just like everything else, moderation is key. Through every degree of motion that you move, your muscles must be strong in that specific position. The more your joints can move, the more your muscles have to work to stabilize that joint. If your training only focuses on flexibility, this will lead to an imbalance and a higher risk of injury.
A great article that summarizes this can be found here: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150602-why-only-some-of-us-are-double-jointed
The key points in the article are that very flexible dancers often fatigue earlier most likely due to the extra energy it takes to control their excessive mobility.
What this means: Stretch if you need to move. But make sure that you also have the strength to control that motion. Often in rehab I have people strengthen in the middle positions (neutral spine, etc) because people are usually stronger here. It’s safe. But for life function and for sports, we need to be strong in a variety of positions, therefore your training should also reflect that. Find and perform exercises that require both strength and flexibility.
Next post: Great exercises for flexibility AND strength