Flexibility is a hot topic right now — and has always been one of the more popular subjects I get questions about as a gym owner, especially when athletes are introduced to front squats and overhead squats.
It’s actually sad to see the vast majority of adults lose range of motion when they become adults. We coach kids and teenage classes where many of them can sit comfortably in the bottom of a squat with their heels on the ground, lower themselves down into the splits, and perform bend-over bridges with ease. Then we move to the adults where they can’t even bend over and touch their toes!
We are born incredibly flexible, but our movement (or lack thereof), throughout life stiffens up our joints and muscles. Let’s look at the practices of yogis and gymnasts in order to learn how to improve our range of motion.
Yoga vs Gymnastics
For many years at RxFIT, we would hire yoga instructors to come in a couple times a week and lead our athletes through yoga sequences. The intention of these 45-60 minute sequences would be to improve flexibility — which would inevitably lead to less joint pain and fewer injuries. I thought doing yoga was the best way to improve flexibility.
But then I started training at a gymnastics gym.
Gymnasts are the most flexible athletes on earth. Not everyone that practices yoga is flexible, but every gymnast is flexible. You simply cannot or will not find a gymnast that isn’t flexible.
That tells us something about what they’re doing in their training that the rest of us (including the yogis), aren’t.
As I started to surround myself around other gymnasts, I found three simple strategies that gymnasts do in their daily stretching routines that yoga and others do not.
Antagonist muscles should be as relaxed as possible when stretching. If they are not, contracted muscle fibers reduce your range of motion and the muscle itself is not being effectively stretched. For example, when doing a pike stretch, the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back should be as relaxed as possible.
Yoga instructors and gymnastic coaches alike preach “breathing” through the discomfort of a stretch, but gymnasts also incorporate shake outs, contract and relax, and partner stretching.
Shake Outs: “Shaking out” muscles between stretches aids with relaxation and helps release contracted fibers. Gymnasts will hold a pike stretch for 15-20 seconds before releasing the stretch and shaking out their hamstrings and lower back. They will then resume the same pike position, but go a little bit further for another 15-20 seconds. They’ll do this a few times until they are totally relaxed in the antagonist muscles.
Contract & Relax: Actively contracting and relaxing antagonist muscles will also help ensure that you are stretching in a relaxed state. For example, instead of releasing a pike stretch and shaking out the hamstrings, gymnasts will hold a pike for five seconds, then actively contract their hamstrings for five seconds, then relax again and try to stretch further. They will repeat this a few times because actively contracting and relaxing a muscle while in a stretched position aids in relaxing passively contracted fibers and will greatly increase range of motion.
Partner Stretching: Partner stretching can also help you stretch while relaxed. It is often difficult to relax while placing sufficient load on a muscle to stretch it. A stretching partner can provide the additional load while allowing the individual stretching to fully relax. I suppose “partner yoga” incorporates some of this, but not to the degree that gymnasts do.
Regaining our primitive flexibility in life is key to avoiding joint pain and improving performance as we age.
Above everything talked about today, consistency is paramount when it comes to stretching.
But once the habit of stretching for 10-15 minutes a day is established, adopt the habits of the most flexible humans on earth — the gymnasts.