Exactly 5 years ago in April 2012, I attended my first flexibility class and quickly started discovering the love of being supple, bendy, somehow in my mind “limitless”. I was 27 and definitely not expecting I could get as far as I did, considering all I wanted was decent splits and more mobility in my back. However class after class, I started getting really passionate about this new training focused on lengthening and stretching the muscles (prior to that I was doing only fitness and bodybuilding). Few months later in November, hungry to expand my knowledge about flexibility, I met my contortion coach and the rest is history.
Today I want to share with you important aspects of training contortion and flexibility as an ADULT without a gymnastic background or natural suppleness that I learned in these past 5 years.
When you start stretching, you feel overall stiff, every stretch is pretty uncomfortable and you get very sore. Your hips and lower back start to weekly have “a voice“, you never really knew they existed before, you never felt them or use them this way. The good thing is when you start hopefully you have no injuries, so you’re working with a fairly “new” body (this depends from your physical activity background) and so you can really try all stretches and techniques, you’re learning how to breathe, move, direct your attention, manage your energy, control your fear and keep your self-disbelief at bait. It’s a painful process and often times people have not enough motivation to continue it, because yes it’s very uncomfortable and it takes time. But if you last past 6 months, things start slowly changing. Hopefully you learned a warm up routine that, like a known labyrinth, takes you each time to the place you want to be: a warm place where your body feels free from restrictions, where you can exercise your superhero skills, bend backward, balance on your hands, train your motor neurons like little soldiers ready to conquer each flexibility battle. You become accustomed to train, the discomfort sensation begins to be familiar, each time you go a small bit forward, and the days you can’t seem to improve, you still do your job, because you’re learning success in training is not a straight upward line. It’s a beautiful, addicting, self discovering process that make you stronger each day. I fell in love with it. Somehow writing this brings tears to my eyes, because I think of how much passion I pour into what I did all this time, and it makes so much sense to me now!
Now, years go by. You have reached a pretty damn good level and definitely want to keep climbing the ladder of improvement and success. You polished year after year poses you learned, transitions, combos and added new challenging exercises. Your body doesn’t get as sore, but definitely is affected by the amount of training and stress, because I’m not here to tell you that you’ll never get injured. If you train hard, you will, and it doesn’t make you a bad athlete, it’s just how it goes. Chronic overuse, aging, maybe a bad assisted stretch, a fall, you name it. It’s ok though, because if you take care of yourself on other aspects of your life (sleep, diet, supplements, water intake, recovery etc) you probably have learned by now that your body can heal itself, because in its imperfection, the body is perfect.
What I want to list you here are some of the most important lessons I learned at this point of my contortion training, something I wish I could have read somewhere years ago lol. If you’re new to this or a seasoned performer, I hope it can help you. I’m working hard to be as healthy, flexible and strong as I can and to bring these qualities into my future for many many years to come. So here they are:
- WARM UP: A set routine of exercises that gradually warms up the soon-to-be-used joints and muscles and opens up the body to prepare it for the core of your session, which is made up of more challenging and difficult exercises than the warm up ones. With no warm up, the risk of injury highly increases, so I learned that as boring as it might be to do shoulder rolls, neck circles and baby preparatory stretches, it has to be done for a successful and safe training!
- FINDING THE RIGHT FREQUENCY: This is a trial and error, everyone is different. Some people train 6 days a week, others 3 days a week, with same results. It really depends how much recovery you need and how intense your sessions are. I don’t train my back more than 3 days a week, I usually like to have a day off in between backbends, but if I go hard, 2 days off is even better. Mind me, on my days off backbends I train either splits, balancing or conditioning, so those are not complete days off training.
- IMPORTANCE OF ACTIVE FLEXIBILITY: Active flexibility is something that I started discovering only few years into my training, for the simple reason that if you don’t work first on building a solid passive flexibility foundation, you don’t have enough range of motion to activate your muscles in certain stretched positions. Once you do, active flexibility opens up a whole new level of body awareness and control, let alone the advantages on injury prevention. Definitely something I learn more about everyday!
- CONDITIONING/ENDURANCE: After a long break from weights and bodybuilding, I recently went back to the gym and created conditioning routines to gain back some strength lost focusing so much in the past on passive stretching. I studied closely what exercises have the lowest impact on stiffening up the back and which one help best for strengthening core, shoulder and hip stability as well as being directly beneficial to my contortion training (push ups etc). As for endurance, I try to go through combos and transitions for a few minutes without breaks. It really boosts your cardiovascular and muscular endurance! Nothing makes me more tired than that lol.
- WORK AROUND INJURIES AND REHABILITATION: It’s extremely important to recognize the occurrence of an injury before it worsen. If you have localized pain that doesn’t go away, you should seek medical attention and have exams done (Xrays, MRI etc). Most common gymnastics and flexibility related injuries involve sprains (tear of a ligament), strains (tear of a muscle or tendon), tendonitis (inflammation of tendon), labral tear (shoulder or hip), disc bulging/herniation (spine), arthritis (hip,spine,shoulder) etc. Once you’ve found out the cause of the pain, you should avoid training the injured area (and follow the instructions of your doctor!), but not avoid training altogether. There are plenty of alternative exercises to do while you’re recovering and sometimes from avoiding a body part, you learn so much more about other parts of your body. I accepted injuries: now what matters it how I deal with them. Stay positive and remember it takes time to recover from an injury and some conditions (like arthritis) are irreversible, but with care and a careful approach to training (conditioning and stretching) you can find your way to feeling better and definitely correcting what caused the problem in the first place (excessive repetitive stress, too intense too soon etc). This is a generic advice, I suggest to consult with your doctor or physical therapist for more in depth guidance and injury treatment!
- ALTERNATING TRAINING INTENSITY: You can’t expect to train at max intensity each time, it’s just not possible nor realistic. Alternate intense days with lighter ones, this will give you ample room to recover and avoid over stressing the same joints over and over. I like to keep my order, type and number of warm up exercises always the same, but I rotate the more advanced stretches throughout the week. I make sure at least 1 day a week I do the most difficult ones.
- ACCEPTING CHANGES/MODIFYING EXERCISES: read this post I recently wrote to understand this point!
- FUNCTIONALITY/QUALITY OVER AESTHETICS/DEPTH: this is pretty self explanatory, I learned to use training not only to reach depth in stretched positions (therefore adding greater ROM to my joints) or creating beautiful shapes, but also and mainly to develop a stronger connection between mind and body, quality, controlled movement, minimizing right/left sides unevenness, strengthening what was weak, lengthening what was stiff. Having a highly capable, skilled, functional, fit body, minimizing injuries/implementing the limits of the current ones.
- KEEPING POSITIVE MINDSET/NO COMPETING: Keep loving what you do, that is the juice of the story. You’re here because your passion, drive, curiosity, determination took you. Don’t give your motivation for granted, nurture it, check on your goals and current feelings. Focus on you and what makes you happy. Remember it’s not a competition, it’s a journey into discovering the unique, always growing and improving you.