If my first goal with flexibility was simply to become the most flexible I could, now that I've seen how far I can push myself, I've slightly changed that initial goal into a healthier, long term, safer one.
When I was looking for flexibility coaches, I had to do a long and grueling search that led me many times nowhere. Living in Las Vegas, you'd think I have it easy right? With all the shows, artists and performers.
An adult body is not a blank canvas, there have been already many "drawings" made on it, through lifestyle, past physical activities, past injuries, postural habits... in a word: life. That's why, contrary to kids that receive all the same training, the older you are the more specific and personalized your training become. Nobody can teach you exactly what's best for your body type, you have to try things out and make adjustments along the way. For example: some warm ups are really beneficial to you, but not to someone else. Some moves will look okay on you but better on someone else and viceversa. You're unique! And so your training should be. These are some of my finds, remember not excuses but actual facts that I have to consider to keep training in a smart way and continue to improve.
Height: I'm tall (5'11"). There is a reason why circus performers are usually short! It's easier to bend and balance a small/short body rather than a big/long one. My frame will always challenge my balance and put my lower back under strenuous work, since the lower back not only bends but supports and holds the weight of legs in inverted positions (cheststands, handstands) and of the torso in standing backbends (like going into bridge). This means I have to alternate intense stretches with easier variations to avoid too much soreness.
harder on lower back
easier on lower back
Past injuries: if you're active, you'll experience some type of injury. It's a fact! The only way to be immune to injuries is basically live in bed lol, but even that wouldn't be good for you. So there will be injuries that will heal completely and never come back, other ones will come and go, some will stay with you and you have to live with them! That's another reason why your training becomes so individual and specific, you have to adapt it around your injury. For example, I have a shoulder I hurt a while ago, I can stretch it but I know its limits, and I know which stretches help loosing it up and which ones just make it hurt more.
Injury example: a strain to the long head of biceps femoris (hamstrings)
Body Structure: this is about proportions. Long legs will tire lower back faster, bigger bone structure means more challenging bending ( I think it has to do with size in general, longer muscles, thicker ligaments, more tissues to bend, more distance to go from A to B). Someone with a short torso and big butt will reach headsit easier than someone with long torso and no butt! Size matters.
Imbalances: we all have a predominant side, either a stronger one or a more flexible one, most of people also have a slight scoliosis. Uneven strength and uneven flexibility, mixed with some scoliosis cause imbalances that needs to be addressed with correct exercises, making sure to reduce the difference as much as possible. This way you avoid future injuries or wear and tear of a specific area of your back - or hip etc.
Me a while ago, noticeably imbalanced with my right back side being less bendy
All this goes into: Moves that hurt / moves that fit: some positions you will try and find very akward and uncomfortable, but eventually get better at it. Others, will never get better or just keep hurting. That's when you can choose (especially if creating a performance piece), what your body type looks better doing and FEELS better doing. But not before learning all the basics! (Cheststands etc).
Crocodile is probably one of my best moves :D
Rest: Training every day won't make you better, you will accumulate a lot of soreness and the risk of injuries will greatly raise. Training creates "mini damages" to your muscles and tissues that need to be healed each time, so you can do it again and again and get better at it. If you don't heal you can aggravate these mini damages. I take at least 1-2 days off a week and alternate intense with less intense sessions. Sleep and days off are essential as training days are.
Remember you only have one body, train smart ;)
(The following statements come from my experience, not medical facts so take them as my personal advice but not absolute law!) I didn't get flexible because I was naturally gifted, nor because I was strong. I did get flexible because, most of all, I learned to relax my body.
You can hurt your muscles and joints in several ways, but mainly with: sudden fall/unexpected movement, overstretching, pushing a contracted muscle to stretch.
The first one can be happening from everyday activities or quickly entering/exiting a position without giving the muscle enough time to lengthen/shorten (dropping into a split with no warm up, getting out too fast from a split/oversplit).
Overstretching (going where the muscle is not yet ready to go, too deep) is a common mistake when trying to increase flexibility so you have to learn the difference between pushing close to your limits and really damaging your muscles, ligaments or tendons. Usually a sharp acute pain is a bad sign, while a progressive, uncomfortable "lengthening" feeling should be fine. Overstretching can cause strains/sprains that can take few days to months to heal (sprains -injury to ligament- take longer). You want to avoid that to not hinder your progress.
Pushing a contracted muscle to stretch is really not a good idea for several reasons. A muscle that resists a stretch doesn't want to be bent, it's tensing to escape the stretch. When you start stretching deeper, that is going to be the first instinctive reaction your body will do. You can read about it in anatomy books, how your muscle initially react to a stretch stimulus is with contraction: a mechanism of defense (remember your body is very dramatic and fearful, always thinking you're up to no good ;) ). If you try to stretch a contracted muscle you'll create injury (tear, strain), so the greatest effort you have to do when trying to increase flexibility is LEARNING TO RELAX INSTEAD TO TENSE UP. This is the most basic concept of passive stretching, but seems like nobody talks about it. We as adult have a hard time relaxing, our muscles only relax in situations we're not even aware of (sleeping, sitting - we don't think about it) so learning consciously to tell a muscle to relax, especially in quite challenging positions can be very difficult, but necessary. There can't be lengthening without relaxation. To further support my point, I want you to look at these two pictures:
On the left side, I'm tensing my glutes and back muscles after getting into cheststand. On the right my glutes and back muscles are relaxed. Can you tell the difference? On left I feel discomfort and tension in neck, shoulders, back and hips/glutes, breathing is harder and my upper and middle back are barely bending. If I stay in this position, there won't be a way to move further, because I'm tensing. In the right picture I breathe better and feel an even stretch throughout my spine, my hips are lower and my neck and shoulders are open, I could go deeper (for example, start straightening my legs). Please understand this is not an example which applies to beginners, but it's to make you see the difference between tensed and relaxed.
Of course if you're starting out with cheststand, your body will enter the position tensed and you won't be fully relaxed till your feet touch something (a chair, if the floor is way too far). But learning to relax will help you so much to improve and automatically exit the "panic mode" you'll experience at the beginning. How do you relax into a challenging position, in which your body wish to get out as quickly as possible instead? BREATHE. Breathing - even shallow breathing - and relaxing are key to bend !
I hope you found this helpful, remember it's only when you relax that your body stop being scared and allows you to move further. Always warm up for at least half hour before trying challenging stretches and make sure you got down the right technique first!!!
Thanks to my coach Otgo Waller who explained me many of these concepts :)
Happy bendings and Happy Thanksgiving too!
All my life I've been quite stubborn and thought I could figure things out on my own, like when I was doing fitness modeling and preparing for fitness competitions, dieting etc I never had a coach and learned everything through mistakes, studies and trial and error. When I decided I wanted to become more flexible though I was short on knowledge and it seemed so hard to find valuable information. I tried yoga and some stretches I had seen around, reminiscences of ballet and foam rolling. I really couldn't figure much out on my own though and online and on books there were either extremely advanced poses or too simple ones. It was very helpful when I started taking flexibility group classes and I learned things like warm ups and exercises using blocks and yoga belt.
But only with one on one training under the supervision of my coach I began to really improve fast and understand a lot about my body.
There are many benefits of training with a good coach (I was lucky to find one of the best, I know not all coaches might share the qualities I'm going to list), those are just few examples :
A coach has been there
Whenever you feel sore, stuck, hurt etc, your coach knows exactly what you're going through. They've been there before you, and through their experience, they can help you.
A coach is emotional support
Whether you're extremely happy because you did a hard move for the first time or you're very sad because your body can't bend that day, your coach is there and will likely celebrate your success or reassure you.
A coach is a motivator
Some days you feel you should skip stretching. Or you are just not in the mood. Or you didn't sleep well or you worked so much and have no energy. A good coach will push you these days and after you'll thank them for doing that.
A coach knows more than you
This is pretty obvious but great, because they will guide you and will make you avoid mistakes, correct imbalances and personalize your training.
A coach understands your body
This is important because sometimes you can't be objective about what's happening in your body, you're not sure what's bending in your back or how something is supposed to feel. Being inside your body and dealing with all these new feelings can be confusing and scary! Your coach will answer your questions and doubts so that you know you're doing things correctly and can focus on your training rather than panicking.
A coach is support
Literally, because some exercises there is no way you can do them on your own, you need someone to push, pull and support your body to improve and challenge your imaginary limits. Your coach is also a mental support, because won't let you be down if you're having a bad day or let your fears or worries prevail over your desire of being flexible!
Those are some examples I experienced with my coach :) If you're very serious about flexibility I suggest you to have a coach and see them often enough.
My coach !
At some point, starting out or few months in with flexibility training, you'll question if what you're doing is actually realistic and worth it, you'll have doubts and often you'll tell yourself something to justify the journey's difficulties (that's the purpose of excuses). If you believe in an excuse, you think you have a reason to quit. But guess what, excuses are not a reason to quit, more like an obstacle to overcome. Here are the most common flexibility excuses, many of which I personally experienced:
I'm too old. This is by far the MOST common excuse, and it's understandable, but it's not our biggest limitation (our MIND is). It's understandable because as we age, flexibility decreases, but with consistency and dedication, you can be more flexible of a teenager who stretches inconsistently and with no dedication. Also, you have to set goals that are challenging yet realistic.
(I started to stretch at 27 yo!)
I'm not naturally flexible. Well, so is the remaining 80-90% of the world population. So you're not alone! You can teach your body how to become flexible.
My bone structure doesn't allow me do certain stretches. Ok, first of all, who said that and why? Do not believe anything you hear, unless it's proven and comes from medical sources. Second, what about trying different stretches? There can be some positions or exercises that feel particularly uncomfortable (I personally don't like to push too much my lower back) so it's totally fine to do different ones. That's one thing I love about flexibility, you can always find new ways to stretch your body safely and without unnecessary pain.
I get too sore. It's gonna happen. But it will also get better with time. Make sure you rest and take hot baths to help your body recover.
My legs/torso are too long. That's my excuse sometimes! But again not enough to make me stop. We all have different body proportions (people with short back can head-sit easier, for example). I have to work extra hard to control my long body (I'm 5'10") and sometimes it feels very heavy to maneuver and bend.
(I have a love/hate relationship with handstands. So damn hard!)
I have no time.
Not a good excuse, if you find an hour a day for Facebook/TV, you can find it for stretching ;)
I'm scared to push myself. It is very scary to go deeper into stretches at the beginning, because mostly your mind doesn't believe you can do it. Remember your body can do double, triple of what your mind thinks. Relax and breathe. And have someone with experience on your side to assist you in case.
My coach always makes me feel safe!
I'm naturally stiff. This goes hand in hand with the "I'm not naturally flexible" one. If you knew you can reach a goal, but it would take you extra time and work, wouldn't you still go for it? Believing is achieving. Others are way better than me. Who cares! You are not them. You are you. Find what set you from the rest, don't try to be someone else. Why would you wanna be someone else's bad copy? Be your own best. Somewhere I read "Comparison is the thief of joy". It's so true. I have past injuries, I can't do it. You can always work around injuries. Actually, all active people go through injuries all the times, it's quite normal. I myself have a not so great left hamstring and right shoulder, but I have my ways around it and warm up really good. Some old injuries will always stick with you, they'll come and go. Other ones will heal completely, and stretching will help the process.
Do you stretch? What's your excuse?
So my body after a year of contorting at least 3 times a week, feels like finally has started to accept the new way of being, and nags way less about it. There have been months where I personally doubted why I was putting myself thru all that strenuos training. It was painful and scary, but so rewarding that quickly I could't help it but keep going. There are not many things that fascinated me like the human body, and pushing its limits. I really feel like the bumble bee, I probably shouldn't have done contortion given my age, little flexibility background, height etc, but there wasn't a real reason for me to not believing in myself, so...
Now the biggest changes I started to experience so far, are:
Lot of cracking. My back cracks every day, even just standing up or slightly twisting. I love to crack my back to release tension. Cracking per se it's not bad, it means your joints are more flexible and the little gas molecules inside, with a pressure change, make a pop sound.
I'm more sensible to cold, sitting, walking or standing for long time. Those are the most common reason for my back to get stiff.
I never felt more free in my life. I have the greatest freedom of movement and a deep sense of relaxation after I stretch. I cant imagine how constricted must feel the regular population lol!
I developed a fine tuning between mind and body, a profound connection and communication. The fear is what keeps mind and body apart. If you don't take down your fears, you can't fully see what's your body potential. You need a mind free of fear to guide a body into defying logic and common sense, because contortion is none of them aha!
I'm less hungry (don't know why, probably I started eating less, it's awful to be full and stretch!)
I sleep in weird positions.
I sit even in more weird positions, every time I have a chance to be on the floor I go not thinking twice.
My mood often is related to how my body feels. If I'm stiff, I can get very pissed :-P
And lastly, I get way less sore than in the beginning, Yay!