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.
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!
This is just to show you what was my training like 2 years ago, before I started my flexibility journey! There are not many exercises that develop strength (and incredible back stiffness) like rows and deadlifts. So I worked against my flexibility for a while lol...
It doesn't matter if you start from zero or you feel too old for something new and different, with the right steps everything can happen. The body is an amazing adapting machine.
No excuses :)