Today I want to talk about pain. Pain is something that we fear and overall dislike, comes in many forms and it's part of life. It's a strong and effective way the body has to communicate what's happening.
(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!
I like to take notes of my body changes with training contortion, and lately I just came to a new interesting conclusion. Basically, the newest body part that improved in flexibility (by opening and stretching deeper to a new limit), it's also the first one to get stiff, sore and refuses to reach the new limit all the times. I'll try to be more clear: My 29 yo body didn't improve its flexibility all at once. It happened gradually and in "sections".
The first section of my body that got more flexible was my hips, it didn't take me long, also because of all body parts, my hips received some attentions in the past (through yoga and some stretching on my own). That's why I don't think I'll ever lose my splits. They are solid, they've been around for a while now, I rarely feel stiff in that area. My hips are definitely my most flexible body part and the first one of all to feel open.
my first split in 2008
When I started contortion I began to work on my back flexibility for the first time. I remember of all my back, my lower would get incredibly sore, and because of my long body, that area would naturally take a lot of the bend. I would rarely get sore above my lower back. I wasn't aware of the rest of my back (middle and upper), I couldn't tell what I was bending, beside when receiving passive stretches from my coach. With time the soreness on my lower back decreased, my body "accepted" the new flexibility: it stopped fighting against it and I started bending more evenly throughout my whole spine. Definitely the second section of my body to become more flexible was my lower back.
Lower back work in 2012, the beginning of contortion
After that, it was my shoulders. I spent lot of time creating more space in shoulder flexion, with many shoulder stretches and variations. I had way more muscle than flexibility there, but I feel my shoulders opened pretty good (even with a small past injury on my right one) with no major resistance from my body. I got some soreness, but definitely stopping altogether heavy pole practice and lifting weights helped a lot. I still have work to do but I'd say shoulders was my third body section to open.
Opening them up !
Now I can definitely say the newest section that started to finally give up and open is my middle and upper back. After approximately a year of contortion, I started really FEELING my middle and upper back getting more engaged in each stretch. I actually try to minimize lower back work and focus primarily on middle and upper. I need to actively relax my legs, breathe and send all my concentration to that area, and slowly I feel a response. So out of my WHOLE body, this is the part I'm taking to a new level lately and let me tell you, my body doesn't like it ALL the times. That's why on a stiff day, my middle and upper back are the FIRST to refuse to cooperate, they get stiff and leave hips, lower back and shoulders all the work. This is what the title of this post is about, the last body part that opens, is the first one to close and go "on strike" every now and then, a newborn flexibility that can hypothetically even disappear if you stop trying. So do not take breaks, you should be working your hardest on your most challenging body part. You could have the opposite situation of me: a very bendy back and stiff hips. Let's say you work a while on your splits and one day you finally get to the floor, yay! Then you try another day and... it's not happening. WHY! Your body has not forgotten you did the splits, it's just having a hard time making it happen all the times, but eventually it WILL. So don't get discouraged, give your body the time (could be weeks, months, or more...each body is different) to be ok with the new way of being you're creating for it. When you set a new limit you will get it gradually more often, as long as you practice and don't stop :)