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 ;)
Even though I don't consider myself an expert (I've only been doing this for 2 years), being an Exercise Science major and a personal trainer for more than 10 years have definitely helped me to understand better my experience of "adult contorting", or at least figure out partially what my body is going through. Here are some questions I asked and answered myself through research and experience:
What the hell am I stretching?
What is happening in your body when you stretch? Basically, your muscles are the ones mainly stretching. Your ligaments stretch when your muscles are maxed out. Your ligaments are thick and resistant, NOT very flexible. Tendons are not flexible.
Should I put ICE or HEAT on a muscle?
HEAT,HEAT and HEAT! Ice is good for decreasing inflammation right after sudden injuries (like falling and twisting your ankle). For everything else (soreness, pulled muscle) you want heat, which promotes blood flow and healing.
Something hurts... what happened?
It's not uncommon to overstretch/strain muscles in contortion. Of course you wanna avoid that by warming up really good and gradually sink deeper into a stretch without rushing. But if that happens, don't panic: a strain can heal in few days or few weeks, depending how severe it is.
Why can't I do this everyday?
An adult body can't perform contortion every day with the same intensity. You will have to alternate hardcore with easy, till you don't get more experienced. If you can backbend no problem everyday... well lucky you lol.
Can I do contortion AND ...weights, pole, aerial, crossfit?!
This all depends on how far you want to go with your contortion and also how old you are. If you're under 25 you might be able to train different disciplines without necessarily affecting negatively your contortion improvement. But in my experience I had to make a drastic decision and cut out almost all other training I was doing, because they would get in the way with contortion (my body would get too stiff and sore). Beside contortion I still do cardio (run, stepmill, bike or elliptical), body weight workouts and floorwork/no-tricks pole dance.
How do I heal a strain?
(FYI Strain: damaged muscle tissue. Sprain: damaged ligament tissue)
It sucks. But as I said earlier, a muscle can heal! You just need patience, heat packs, massages, little rest and lighter training on the affected area.
Am I stiff or sore? What's the difference?
This is how I classify stiff and sore:
STIFF--> many causes, often not identified (could be hormones change, dry or cold weather, sitting too much, walking too much, standing a lot, high heels, not sleeping, drinking alcohol/being dehydrate, be mad/stressed and so on... basically having a life lol). The feeling is very annoying and hard to get rid of, usually some cardio to warm up the body, light stretching or a hot bath helps.
SORE--> usually the cause is previous training. It feels painful but gets better while warming up. I prefer sore rather than stiff... the worst is when you have both, ahah!
That's it for tonight's blog.
Stay flexible, friends!
I used to think that with good motivation, dedication and correct training nothing really could have stopped me and everything would have come to me "easy", work smoothly, with no major interruptions. I thought success (as in training progress) was a straight arrow, slowly but steadily keep pointing up. But training contortion I had to rethink my vision of success and improvement. The arrow, no matter how much motivation, dedication and hard work, NOT always goes straight up, it actually gets stuck, goes down, then up again, etc.
Your body has its own ways to accept changes (=improve), sometimes it listen to you, other times it doesn't. Your body is a very complex mix of bones, tissues, muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, organs, fluids operated through more complex systems of chemical reactions, hormones, fed by oxygen and nutrients. All of this strives to work in harmony and keep you safe: that's your body's main job. Often times in training you have to push your body to get out of this safe and comfortable zone and so it gets scared, send all sort of inflammation signals and alarms, gets sore and uncomfortable, but eventually IT ADAPTS, because you (your mind) rule, not the other way around.
So this is why success is not a straight upright arrow, because you are not simply a machine, and your body has to work its ways (get sore, strengthen, adapt, slow down, get inflamed, slow down, heal, strengthen, adapt, get sore...!) to adapt to the changes you want to see. You also need to respect your body and know when it needs a break, because it's really the place you live in for your whole life.
Sometime no matter how motivated, you can't improve, you feel going backward, or stuck, even for weeks. This doesn't mean it's over and you won't improve anymore. The good news is, if you keep your head in the game and don't panic thinking you're broken and will never see progress again, you'll keep improving. Those bad times test your will and determination, as well as your patience: if you get over them, you are a step ahead, mentally and physically.
So bottom line is, success is not an upright arrow, you need to push your body out of its comfort zone, yet be understanding and have patience. Work with it, don't fight it, Things will work out :)
Not long ago I wrote a post about the top 10 excuses about flexibility training, today I want to talk about which common mistakes I see people do (and I did too) that set them back with progress and makes flexibility training uneffective and at times dangerous too. So here we go, in no particular order: 1. You don't know what you're looking for.
What does flexibility training mean to you? A way to learn a difficult pole move? Better balance? A sense of connection between body and mind? Relief from sitting all day? Getting splits? Handstands? Deep backbends? There are several schools out there that uses flexibility in different ways (contortion, gymnastics, yoga etc), with different technique, goals, training philosophy. Make sure you know what you want out of the time you spend training and what better fits your needs.
2. You don't commit to a method/teacher, rather jump from one thing to another.
This is very common. You started out following someone's DVD, then got into this circus stretching class, then suddenly switched to more yoga, but then changed your mind and went back to the DVD, taking in the meantime a couple of private classes with different instructors as well. WOW your body must feel confused ! It's highly unproductive to jump from one thing to another, and this apply to any training (and diet as well). Your body is a creature of habit, and needs TIME and lot of the SAME STUFF over and over to actually show you it's capable of improvement and change. So make up your mind, pick a studio, a gym, a class, a coach and COMMIT to it. Spend a good amount of time (1-3 months) before deciding if what you chose is not working for you. Few things works better than too many, always.
3. You don't know how to warm up.
This is very common too! You just do few arms circles, couple leg swings, some cobras and then... 5 minutes have passed and you think it's time to get to the hard stuff. Not really! I'm not saying to warm up an hour (even tho I can spend an hour warming up easily!) but at least give your body 20 minutes to raise its temperature, start greater blood flow and gentle opening up what's about to be stretched. I love warming up because it's also the time I start getting my mind ready and focus.
4. You jump to the hardest stretch without allowing your body to gradually open.
No wonder you feel stiff... You need to go from easier stretches to harder ones. Stretching is like a video game: you can't go to level 5 before passing through level 1,2,3,4, right? The easier stretches are necessary to open up your body, gradually and safely, so that when you attempt to do something harder, you put your body in the best condition for it. Do you think I go to the gym and flop into a cheststand? It takes me at least half hour ;)
5. You stretch only when you feel good.
If I had to stretch only on "good days", it would be probably once a week lol. But that doesn't make any progress happen! You need to get your body accustomed to the stretches, on good and bad days. Once I was told actually, the biggest growth you make it on bad days, not good ones. So if you decided to stretch 3 days a week, you will do it, no matter what.
6. You avoid stretching when stiff.
This is similar to the previous point. You'll need to stretch even when you feel you'll suck. Obviously you won't go so hard (keep in mind stiffness is one thing, being injured is another), but you gotta do it, because of what said in mistake #5. You'll feel better afterwards, and most probably you'll get rid of some of the stiffness, too!
7. You take long breaks.
This is highly counterproductive, and another very common mistake. You are trying to get your body more bendy, and you started maybe later in life, like me. You're basically trying to domesticate your muscles, tendons, ligaments, nervous system to another way of being, which is pretty uncomfortable at first if you ask me. And you think you can take 2 weeks off? Your body can't wait for that and reverse everything back to the previous state (before stretching), especially at the beginning. But that means basically flush down the toilet all the efforts and tiny changes in progress. Do not stop stretching especially if you're a beginner.
8. You switch your routine/exercises too often.
You try few times a certain pose, take a good picture of it, move on to something else. Or you keep getting distracted by Instagram craze challenges, or something you saw on Pinterest but wait, you already forgot. Get your brain out of social networks and into YOUR TRAINING, YOUR GOALS, YOUR PROGRESS. Forget what others do, and don't think just because you're getting tired of the same stretches, they are no longer effective. You can always get deeper and add variations to them. Have a stretching routine and do not change it, beside after few months, to add something new.
9. You look for stretches on Youtube.
Youtube if full of crap, be aware. Following a 10 year old doing triple folds doesn't sounds like a great idea, anyway.
10. You get out of a stretch the moment it feels uncomfortable.
There is a difference between uncomfortable and "I'm gonna die here, now". The uncomfortable is where the stretching process STARTS. The "I'm gonna die here, now" is where you actually make the real progress and set a new limit. Of couse I'm exaggerating, but what I mean is, you need to keep in mind flexibility involves a good dose of uncomfort, that sometimes it mixes with fear and desire to get out of a stretch right away. But as long as you're well warmed up, breathe, take it slowly and are in good teacher's hands, you'll be fine. Try to hold your stretches little over the uncomfortable level, just few seconds more and will make a big difference in the long run.
Hope you enjoyed this post, questions are welcome, and if you like, you can share it 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 :)
As you know in the last couple years I completely changed the way I trained my body, and I won't bore you again on how much I like contortion etc, so don't leave me yet ;) Training my body differently had a huge impact on how I see my life today, how I think, make decisions and behave. I've always used my body as a mean to deal with life, my approach to it has always been a consequence of how I treated my body, what I did with it, and so it's now. I used to not know the actual meaning of BALANCE and FLEXIBILITY, I didn't know the great gifts and freedom those two brings. In life if you don't aim to take care of a variety of aspects (how's your social life, your family, career, relationships, passions) you'll burn yourself out, on one front or the other. You'll be amazing at something (like your job) and sucking at something else (neglecting friends and family, call them when you need etc). I'm not saying you need to have everything perfectly working, that's unrealistic, but you should aim to a balance in your life where you can find satisfaction on many fronts, not just one or two.
Flexibility, that had a tremendous impact in my way of thinking, too. I now consider myself open to changes, I accept the new, let go the old, I'm mentally flexible, I adjust myself to what life brings me. We really have no choice! You can't fight changes, because changes are part of life, and they happen. Some things last a very long time, other don't, and it's ok. The more I get old the more I understand this.
On good training days, toward the end of my practice, I enter this "super wise/happy" state ( thank you endorphins) where I understand very clearly some aspects of life, I get great ideas, think motivational quotes and overall I feel a positive attitude toward everything. It sucks that it doesn't last long, but if you can catch some of the thoughts you have during this state and write them down, it can help you on less-happy days. So today I was thinking how much I can relate contortion training (or training overall) with life. Those are some examples:
1. There will ALWAYS be good days and bad days. On good days you'll push yourself forward, on bad days you'll push yourself ... Just enough. But overall you'll always need a "fighter mentality", getting depressed or feeling miserable have really no benefits. You can be mad, cry, let it all out, but then pick yourself up and keep going. Nobody can do it for you, to get over something like a bad day there is only one way... Go through it.
2. Motivation will be high some days, low others. On low days, remember yourself why you do what you do, and think: "today is difficult, but if I go through this, I'll definitely be stronger tomorrow". Motivation helps and makes the journey enjoyable, but if one day is not there, doesn't mean you can take a break. Like a chore, just do it.
3. Pain, fear (as in challenge), fatigue. Life and training share those too. If you train your body to deal with those, your mind will learn and use this approach with different matters other than training. I'm a strong believer that strengthening the body strengthens the mind as well.
4. Patience, perseverance. With contortion I learned even more how important is to be patient. Whenever you want to build something solid, real and long lasting (like a skill, or career, education, relationship) you'll need time. Lot of it. If you stay committed and focus, you'll get there. You have to be serious with your intentions and don't get distracted.
5. Commitment and choices. In life you won't be good at everything nor you'll have everything you want, but SOME, yes. You'll make the conscious decision of what this will be (if you're lucky!), and dedicate your time to it, swear by it, love it and take care of it. Just like marriage, you'll have this approach to a person or a passion (mine is training! If you didn't get it yet lol).
That's it so far! My "high on training" is fading away :)
So last post I wrote about the most dramatic changes I felt after my first year of contortion ( btw I forgot to mention my bruised chin aha!), today I wanted to address another topic related to flexibility training, which is how to know what works for your body, what don't, what's worth to try and what is not.I primarily refer to people who start their quest for flexibility at a later age (over 20-25 yo), we have different bodies than kids of course, one of the main aspect that we lack compared to kids is: our body has a story already written on it, we are not a blank canvas anymore. You might have noticed kids can pretty much do anything, they don't have pre-existent injuries, imbalances and body-habits, because they didn't live enough to develop them yet ! But we did, and so we have to work either around injuries, work to correct imbalances and bad habits (postural or training induced). So you'll get frustrated because someone can do a certain move with ease, and you can't even get close to it. But then you'll find you're great at something else, while the same person you thought was better than you, can't. So this is what's interesting, you need to create the flexibility that your body is willing to accept! It can be very challenging and a long trial and error, but you need to give it time and see how your body react to the stretches, it will either take it and make it its own, or you'll have to find an alternative way to get in the pose you want to be, or either avoid the pose altogether.
There are things that with time you'll able to correct (like imbalances), other won't really happen, because again how your body has grown its own stubborn habits, or it will be because of your proportions (height, bone structure, torso-legs ratio etc), your background and lifestyle: those have all a huge impact on your ability to develop flexibility, you just have to find the right key (the right stretches) to open those doors, and sometimes there will be no key at all. For example, something I worked (and still work at it) to correct is, I have a tendency to drop my left hip lower when I do a chest stand (and I look crooked), if it wasn't for my trainer Otgo, I'd have never known. Something I'm not so good at, but it's worth keep trying: handstands, I don't think being almost 5'11 helps, but I can't even use it as an excuse. Something I don't think will ever get fixed: my aerial splits have a turn out so strong, I can correct it on the floor but in the air it's so natural to turn out that I can't avoid it, but I don't sweat on it, because I have a tons of other stuff to work on :)
So my message is: don't get obsessed to fit into a pose, without first testing out how your body feels about it. It is painful, uncomfortable, but it's getting better, almost each time ? Then go for it. It feels completely unnatural, painful, and simply not designed for you ? Then skip it, or you can always re-try again later on. But don't make excuses, it will always "hurts", to some degree ;) you just have to learn if it's a pain that your body will take to make remarkable changes and adjustments, or not.
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!
Training is such a powerful tool, and so it's dieting. Those two combined can maximize your physical and mental performances, depending what your end goal is. When you train to develop a skill, run a marathon or perform a dance routine, your diet must follow your goal (Performance) so that your body can have the right type AND amount of nutrients to sustain your training. As a general rule, the more hours of strenuous training, the more (clean) calories will be needed.
If you train to lose weight, compete or be a fitness model, you'll have to work hard with both your diet AND training. Your goal in this case is Look, your body appearance is what you focus on. You'll need to be very strict with your diet, and at times your training will suffer from the lack of calories. But you'll get used to it and your energy will adjust.
During the years I was competing, I was pretty lean year around and didn't allow myself to gain weight (nor strength, consequentially), my goal was LEANNESS, rather than being stronger or able to perform different skills. I used training to complement diet. Diet alone would have left me skinny and flat. Lots of cardio and weight training gave me a shredded look and this combination worked well for few years. Only thing, it didn't leave much space for improvement or gaining new skills, my energy was limited and I knew I had to use it wisely.
The moment I put Performance before Look, I started to explore my body in a whole different way. I added pole dance back to my routine, more stretching and few weeks ago I even started contorsionism. I learned new skills, added muscle mass and strength. I faced body challenges I wouldn't have even considered in the past, because I was all about the "Look".
You can have times where one goal prevail on the other one and vice versa. I still spend a lot of time taking care of how I look, after years of doing that I wouldn't have just stopped :) Clean eating is a good habit and knowing your body makes things easier (knowing how much you can eat of something etc.).
To sum it up: Performance needs quality diet and training. Look needs strict diet and training.
See you next post!