Flexibility is something that many people struggle with and never address, despite the positive impact it can have on your body and mind. Stretching and flexibility training can be a huge pain in the butt.
At times, progress in flexibility seems slow. An important thing to realize about building functional flexibility is that your brain and nervous system sometimes work against you; you just need to get it to work on our side! Just a much as you need to reestablish length in your muscles, you need to retrain your brain and nerves to let your muscles lengthen without fighting against them. Improving flexibility is not as hard as you might think if you or your trainer understand both dynamic and passive stretching exercise.
Did you know that there is no muscle connecting your inner thighs to each other? It certainly feels like there is, if you try doing a split or kicking high above your head. Believe it or not, your brain causes this tightness. Your brain has a preset range of motion in which your joints are allowed to move. In other words, if you try to kick straight up over your head, you’re brain may contract your hamstring and groin muscles to prevent you from moving into what it sees as a dangerous position. Your brain tries to keep you safe, but you need to tell your brain to relax sometimes.
Take this example: If you can hold your leg out, 90* from your torso and set it on top of an object, you actually have the ability to do a side split. Your legs don’t connect to each other, so if you can hold this stance on one side and then the other, you should be able to do both at the same time, putting you into a full split. But maybe you can’t… why? Your brain tells your leg muscles to contract and not let the split happen! It does so because a foreign position or range of motion is deemed unsafe.
It might be of use to establish the difference between static flexibility and active flexibility. Holding positions without movement is static flexibility. A split, sitting with your legs crossed, or holding a back bend are examples of static flexibility. This is important to have for general well being and muscle health. For functional purposes, active flexibility is more important. Not everyone that can do a split can throw a high kick and visa versa. The brain interprets flexibility within movement differently that it interprets holding a stretch. It has been shown that athletes can achieve maximal active flexibility in 8 weeks, doing specific series of dynamic stretches, that don’t really resemble stretches at all. There is no ‘hold’ of a stretch, but lots of swinging of joints. Arm circles, leg swings in every conceivable direction, trunk rotations, and neck circles can be seen as dynamic flexibility drills. While you may stretch for years, you might never be able to kick someone in the head without understanding some of the science of active or dynamic flexibility.