How to maximize your flexibility training: understanding how your body performs best

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

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easier on lower back

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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)

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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.

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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

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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 😀

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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 😉

9 responses to “How to maximize your flexibility training: understanding how your body performs best

  1. Joints’ flexibility can be limited by several factors, such as the length of the muscles, the shape of the bones, joint capsule, ligaments, etc…
    It is crucial that you understand that of all those factors, you can improve ONLY the length of the muscles (by stretching properly).
    .
    Now what prevents you from bending your back ? It’s your ligaments (well mainly). So when you stretch your back, you are just pulling your ligaments.
    And how do you call a stretched ligament ? A sprain. By overstretching your back repeatedly, you overstretch your vertebrae ligaments, the one that are holding the spine structure, and you make them looser.
    I don’t think that’s what you really want.
    .
    You can never improve you back’s flexibility by stretching it, all you can do is hurt it and prepare serious problems for future.
    .
    Some joints flexibility can be improved, they are overall legs splits. There are many you CAN’T improve : knee, elbow, and back for example.
    If you are lucky enough to be born with a flexible back, good for you, no problem ! But in any case do not try to improve it, don’t overstretch your back, or your physiotherapist is going to become very rich !

    • So how do you explain contortionists? You think they’re all naturally gifted? They train for YEARS back bending in order to do what they do. I just had MRI done and it doesn’t show any sprain. Flexibility is a real and attainable.

      • Of course contortionists are naturally gifted ! Why would somebody as stiff as a broomstick choose such a carrier ?!!
        And they also train a lot to improve their flexibility where it can be improved, that’s to say mainly legs splits and shoulders.

        In some rare cases, contortionists can also have some particularities such as the Ehlers–Danlos or Marfan syndromes, modifying collagen and connective tissue.
        Although they are considered by medicine as disorders and can have some serious effects, they also allow extreme flexibility.

        I am an artistic gymnastics coach and I know many athletes coming from acrobatic gymnastics (which is another gymnastics discipline where it is traditional to stretch backs a lot), a vast majority of them have serious back pains, even before the age of 20.
        I even often saw some stupid coaches trying to bend their gymnasts’ knees the wrong way, hoping that it would make the legs straighter, and ignoring all basics of anatomy !

        I am not talking about faith, I am talking about facts and science. Just open any book of anatomy and watch by yourself : there are no muscles to stretch when you stretch your spine back, the only organs you stretch then are the ligaments that are holding your vertebrae together.
        Then use your brain to find the most logical conclusion.

        There are joints flexibility you can improve without any problem using proper training techniques (legs, shoulders). The back is not one of them.

        Good for you if you don’t have back problems yet. Of course you are free to treat your body the way you want, but I think it’s dangerous and unwise to advise people on the internet to practice back stretches in order to improve their back flexibility.

      • I don’t agree with you. I’ve been training for more than 2 years with a very well known Mongolian contortionist and coach, and her focus was mainly on back bending to increase flexibility in that area. The back has tons of muscles to stretch (latissimus dorsi, multifidus, QL to name a few). We spend a lot of time stretching all other muscles, ligaments and joints with a long and gradual warm up. You can injure ANY body part if trained it in the wrong way, legs and shoulders are no exception. As a matter of fact I know many people that with shoulder sprains and hip pain due to training.

      • Cara Sofia, those muscles you are talking about are all located in the back of the spine !
        So when you arch your back you don’t stretch any muscles, on the contrary you contract them !
        .
        Just have a look here if you don’t believe me, there are no muscle on the front of your spine that would be a limiting factor for bending back your spine : http://www.hss.edu/images/articles/psoas-muscle.jpg
        But you can see that very long ligament holding all the vertebrae together, it’s called the anterior longitudinal ligament, and this is (among other ligaments) what you are pulling when you stretch back.
        .
        Ligaments have very little elasticity, their role is to hold your bones tightly together. If you stretch them, they become looser, weaker, and don’t hold the bones anymore. This is where you start to have problems.
        .
        You don’t need to agree or not with me, it is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of facts : when you over-stretch your spine back, you over-stretch your ligaments, and ligaments can’t be over-stretched repeatedly, end of the story.
        .
        What you need is just use your brain, only little knowledge of anatomy is necessary to understand that over-stretching your back repeatedly can only lead to spine problems. Even small children understand that !
        .
        Of course you can injure any part of your body even if you train properly. But if you don’t train properly, then you are almost certain to get injuries ! And over-stretching repeatedly your back is precisely improper training.
        .
        It’s exactly the same story with knees, as I explained before I saw many gymnastics coaches (even some high level coaches) over-stretching them the wrong way in order to try to straighten the legs.
        Then you can’t be surprised if the joint brakes at the landing of a twist, it just can’t hold the tension because it has been weakened by months or years of over-stretching.

  2. I was looking for way to ease the soreness in my back after chest stands my spine feel like a bruise but I know it’s the muscles around it that are just tight. My contortion group trains 3 times a week but I do silks, trapeze and handbalancing also so my back is always bending. I have a flexible back not so much my legs ( I can’t even get my full split yet). Just seeing if u had any ideas how to break up the soreness besides Epsom salt baths and a tennis ball rolling it out. Thanks!

    • You might need more rest! As simple as it sounds, rest would take away the soreness. Im not talking about a week in bed, but at least a day or two x week of NOT back bending.

  3. Informative and enjoyable article Sofia, I enjoyed reading it and adding it to my growing interest in circus arts. And just to back-up your position, I used my logical brain, opened one of my many anatomy books, and came up with a very nice scientific and anecdotal-free response for one of your commentators.

    The muscles that are stretched during lumbar extension are the following anterior muscle groups: obliques, rectus abdominis, psoas major and minor, to name a few. Any anatomist who knows their field, knows that for every extensor there is an antagonist flexor, and visa verse. Without antagonist, our movements would be unidirectional given how actin and myosin actually function.

    What’s beautiful about muscle tissue is it’s a very adaptable tissue. And although dense regular connective (DRC) tissue is not considered as adaptable because of its avascularity, it is not without it’s own beautiful and adaptable structure. An anatomist will know that all of the connective tissues are capable of recovering from injury, all of them. Collagen is flexible, DRC tissue lengthens and shortens, recovers and adapts, just like muscle, it just needs more time to do so.

    As a side-note, a recognized and interesting relationship between muscle tissue and the three fibrous connective tissues, tendon, ligament, and bone, is they can, in response to either trauma or lack of use, become more rigid. Muscle does this by having more collagen fibers and tendons and ligaments do this by ossifying. Neither of these are permanent.

    In conclusion, anatomist–and people with kinesthetic and intuitive intelligence, which from your article you seem to have both–understand both the limitations and the adaptability of different tissues. This understanding facilitates not just proper use, but also use that encourages life long strength and flexibility. Proper training in any sport utilizes innate ability, in addition to encouraging optimum function.

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