Addressing inadequate levels of flexibility could allow you to take huge strides in your training. The important thing to highlight here before I start delving into the benefits of being flexible is that contrary to belief, when it comes to lifting, practice does not make perfect – practice makes permanent. Unfortunately, your squat form won’t eventually improve if you just squat more often, your back and knee pain won’t eventually go away if you just push through it, and your shoulders won’t eventually stop hurting if you just give your shoulders time to catch up with your disproportionately strong chest (lol). UNLESS, you address the route of the problem, which can often be the inflexibility of a joint.
Flexibility training has become increasingly recognized as an important way to help correct inefficient movement patterns, and aid in preventing and treating various injuries and postural discrepancies. In today’s society, nearly everyone is plagued by postural imbalances largely as the result of sedentary lifestyles, office and desk jobs, and repetitive movements like texting, typing on a laptop and slouching in a chair or on a couch. These things have led to tight hip flexors and hamstrings, weak extensors, and also an increased rate of injury, including low-back, knee and neck pain. Without adequate levels of flexibility and joint motion you may be at an increased risk of injury while working out, you may be inhibiting your muscle or strength development and you may not be able to achieve your personal fitness goals until these deficits are corrected.
Flexibility can be simply described as the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion (ROM). If you are unable to perform full ROM at a particular joint as it translates to exercise, your body will naturally deviate from an optimal pattern of motion where it’s utilizing the appropriate muscles for the job, and it will apply an inappropriate demand on other muscles involved making you more receptive to injury. For example, if you have tight hip flexors, when you squat with a weight on your back, you will be pulled forward and your body will deviate and place a higher demand on your spinal erectors to hold the load – not only can this lead to back pain when squatting but it also means you won’t be able to recruit as much muscle to perform the lift, and inevitably places a cap on your ability to eventually lift more weight.
So what can we do? Improve our ROM at the joint! AND our neuromuscular efficiency.
Range of motion (ROM) of a joint is dictated by the normal extensibility of all soft tissues surrounding it. An important characteristic of soft tissue is that it will only achieve efficient extensibility if optimal control of movement is maintained throughout the entire ROM. What this means is, in improving flexibility, static stretching is not enough to improve ROM, and applying controlled loads and movement to extended ROM while activating the opposing muscle group is just as important. So, back to our example of tight hip flexors, performing stretches like a pigeon stretch, a spiderman stretch or a butterfly stretch will help lengthen your hip flexors, but as it translates to lifting you need to improve your neuromuscular efficiency as well, and only in conjunction with an active hip stretches and glute activators like glute bridges, donkey kicks or split squats will your ROM improve when performing exercises like a squat.
Performing an exercises in an optimal motion, while placing the appropriate distribution of demand on the involved muscles is called Neuromuscular efficiency, this is the ability of the nervous system to recruit the correct muscles (agonists, antagonists, synergists, and stabilizers) to produce force, reduce force, and dynamically stabilize the body. For example, when performing a chest press exercise, the pectoral (agonist) must be able to concentrically accelerate shoulder abduction and internal rotation while the anterior deltoid and the triceps (synergists) assist in shoulder abduction and elbow extension. If you have tight pecs, and limited shoulder ROM, your body will demand more from the synergist, your triceps and anterior deltoids, this is called synergistic dominance – THIS IS BAD – you won’t be applying the appropriate demand from your chest muscles and your shoulders will be more receptive to injury because of an inappropriate demand.
Poor flexibility can lead to the development of altered movement patterns, which is the process in which the human movement system seeks the path of least resistance. A prime example of relative flexibility is seen in people who squat with their feet externally rotated (feet pointing out). Because most people have tight calf muscles they lack the proper amount of dorsiflexion at the ankle to perform a squat with proper mechanics, their hips track back too far, and their chest leans forward. A second example can be seen when people perform an overhead shoulder press with excessive lumbar extension (arched lower back). Individuals who possess a tight latissimus dorsi will have a decreased ability to lift their arms directly overhead, and as a result, they compensate for this lack of range of motion at the shoulder in the lumbar spine placing a higher risk of lower back injury.
So again, practice does not make perfect – practice makes permanent. The following are typical movement distortions, the appropriate muscles to stretch and the best exercise to perform.
SQUAT Deviation: Excessive Lean Forward
Stretch: Hip Flexors, Calves, Adductors
Activate: Tibialis Anterior, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Maximus
PUSH/PULL Deviation: Excessive Shoulder Elevation
Stretch: Traps, Pecrtoralis Minor
Activate: Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboid
HINGE Deviation: Rounding Back
Stretch: Hamstrings, Hip Flexors
Activate: Latissimus Dorsi, Spinal Erectors
Written By: Ashley Dunwell, MS, NASM-CPT