No Need to Tie Yourself in Knots
While a certain degree level of flexibility would be beneficial for everyone, we don’t have to be able to tie ourselves in knots. Typically, people migrate toward activities they’re good at. If you’re already flexible you probably don’t mind stretching, but if you’re not, the thought of stretching alone is enough to make you cringe and avoid any form of flexibility training. Whether you are fine with stretching or hate it, there is a common mistake people make – stretching the muscles that don’t need stretching and not stretching the ones that do need it. If you’re stretching correctly and don’t feel tightness, then that muscle most likely doesn’t need stretching or that particular stretch.
What is Optimal Flexibility?
We must remember that we are all different, what’s right for some may not be right for you. Most people don’t need gymnast level flexibility. However, almost everyone needs a certain degree of flexibility, which many people lack. This is mainly since most spend the majority of their day sitting, or otherwise being sedentary (still), at work, in the car, at home watching TV, and elsewhere. Sitting for extended periods day in and day out, as many of you are probably aware, is bad for mobility and muscle imbalances.
Mobility & Postural Imbalances
Mobility is defined as the ability to move in one’s environment with ease and without restriction.1 Simply, mobility refers to your ability to move your body and limbs freely and painlessly through a desired movement. When we lack mobility, we are just not hampering our ability to work through the entire range of motion in workouts, but also our ability to complete common daily activities. Muscle tightness is likely to result in ugly postural imbalances – such as shoulders rolling forward in a hunchback pattern, hips rocking back (to create that nice skinny-fat beer-belly look), and one side of the body being higher or lower than the other side. This results in leg and arm length discrepancies, not to mention funny looks when you’re wearing a swimsuit, tight clothing or anything else that reveals your body asymmetries. Aesthetic annoyances aside, these are also huge issues when it comes to injury risk. So, you look weird and you get hurt easy. Not fun.
Posture & Stretching
Posture and stretching are major factors that contribute to flexibility. What does posture have to with flexibility? Good posture keeps muscles in balance and our body well aligned, allowing optimal efficiency of body systems. Poor posture places abnormal weight on joints and stresses muscles and tendons, often leading to pain. Plus, which many don’t consider, poor posture does not adequately support internal organs2, circulation is hampered and an environment more favorable for disease and dysfunction is created. Our muscles act as pumps that help to move fluids, such as lymph fluid3 (part of our lymphatic system4), throughout the body. When good posture deteriorates many of your muscles can’t effectively pump fluids. Poor posture is always an indicator of the need for a stretching or mobility program to lengthen short muscles and an exercise program to tighten weak/loose muscles.
Tonic (Postural) & Phasic (Mover) Muscles
Poor posture and muscle imbalances are a result of misuse. Some of our muscles react to faulty loading by shortening, tightening, and becoming hyperactive. These muscles are referred to as tonic or postural muscles. While our other muscles do the opposite, becoming longer and weaker when exposed to the same stressors. These are called phasic or mover muscles. Tonic muscles, by design, have a tendency to be workaholics, while the phasic muscles are naturally lazy.5 When exposed to stressors, such as a chronic emotional stressor, the tonic muscles will shorten and tighten while the phasic muscles in the same area will often lengthen and may weaken.
Again, I Ask What is Optimal Flexibility, for You?
Well, I don’t have a straight and easy answer for you, for this answer is highly individualized and will vary from person to person. But one thing is clear having a certain degree of flexibility, or more importantly mobility, is vital. And one major issue that you can address today or in the very near future is to address muscle imbalances before exercising. As stated earlier, if you have poor posture or have otherwise been injured (resulting in imbalance), the tonic muscles tend to get short and tight while the phasic muscles tend to lengthen and weaken.
Imagine a Bicycle Wheel
To better understand how muscle imbalances, affect our bodies, think of a bicycle wheel that has been bent and some the spokes have lengthened while others have been shortened. This bicycle wheel is out of balance, and if you take the bike out for a ride, chances are the bicycle won’t handle well. The stress of riding on a crooked wheel could cause the wheel to fall apart. How do you get a bent bicycle wheel to roll straight again? Simply by shortening/tightening the loose spokes and lengthening/loosening the tight ones. This makes the wheel roll true and balances the bike. If your going to expose yourself to the stressors of exercise, as you all do, then you must attempt to lengthen the short tonic muscles and strengthen or tighten any long or weak phasic muscles to bring your body back into balance.
Fact of the week
Healthy aging, is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the “development and maintenance of optimal physical, mental and social well-being and function in older adults.”6
Healthy aging is “likely to be achieved when physical environments and communities are safe, and support the adoption and maintenance by individuals of attitudes and behaviors known to promote health and well-being, and by the effective use of health services and community programs to prevent or minimize the impact of acute and chronic disease on function.”