How to Improve Your Flexibility & Range of Motion

Understanding the Difference between True Flexibility and False Ranges of Motion

Believe it or not, flexibility is not just an end range of motion. 

The common definition of flexibility is the ability to elongate a muscle - to get it into an end range. It's understood that muscles contract to make movements and do things - like carrying or moving an item or opening a door. It's also assumed that stretching is the opposite movement from a muscle contraction - the elongation of the muscle. A muscle is considered flexible when it can elongate maximally, producing great ranges of motion - like the splits. 

At Bendable Body we think that is only a partial definition of flexibility and not the most important part. 

The true flexibility of a muscle is its ability to make all movements, not just elongation. A healthy muscle moves with power and ease. The power portion is called strength and the ease portion is called flexibility and they go hand in hand - you cannot separate them out from one another. If you are only measuring the flexibility of a muscle by lengthening capacity, you are not measuring the true flexibility.

Many people produce end range positions (like the splits) with what we refer to as a 'false range of motion' where the end range position occurs in the joint structure (the tendons and ligaments) and is an over stretch that causes instability in the joint and eventually leads to pain and injury. 

What is a true range of motion?

So what is a true range of motion?

Let's take the example of the splits - which is considered the ultimate test of flexibility. If a person can truly do the splits without over stretching and compromising their hip joints, they can also get themselves out of the split position by contracting or strengthening the exact muscles that elongated to produce the splits - their inner thigh muscles.

Instead what we see nearly all of the time is people need to put their hands on the ground and use the strength their arms to push themselves back up to standing from the split position. They cannot get back to standing solely using their inner thigh muscles.  This is a false range of motion and not true flexibility. 

Take the splits test: What is your true flexibility of your inner thigh muscles?

Fascia: the tissue at the root of flexibility and inflexibility.

Improving your flexibility means getting your muscles to work better. The thing standing in the way of that is unhealthy fascia that has accumulated in your body over time. Fascia has an integral and inseparable relationship with muscles. It surrounds and penetrates every muscle fiber in your body. Healthy fascia is like a water web or collagen web that is hydrated, pliable, gushy and moving. Unhealthy fascia is matted on itself, hard, dry and un-moving. 

Take a moment to tune into your body. While you can't feel fascia directly the way you can feel your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, you can feel its impact in all of those areas. Does it feel like your muscles are floating in a gushy, hydrated tissue that allows them total freedom of movement (like when you were 5 or 8 years old)... or does it feel like your muscles are being strangulated and bound by something? 

My guess is that for many of us it's the latter. Different areas of the body may fall on different levels of the unhealthy fascia spectrum, but as we age we tend to loose our suppleness. Generally speaking the muscles on the back of the body are more prone to hardened, dried fascia and the muscles on the front of the body become tense under the heavy load of the thick fascia residing on the back of the body. 

However, stiffness and decreased flexibility is not the only consequence of unhealthy fascia. 

7 things stiff fascia causes in the body:

  1. Inflexibility. Stiff fascia strangulates your muscles and prevents them from contracting, elongating and rotating. It essentially causes less mobility and flexibility in your muscles. 
  2. Muscle weakness. Though you may be lifting weights, if your muscles are bound by stiff fascia you cannot properly access them to build strength. 
  3. Imbalance in the body. When your muscles don't work properly, firing and reacting within your body optimally, you experience instability and a lack of balance. 
  4. Organ and physiological dysfunction. The meridian system which services organ and physiological health, resides in fascia. If the fascia is stiff and hard, it inhibits energy flow through the meridian channels. Furthermore all cell and nerve communication happen in and through fascia. 
  5. Decrease in bone density. When fascia becomes hard and stiff it becomes the weight bearing tissue in the, replacing the bones. The prescription to increase bone density is weight bearing exercises but until the fascia is addressed, the bones cannot and will not bear weight. They are being usurped. 
  6. Decrease in energy levels. We don't just move and function in and through space. Our muscles move us and our organs function in and through fascia. If fascia is hard and dense, we have to work twice as hard to do everything and very small things can take a lot of energy. When you make your fascia healthy, you regain lost energy levels. 
  7. Joint pain. Joints aren't designed to move the body, muscles are. But when muscles loose their power and ease of movement because of an increase in unhealthy fascia, the joints over work to produce movement. Over time they break down, wear out and become the primary sources for pain and injury in the body. 

The source of true range of motion.

When one muscle in the body shortens, another lengthens. Muscle 'zones' or groups work as pairs to move us around. We call them balancing pairs because they balance one another out. 

Think about it: the body is comprised of a finite physical space. If you change the size of one muscle in the body from resting size to elongated, that space needs to be made up for elsewhere. And that is exactly what happens. When one muscle lengthens, another one shortens. 

So if your goal is to get into a range of motion, let's say the splits, you can't just focus on the muscle that lengthens (the inner thighs). You have to instead focus on the balancing muscle that has to shorten and allow - or make space for - the inner thighs to lengthen. That's the outer thighs or IT band. When someone comes to us and says they want to do the splits, we tell them to focus on stretching theIT band because that is the muscle group that needs to shorten to allow the split position to happen. 

Another common range of motion people tend to struggle with is sitting cross legged. They can't drop their legs to the ground, they are pitched back and unable to sit up straight and they feel strain in the groin or inner thighs. 

The typical recommendation would be to stretch the inner thighs to allow the legs and hips to open up into a greater range of motion. That's not what we recommend... 

Take the seated on the floor cross legged test: Experience an immediate increase in range of motion seated in this position. 

Resistance Stretching: the most effective way to improve both flexibility and range of motion.

By now you should understand that both flexibility and a true range of motion require addressing the fascia in the body. Resistance stretching is the only stretching method that does this. It is truly the exact opposite of a strength training movement.

To strengthen a muscle, start with that muscle in a lengthened position, add a weight, and shorten the muscle overcoming the weight. 

To stretch a muscle, start with the muscle in a shortened position, add weight or resistance and lengthen the muscle-fascia to over come the resistive weight or force. The weight or force required to match or challenge the tensile strength of fascia is often 5 to 20 times greater than the weight necessary to strength train a muscle. 

Resistance stretching is applied through both self stretching and assisted stretching. 

During self stretching, you generate internal resistance by pressing a leg or arm into a wall, the floor or another 'helping' limb and then lengthening against that force. 

During assisted stretching, you generate internal resistance and an assister over comes that force to lengthen your muscles for the stretch. 

Example of self stretching: 

The lateral hamstring muscle group is being stretched here. John lunges forward to put his right hamstring in a shortened position. Next he generates internal resistance by driving his right heal into the ground. Then he lengthens by continuing to resist and sitting his hips back. 

Example of assisted stretching: 

In the image on the left 2 legs are being stretched at once. The client is drawing her left leg into her body and Sita overcoming the resistance the client is generating by bringing the leg away from the body to stretch the hip flexor muscle group. At the same time the client is pressing her left leg toward the ground and John is overcoming the resistive force to bring the leg up toward her body to stretch the central hamstring muscle group. 

In the image on the right the client is bringing his right knee and up toward his left shoulder to shorten and resist the groin muscle group and John is bring the leg out and away against that resistive force to lengthen that muscle group. 

4 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Flexibility & Range of Motion”

  1. Very helpful, thanks! I wondered if there was an alternate version of the lateral stretch that doesn’t involve kneeling. I can’t kneel, even on padding.

    1. Hi Nan, We have many versions of stretches for each muscle group that doesn’t involve healing. You can check out our membership site: https://bendables.bendablebody.com/

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