Understanding Flexibility

by Jennifer Denys, Registered Physiotherapist

What is your flexibility dream?

If you are a dancer, gymnast, skater, or goalie, then you know how precious good flexibility is.  Whether it is for lifting your legs higher, achieving the splits in all positions, or avoiding injury, having enough stretch in your tissues is a passionate pursuit you spend many hours a week working to improve.   You likely have friends that seem to have these things “so easily” and it feels unfair that it’s such a struggle for you.  As a dancer myself, and a physiotherapist with Canada’s National Ballet School, I have helped many people achieve their dreams and want to help direct you on this quest for easier stretch.

Have you tried stretching and it just isn’t working?

There are many stretches on the market to stretch your hamstrings, your thighs, your groin, etc.  For example, just about anyone in the dance, gymnastics, skating, hockey, running,  or yoga worlds could probably give you 2 or 3 different ways to stretch your hamstrings.  This is great if your issue is truly a muscle issue, however, many people’s flexibility issues are actually not because of tight muscles, but rather tight fascia (pronounced  Fa-sha) or irritated nerves.  The trouble with trying to get fascia issues better the traditional muscle-based way, is that fascia and nerve issues get better in a whole different way. Truly, a muscle stretch involving a long hold in the same position will make your muscles tighter the next day if your issue was actually tight fascia or irritated nerves.  This is very sad as you are working so hard and should see payback for your efforts!!

The truth about flexibility

There is so much more to flexibility than just muscles.  While muscles indeed do need to stretch, all your muscles are surrounded from head to toe, and connected from inside to outside with a stretchy connective tissue called fascia.   Fascia works together with the nerves in our body to make our various muscles work together like a smart team, rather than individual, choppy, and robotic.   However, when this fascia is not moving well your muscles will be “held captive” from their full stretch potential.  You also have a brain, spinal cord, and nerves running the length of you, and those nerves are like wires that need to move through your (often tight) tissues when you do big stretching movements such as a typical hamstring stretch.

The good news is that each of these tissues can improve to help you be altogether more flexible, it’s just that they each have their own way of getting better and you need use the approach that is right for your tissue issues!

Different strokes for different folks

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to use the right method for the tissue that needs your attention.  If you don’t, you will by accident end up making matters worse for yourself.  For example, if your nerves are irritated, a typical hamstring stretch will just irritate them even more.  If your fascia is the issue and you do a typical hamstring stretch, you can actually end up causing your nerves to be irritated.  In general, here’s each tissue’s wish list:

  1. Muscles: long, slow holds in the same stretchy position with the option of alternating with 5 second contract and 15 second relax moments, at least 3 sets at a time.
  2. Fascia: adequate hydration, optional hands-on treatment, and stretchy exercises which focus on getting your fascia moving from head to toe with a continually alternating series of related stretches that change every 2-3 seconds while breathing calmly
  3. Nerves: good sleep, healthy foods including adequate Omega 3, adequate hydration, healthy anxiety management, and gentle “nerve gliding” exercises

Make your dream come true!

Improved flexibility is in your reach and starts with knowing what tissue you need to focus on and then what each tissue needs from you in order to improve.  As you have to know your anatomy pretty well to figure out which of the three is the main reason you are not as flexible as you like, I highly recommend that you seek professional help from a local qualified physiotherapist who can help you figure out the source of your flexibility issues.  You will then need their help to apply the right methods to each tissue. 

There are no short cuts, but with the right methods applied to the actual issue, you will be amazed at the progress you start to make and over time, you will see your dreams become your reality!