Category: Stretching

Resolutions: 8 Ways to Stay Motivated and Reach Flexibility Goals

 

New Years’ resolutions can be fun. Whether last year was fantastic or you can’t wait to kick 2014 in the backside as it heads out the door, it is great to image the new and exciting things you want to learn and do in the coming twelve months.

The problem is, after a month or two (or sometimes a week or two) it is easy to slide back into old habits. Life gets hectic, your body gets tired, and by the middle of the year you have let go of all that energy and excitement that got you started in January.

Flexibility is not something that you can develop overnight. It takes dedicated, consistent training over a period of time. To achieve your goals, it is essential that you keep the resolve that got you started on this journey in the first place. Here are a few ways that you can set yourself up for a super bendy year, beginning to end:

1. Set reasonable goals.

It is tempting to get excited and start to make crazy long lists of things you want to be able to do. You have more chance of success if you have just a few goals that are not too terribly far off. Pick 3-5 things that you are pretty sure you can do with sufficient practice and focus on those. Once you reach them, pick some new ones.

2. Print out photos of people doing those things that you would like to be able to do and hang them on the wall.

Look at them every day and picture yourself doing them.

3. Pace yourself.

If you have been stretching three days a week for an hour don’t immediately start training six days a week for two hours. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend working on flexibility so that your body doesn’t get exhausted or injured and you don’t burn out.

4. Make a plan.

Having a regular routine keeps the guesswork out of the gym and lets your brain focus on the workout. Whether you are taking a class, using a video, or making up your own routines, figure out what you are going to do ahead of time and stick to it.

5. Fall in love with your training.

Sure, stretching is work, but it should also be fun. If you don’t love the process it will be much harder to stick to it. Find a great place to train, make playlists with music that inspires you, indulge in kick-ass workout clothes, intersperse your stretches with impromptu dance sessions, whatever it takes to make you look forward to your stretching.

6. Write your workouts into your calendar.

Give your stretching sessions the same respect as all of your other important appointments and schedule them each week. It will help you avoid the excuse that you are just too busy.

7. Take photos and videos of your progress.

You don’t need to document every single stretch, but it is good to take photos every week or two to track your progress. When you feel like you aren’t getting any better, look at where you were three months ago.

8. Get a Bendy Buddy.

Nothing helps to motivate and encourage us like a friend. Your friend does not have to have exactly the same goals as  you do, they just have to share your desire to improve. Setting an appointment with someone else makes it harder to flake out, and you can help each other with spotting, corrections, and pep talks.

Happy New Year, and Happy Bendings in 2015!

 

Step up your Stretching in the New Year: One Simple Tool Can Make a Big Difference

 

When trying to design your training regimen, sometimes its difficult to know where to begin. How many days per week? How long? What exercises do you do on which days?

This is especially true if you cross-train or practice more than one discipline. Flexibility may be only one of your fitness goals. How do you best balance all of the things you want to learn to optimize your body’s

response to your practice?

One tool has made all the difference for me and many other the circus performers, dancers, aerialists, fitness nuts, and competitors: a training journal.

Find a journal that appeals to you, it could be a cute decorative one or a common sense, simple notebook. I have an accounting ledger that I decorated with inspirational drawings and photos on the outside. The lines and columns of the ledger are good for organizing my workouts.

Every two to four weeks create a workout plan for each day of the week. If increasing flexibility is a big goal for you it is important to do the exact same stretch workout at least three times per week. Add in your other ac

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s to create a well-rounded program that includes some cardio and strength training, and whatever skills you want to acquire. Schedule at least one day off for recovery. Make a plan for each day including the specific exercises, number of reps, amount of weight or props needed, etc.

If increasing flexibility is a big goal for you it is important to do the exact same stretch workout at least three times per week.

During your training you can make notes next to each exercise. How do they feel? Difficult or easy? Strange pain? New milestone? Write it all down! At the end of the day write a brief summary of how your body feels, emotions, thoughts, and make special note of any injuries or chronic problems and how they responded to your training day. You can even supplement your entries with photos or videos.

This is also a wonderful opportunity to go back to that nursery school tradition of awarding gold stars for a job well done. Get that flat split or stick a handstand? Gold star!

After a few weeks you can go back through your journal and take note of what is improving, and what isn’t. You can notice that every time you train a certain move, your shoulder hurts the next day. Use it as a way to figure out what is working and what isn’t working, then plan the next two to four weeks with a few changes, adding challenges where things are getting easy and modifying where you are feeling stuck or having pain.

The journal will help you tailor your lesson plan to make the most of your training. It also keeps you honest about how often you are actually doing your workouts, and reminds you about your progress when you need some positive reinforcement. It helps you to focus on each small step, taking you closer to your goals.

Happy Bendings!

 

Positively Bendy: 10 Insights to Help Keep the Joy in Your Stretching

 

It is great to have goals in your training, it gives us motivation and that glorious feeling of satisfaction whenever we reach one. There is a dark side, however, to the ambition that comes when the drive to get better overshadows the training process.

In my coaching, I often hear concern from men and women of all ages that they are not progressing quickly enough, and that they are struggling. The desired results are not coming as easily as they had hoped, or they are coping with pain and injury. These obstacles make people doubt whether they will ever achieve their goals.

So many of us, myself included, have struggled with the belief that if you try something and you are not instantly—or at least quickly—good at it, you will never be good at it. Some part of us believes that we must be good every day, all the time, and experience continual improvement every time we try. If we have a bad day, need to rest, get an injury, or just find something extremely difficult, this brings up feelings of failure. We feel a deep fear that we will never reach the image of bendy perfection that we see in our minds.

It is dangerous to approach your training sessions from a place of fear. Fear stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, telling the body to tense up and making it more difficult to cultivate sensitivity and awareness. This is never productive in fitness, but it is particularly detrimental to flexibility training where relaxation and awareness are essential to the process. When engaged in a stretch at any level from beginner to advanced, a calm and present mind is able to relax and lengthen the target muscle while simultaneously supporting it with other muscles. A mind that is tense and nervous will have a lot more difficulty achieving this state.

It is a normal, inevitable reality that during the training process we all will experience adversity. There will be certain things that are very difficult. Some stretches will bring up strong emotions, discomfort, irritability, and other negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a position that was easy yesterday will be impossible today. There are days when the back feels like a board and the legs are full of cement. And there will always be other people who are better than you, learn faster, and give the illusion of breezing through their training like they were walking on the beach.

When engaged in a stretch at any level from beginner to advanced, a calm and present mind is able to relax and lengthen the target muscle while simultaneously supporting it with other muscles. A mind that is tense and nervous will have a lot more difficulty achieving this state.

If you accept that challenges like this are inevitable, it helps you keep from worrying about them. When something like that comes up, just acknowledge that it is “one of those days” and know that tomorrow is a new day, then do the best you can today. Doing the best you can today, without beating yourself up, will improve the chances that tomorrow will be better.

When we find ourselves going over to the dark side, comparing ourselves to others (either favorably or unfavorably), saying nasty things to our muscles when they don’t cooperate, getting angry, wanting to improve faster, pushing too hard, or believing that we will never be good enough, here are some things to think about that I find helpful:

1.  You started doing this because you enjoy it.

Find the joy. Its in there somewhere.

2.  You can’t get better at something without being where you are now.

With physical training there are no shortcuts, magic pills, or cheat sheets. You cannot go directly to step “Z” without starting at step “A” and working through the rest of the alphabet. It just doesn’t work.

3.  If it were easy everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be nearly as awesome.
4.  Setbacks are inevitable in the learning process.

As you discover more about your body and progress, new challenges will arise. This keeps things interesting. Allow yourself those moments of frustration then take a big breath and move on. Indulging in anger and frustration will do nothing to make you better.

5.  The body feels different from day to day depending on a great number of factors, some of which are in your control and some aren’t.

Sometimes you will feel great, sometimes you wont. Do your best to take good care of your body and accept that some days will be less fun than others.

6.  Just because something is challenging for you doesn’t mean that you aren’t “good,” whatever “good” means.

Think about how much you have improved since you first started.

7.  Comparing yourself to others is a dangerous game.

There will always be someone better, and someone worse. This way madness lies. The only thing that you can do better than anyone else is be yourself.

8.  Some goals you will achieve quickly, some you will achieve slowly, some you may never achieve at all.

That’s totally fine. Celebrate your success and don’t beat yourself up about everything else.

9.  No goal, no deadline, no contest, class, challenge, competition, job, performance, or personal vendetta is worth injuring your body.

Sometimes it is very difficult to keep things in perspective but try to remember that this is going to be your body for the rest of your life. Honor it.

10.  Every amazing athlete and performer that you admire has been through this process.

They have sweat and cried and fallen over too. You are part of a time-honored tradition, a sacred journey. Don’t fret so much over the destination that you forget to enjoy the process.

Happy Bendings!

 

Stretching for Adults Part 3: Safely Building Useful Flexibility

 

In my experience, adults who would like to become more flexible excel when we approach our training with a devotion to the process rather than as a slave to the results.

The ideal approach to training flexibility is to use a variety of stretching techniques. Because an over emphasis on passive stretching can leave gaps in your development it is important to have other options. If you are encountering obstacles—pain, injury, poor alignment, weakness, feeling stuck—it may be time to try a new approach. The more tools you have at your disposal the better prepared you are to respond to your body’s needs as it opens up and changes.

All three of the common problems experienced by adults during flexibility training (discussed in Part 2 of the series) occur because passive stretching does not build strength, it only lengthens. Often we think of building flexibility and building strength as two different, even exclusive processes. The truth is that our flexibility in a given area can be hampered by weakness in the joints and muscles around it. Sometimes a muscle is tight because it is weak, and therefore feels like it has to be constantly contracted to do its job. These weaknesses can even be present in someone who is ripped and very strong in other ways. Building the strength that will help with flexibility requires specific techniques.

 

Methods to Safely Increase Flexibility in Adults

Active Stretching

Stretching a muscle or muscles by using the opposing muscle group. This means using your own strength to open a joint, for instance by lifting your leg and holding it in place, moving your arm back until you feel the stretch, or lifting into a cobra with no hands. Active stretching is extremely important in developing usable flexibility and in unlocking chronically tight joints. It works to stabilize loose joints and correct muscle imbalances. The greater the difference between your passive flexibility and your active flexibility the greater your risk of injury, the more pain you have during stretching, and the longer it takes to warm up. Active stretching is also effective for very muscular bodies that find it difficult to “relax” into a stretch.

Resistance Stretching

Placing the muscle in a passive stretch and resisting the stretch by contracting the stretched muscle for short (3-5 second) intervals and relaxing in between. This builds strength in the muscle at the full range of motion and may help the muscle to relax and lengthen more than it would with passive static stretching. It is useful for muscles that are chronically tight and weak and need both strength and length. It is best not to do more than three reps of contractions since this can exhaust the muscle and make it more prone to injury, but done correctly it can help to provide strength through the full range of motion.

Dynamic Stretching*

Controlled movement in and out of the stretch, for instance leg lifts, arm circles, flexing and pointing the foot, etc. Proper dynamic stretching means that you are in control of your body at all times, you could freeze if you wanted to, but you keep the body moving as a means of facilitating relaxation, developing strength and control, identifying improper alignment, and building body awareness. This is essential training for anyone who wants to use their flexibility in movement (dancers, martial artists, circus performers, etc) or as a warm up and injury prevention for any athletic activity. It is also very useful when working with a muscle that is full of fear and strenuously resists stretching. Moving in and out of the stretch will allow the muscle to gradually feel safer and relax.

Used in combination with passive static stretching these three methods can be employed for any muscle group to design the perfect workout for your body. Together they can help to stabilize the joints, build strength, and comfort the nervous system, problems not addressed when overly relying on passive stretching.

All four methods have the same goal: to allow the muscles to relax and lengthen with support, creating a body that is supple, strong, and under your control. They all work a little differently, and it requires an intimate, loving, and communicative relationship with your body to know which method will get those cranky muscles to loosen their grip and learn new behaviors.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for the exact ratios between these methods because every body is different, plus your needs will vary depending on what you want to do with your flexibility. A body builder will need a very different set of exercises than a ballerina or a basketball player or an aerialist. A process of patient, careful experimentation will yield new discoveries.

In my experience, adults who would like to become more flexible excel when we approach our training with a devotion to the process rather than as a slave to the results. The desire to achieve a particular goal as fast as possible may deliver a speedy change but it will not give you safe, sustainable, useable results. Taking the time to feel your body, learn a variety of methods, and find techniques that work for you will yield lasting and satisfying flexibility.

Happy Bendings!

This short series is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on the vast subject of flexibility and stretching science but a brief overview. It should not be considered a training manual or medical advice; if you are experiencing pain or injury from your training please consult a medical professional. I encourage bendy people everywhere to learn all you can about your body, how it works, and the various approaches to flexibility fitness. The more we know about how we work, the more efficient our training can be. Please stay in touch!

* Dynamic stretching must be distinguished from ballistic stretching which uses momentum to force the body into a greater range of motion (fast kicks past your comfortable range of motion, bouncing in a stretch, etc). Ballistic stretching should be approached with caution as it has a high risk factor for injury.

 

Stretching for Adults Part 2: The Challenges for Adult Flexibility

 

Passive static stretching does nothing to stabilize the joints, build strength, or comfort the nervous system. That is why any stretching regimen needs to branch out from the traditional passive static stretches to include resistance, active, and slow dynamic stretches.

 

Passive Static Stretching Doesn’t Address the Challenges of Adult Bodies

Sitting in splits is fine, but it is of limited usefulness in flexibility training for adults. It cannot be the sum total of your flexibility training because passive static stretching—allowing and external force like a strap, another human, or gravity to push as you try to relax into a stretch—is of limited benefit to the adult body for a number of reasons.

1. The adult body is inevitably tweaked. Life, even a life of relative health and comfort, molds our bodies around our habits and predilections. We all end up a little imbalanced, its unavoidable. Add injury, illness and trauma into the mix and you can end up with some interesting quirks. If those imbalances aren’t addressed, when we “relax” into a stretch our bodies follow the path of least resistance, sinking into the parts that are looser and weaker, resisting where we are tight. Thereby we run the risk of exacerbating existing imbalances when we stretch without correcting them.

2. Our bodies are heavier as adults. A child’s body may weigh 30 or 40 pounds when she or he starts learning to support these difficult, extreme positions. Add another 100 pounds to that and you have tremendous pressure on fully extended joints that lack the muscle and stability to support those positions.

Passive static stretching will increase your range of motion but it will not give your body the ability to safely support or hold that position. The result is a noodley joint, making balance and movement difficult and greatly increasing the risk of injury.

For adults with any degree of hypermobility, this is the greatest threat because a very bendy joint and low stabilization is very prone to pain and injury. This is a particular problem for adults with natural lower back flexibility who are quickly able to achieve deep backbends but lack the stabilizing muscles and therefore have no control and can develop lower back pain and damage as a result.

3. The adult body has learned fear. Watch a child learn a cartwheel: they fling themselves into the motion, over and over, toppling to the ground and bouncing back up again until they are successful. Adults don’t do this. We put our hands in the air, take a deep breath, and deep down a voice whispers, “What are you doing, you fool? You are going to hurt yourself!” While we can overcome the voice in our heads, push through the fear and do it anyway, the fear still crouches in our bodies, zinging through our lizard brain and crying out a warning to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight. The body doesn’t distinguish between an attacking tiger and your local gym class. Both are threats.

This fear is why stretching is so problematic in adult bodies, and why we hold to the myth that adults can’t bend. Without acknowledging and addressing the primal fear of stretching, our efforts will always be thwarted by tension, injury, and frustration.

Muscles are afraid of stretching. Their entire lives they have been conditioned to move within a prescribed range of motion that feels safe, where they know that they are in control. When you ask them to extend beyond this range of motion they freak out, which means they contract.

What happens when you are in a passive static stretch and the poor, panicked muscle contracts? The force goes directly into the connective tissue—the tendons and ligaments that hold muscles and bones together. Connective tissue is not elastic. Pull on it a little and it will lengthen but it will never snap back and the stability of the joint will be forever compromised. Pull on it a lot and it will break. Best case scenario, your connective tissue is tough enough to withstand the pressure but your muscles will not relax and you spend innumerable hours sitting in a stretch with little improvement.

Some muscles are so full of fear that when you stretch them you can experience what feels like impending death (I call these the “puke and die” stretches). We store past trauma in parts of our bodies; I find the hip flexors, inner thighs, shoulders, and neck to be the most common repositories of doom but there are others. When that repository muscle is stretched it releases its burden of hormones into your system and the body experiences what feels like fresh trauma. The muscle will do almost anything to prevent this, fighting your stretches every step of the way.

Passive static stretching does nothing to stabilize the joints, build strength, or comfort the nervous system. That is why any stretching regimen needs to branch out from the traditional passive static stretches to include resistance, active, and slow dynamic stretches.

Coming in Part 3 we will cover the ways that our contemporary approach to fitness undermines the quest for greater flexibility and how we can re-think our workout mentality to work in harmony with our bodies for better, healthier results.