This is Part 1 of a three part article on stretching for adults, addressing techniques and approaches specific to training flexibility in more experienced bodies.
There is a great and widely revered myth in our society that flexibility is one of the benefits of youth and that, as we age, our range of motion is lost forever. Even more sacrosanct is the belief that flexibility is genetic, either you have it or you don’t and if you have always been tight you are condemned to a lifetime of increasing creakiness.
Neither of these presumptions are true… at least not with the unwavering fatalism that we are taught.
It is true that the body changes as we age. The tissue around joints thickens as cartilage decreases, affecting joint mobility. Muscle mass declines, reducing the strength necessary to support joints in their full range of motion.
It is also true that different body types will react differently to training flexibility. Bodies with a higher amount of collagen in the muscles and connective tissue tend to build muscle more easily, have greater joint stability, and have difficulty increasing range or motion. Despite this reality, any body at any age can become more flexible with consistent, intelligent training.
I started training Mongolian circus contortion at the age of 31, which is not exactly geriatric but is over 20 years beyond the age recommended by most coaches. I was already a dancer, and I thought I was pretty flexible until I showed up at the gym and saw a young woman with over splits more than two feet off the ground and a boy with his spine wrapped around his head. Why I didn’t turn right around and walk back to the dance studio is a story for another day, but I did stay and my ten year journey into the magic of stretching has taught me a great deal about perceived limitations, and our ability to transcend them.
Historically, and by that I mean until about ten to fifteen years ago, contortion was only taught to young children in specialized circus schools. Many of the world’s leading contortionists come from Mongolia, China, and Russia where children are expected to train for long hours, forgoing most of the usual childhood activities in favor of their craft. The results are spectacular—human feats that leave audiences breathless across the globe. No one ever thought that adults would be able to achieve these extreme positions so adults were never taught, until the rise in popularity of circus schools in the west attracted kooks like me, looking to test the limitations of their meat suits.
Over the last decade, much has been learned about how to stretch the adult body. Some of it I learned the hard way.
Children are generally taught with an emphasis on passive static stretching. In plain english, this means pushing. Young limbs are manipulated, held, and pushed into the desired position by their coaches or by gravity (ie sitting in splits). Their pliable, gooey joints generally comply with the demand. Their bodies are light, so very little muscle is required to support them in these positions. As their bodies grow, the muscles grow with them. As a result, adult contortionists who started as children often do not experience deep structural damage as a result of their profession, even if they do suffer the occasional injury.
Passive static stretching does not work so well on the majority of adult bodies. As I mentioned, I learned this the hard way after a complete tear of the ligament in my right hip. I also developed tendonitis in both hip joints, bursitis in my right shoulder, and a chronic problem with my ribs popping out between T5 and T7. After five years of training I was told that I would need surgery on my hip and shoulder, I would never dance again, and certainly any more contortion training was out of the question. The well-respected sports surgeon actually tutted at me, shook his head, and said, “aren’t you a little old for circus tricks?”
This was the situation that prompted me, after a brief visit to the abyss of despair, to completely re-think the way that I was training. I stopped talking to the smug surgeon and started a rigorous regimen of physical therapy and Pilates. I read books on anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and even psychology, trying to understand the science of stretching. After six months the pain in my joints was gone and I started stretching again.
Tune in to Part 2 to learn about the science behind stretching and how it affects your body’s reaction to different kinds of stretches.