One of the most common misconceptions about training is that you cannot train to be strong and flexible at the same time. This isn’t true. Just watch any luminaries of circus, gymnastics, or yoga and they will demonstrate a gorgeous combination of strength and flexibility, which is necessary in any of those disciplines.
The training method that makes this combination possible is active stretching.
Active stretching means using your own muscles to move your body into your end range of motion. It feels more like a strength-building exercise than a traditional stretch sensation.
To learn more, check out “What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Stretching?”.
In a passive stretch, gravity or some other outside force causes the joint to move into a stretch, so no effort is needed. This is very good for lengthening muscle, and done repeatedly over time (recommended to do at least three stretch sessions a week for best results) muscles will accommodate greater and greater ranges.
However the issue with passive stretching alone is that it doesn’t teach your body how to support that new range of motion. An over-emphasis on passive stretching often means that the body is able to achieve positions where no muscles are able to work to support the joint. This can lead to a situation where you achieve flexibility at the cost of your strength.
Of course, the converse is also possible. Muscles build only and exactly how you use them, so if you are lifting weights and doing strength-training exercises in a small range, over time your body will start to be limited to that range and either wont move beyond that range, or will feel unstable and prone to injury when it does. The more strength you build in a limited range, the harder it will be to move outside of this range, thus sacrificing flexibility for strength.
Active flexibility strengthens a muscle through its full range of motion, with a particular emphasis on its shortest position. Muscles can only do two things: shorten or relax. They cannot actively lengthen themselves. That means that the most vulnerable position for a muscle is when it is at its shortest length, helpless.
When we stretch passively, an outside force squishes muscles into shortened positions, and the muscle becomes powerless and possibly very resentful. In an active stretch we only move the joint as far as that muscle is able to contract on its own. Over time, with repetition, the muscles becomes more competent at shortening and the range increases.
Flexibility earned by active methods will almost always be less than passive flexibility. However, active flexibility will be more comfortable, safer, more sustainable over time, stronger, and require less warm up. Active stretching builds strength, awareness, and control of the joint and is a powerful tool to prevent injury, degenerative disease, and chronic pain.
Being strong and flexible isn’t just important for contortionists and gymnasts. It is a component of healthy movement for all of us, keeping our bodies responsive, supple, and able to enjoy the world. The good news is that this type of stretching is available to all bodies at any age or fitness level. It is safe, effective, and can be done with minimal fuss, equipment, and warm-up.
Active stretching can take many forms and levels of challenge and can be applied to any skeletal muscle or joint in the body. It is one of the primary components of our work here at Fit & Bendy. For a super gentle full-body workout using a large number of active stretches, check out this free workout. Other full-length workouts are available through our Video Club or you can get live instruction through our courses and classes.