Flexibility training has always been popular among martial artists, gymnasts, freerunners and dancers. As a YouTube fitness trainer that also makes a lot of flexibility videos I have often helped people to learn the front and side split. I have answered many hundreds of messages about flexibility training and even made some specific programs for individuals. But when it comes to what the best flexibility exercises are I struggle to give a simple answer.
Of course you want to hear that a pigeon stretch is best to stretch your hips and that a standing quadriceps stretch will greatly improve your quadriceps flexibility. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Not the form of an exercise matters when trying to become flexible, but rather the technique that is used. As a more advanced athlete you may already know what a correct stretch should consist of, but many beginners struggle to understand this concept. I have made two short video series for flexibility training at different levels. I made a 5 and 10 minute beginner, intermediate and advanced flexibility video. However, not the exercises that are shown are different in level of advancement, but the technique and how far you stretch determines the effectiveness of your training. The further you stretch the more flexible you can become.
That is not all though. If you just start stretching you shouldn’t immediately jump in a split. That goes without explanation. But then why do some people stretch way further, up to a level where they experience pain, on a regular basis? That is because they have been taught the wrong stretching technique for years. Martial arts movies showed karate master push their students into a split. They literally leaned on these youngsters so they would stretch beyond their maximum level of fitness. You may think that this must work, because the kids were after all becoming much more flexible. What you did not see though, is that forcing someone or yourself in a split like that causes your ligaments to stretch out too far. They become too flexible, leaving little support to your joints and eventually causing joint problems. Being flexible is useful to avoid injuries, but all that you should stretch are your muscles. Overstretching doesn’t only increase the risk of tearing muscles, but also weakens your ligaments. So the next time you see a martial arts teacher push a kid into a split, kick him in the nuts. Let’s call it negative behavioral therapy.
Many of us try to stretch way too far when they first do a flexibility workout. The matter of fact is that all that is needed to get a good stretch is to feel a slight discomfort. This discomfort is causing by some cells in the muscles yelling at your brain: enough! There cells are called muscle spindles. After about 20 to 30 seconds these spindles are overruled by other cells called the golgi tendon organs. These little organs allow you to stretch further as they lift up the uncomfortable feeling of muscle tension. As soon as the tension fades you can stretch a little bit further. Again try to get that slight discomfort in the muscles you’re stretching and wait for the golgi tendon organs to overrule the muscle spindles. This is something that I call progressive overstretching. Each time your goal is to stretch a little bit further than the training before.
So how do you do this? It’s simple. You perform 3 to 5 sets of a certain exercise. Let’s say you do the standing quadriceps stretch. You grab your ankle, pull your heel towards you buttocks and feel the uncomfortable tension build up. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds (longer if needed) until the uncomfortable feelings disappears. That’s when the golgi tendon organs have beaten the muscle spindles. Let go of your leg and wait for a couple of seconds, then pull your leg towards your behind again and do this until you feel new tension again. This time you should be able to stretch a little bit further though. Repeat this until you have done 3 to 5 sets and go on to the next exercise (or stretch your other leg). The little rest in between two sets is an option, but you can also go straight into a new stretch without letting go of your leg. For beginners I think it’s best to take a few seconds (not more than 10) of rest in between sets though.
Because of this reason it doesn’t really make a lot of difference whether you do a ‘beginner’ or ‘advanced’ exercise. The big difference is within the range of motion certain exercises allow. A standing quadriceps stretch is nice up to a certain level. After that you can simply not pull your leg to your butt far enough to make it a challenge and so you won’t make progress from that point on. Other exercises like a pigeon stretch – where you lie down on your own leg that you put in front of your body with its outside on the floor – actually have a too big of a range of motion. Therefore there are a few exercises that you shouldn’t start with if you are new to flexibility training. Not the ability to do a certain stretch makes you a beginner or advanced. It’s the technique and control with which the exercise is performed that classifies someone as an advanced flexibility athlete.
You probably know that becoming flexible takes a lot of time, but time is not the most important aspect. Eventually using the correct stretching technique during training is what allows you to do advanced skills like front and side splits. Without using a good technique you can get injured or at least you can’t make any progress. Unfortunately it takes experience to become good at stretching, so the training itself is actually a skill on its own. Remember that the next time you do your standing toe reaches.