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I can touch my toes...and so what?

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

A lot of people believe that solution to stiff hips or other tight muscles is working on flexibility and often move to passive yoga stretches like pigeon pose, butterfly pose etc. held for as long as possible.

And it doesn’t come without pain. No matter how long we stay in those poses, we still feel pain, tightness and little relief to stiff areas.

On the flip side, there was a trend which demonised passive stretching as overstretching ligaments, a theory implausible, given how tough ligaments and joint structures really are.

If weight training strengthens joints, then low tensile loading like passive stretching cannot really lead to injury. Passive stretching does however lengthen the muscles and long muscles are not always beneficial for high impact movement. Muscles can be long and weak or short and weak.

And what’s more, tightness in specific area often means that a different area is actually short and tight and needs stretching. Most of us feel tightness in upper back, but it is actually our chest that is tight and upper backs weak (result of slouching and rounding shoulders). Notice how opening your chest (lie on the floor with foam roller, deflated ball, or rolled towel under your upper back and arms in rugby post position) brings relief to tight upper back.

So how important is that I touch my toes? Honestly? Not that important. Some people are born with flexibility which allows them to do that and more. Does it mean they are fitter or less injury prone? Definitely not. In fact people with excessive flexibility in their joints (condition called hypermobility) are more injury prone in high impact activities.

So this is where we introduce the concept of mobility and what is the difference between flexibility and mobility.

Flexibility, is total joint range of motion (which we usually explore in passive, static stretches).

Mobility, is range of motion our nervous system can actively control when moving (which we often explore in active, dynamic stretches that require more muscular engagement).

We need some level of flexibility, but it is much more beneficial to work on mobility. Being able to recruit specific muscles for a specific movement and minimise activation of other muscles. This requires body awareness which can be learned and it starts with understanding your neutral posture.

Hips and core are two main areas of mobility issues and the way to discover these often involves looking at how well we are able to stabilise during movement.

How do I know what areas to work on? Here are some of the examples..

  • Hip drop when walking or running. (When one foot connects with the ground, the other hip drops, this shows lack of pelvic stability which usually indicates weak glutes)

  • Single Leg work – try sitting down in a chair with one leg raised off the floor bent at the knee – notice differences. What muscle is doing all the work – quad, hamstring, glute?

  • Lift one arm up in front of you when planking, trying to not roll or rotate to the side (shows core stability which is linked to hip stability)

  • Squatting – are your knees opening out, are your ankles limiting how deep you can squat.

  • Back extension - lying down on your front, lift your chest and head without using your lower back and squeezing your glutes, but instead recruiting your abdominals.

So instead of continuing with passive stretches which don’t seem to bring relief, and limit our range of motion, we may want to add more loaded mobility work with weights and resistance bands. Try some dynamic flows which combine shortening one muscle with stretching another, or those which require stabilising one part of the body when moving through dynamic stretch in the other.

Does it mean that passive stretches are banned? Absolutely not, if they feel good, by all means continue, but if you are still feeling tight and stiff, maybe it is time to strengthen those muscles, stretch the opposing muscles and work on core and pelvic lumbar stability.

Check out my recent post for ideas on hip work with loop band

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