The 6 Pillars of Fitness: Flexibility

Highlighting each of the Six Pillars of Fitness in isolation is meant to show you the immeasurable role each pillar plays in allowing you to eliminate unnecessary limitations in your day to day life. I have already expressed the complex interdependence the Six Pillars of Fitness incorporate, so I won’t harp on the ideology here.

However, I bring this up specifically in regard to flexibility because there is a lot of noise in the fitness community (scientists and armchair trainers alike) about flexibility, mobility, and stretching in general. The vast majority of arguments revolve around the proper ways to approach warm ups and cool downs.

This is not one of those discussions.

For this particular article, I want you to view flexibility as a singular practice with zero intention of incorporating any other type of physical activity with it. Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Warming up and cooling down when engaging in physical activity is important, but those practices fall outside the scope of discussing the flexibility pillar and will be given the spotlight in another post.

When you think “flexibility,” I want you to think “movement.” There is no better baseline flexibility goal than to improve your ability to move. If you have a more encompassing goal, please share in the comments, but in my opinion, the freedom to move is what flexibility is all about.

Working off this notion, I will be walking you through the benefits of improving your flexibility and how you can get started in building a consistent practice. Before I go there though, I want to briefly touch base on a key component of the science of stretching.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN YOU STRETCH?

Any layperson, including myself, sits down to stretch their hamstrings and imagines their tendons and muscles lengthening like silly putty being stretched to its limits. However, flexibility training is actually a practice in reprogramming your central nervous system (CNS).

Whenever you stretch out a certain area of your body the first thing you’ll feel (as expected) is your body’s resistance to the movement. This comes in the form of a tight, slightly uncomfortable feeling. If you’ve ever stretched before, you’ll notice this feeling becomes less intense after a few repetitions and you’re eventually able to move a little deeper into the stretch.

The habits you are developing are not something you 'fit' into your schedule. They come before any semblance of a schedule even exists.

So what’s going on here? If your muscles and tendons aren’t actually getting longer, why are you able to stretch further at the end of your session than at the beginning? And why does your progress seem to disappear within a few hours?

Fortunately, there is a single answer to all of these questions. Whenever you begin stretching, your CNS fires off warning messages to your brain letting it know you are moving into an unfamiliar position that could be dangerous to your wellbeing. If you spend all day sitting in the driver seat of your car, chair at your work, and lazy boy at your home, you have told your body this is the position you are meant to be in. If you put yourself in a position outside this norm, your body will begin to contract all of the muscles involved in fear of possible tears or separations. Your goal will be to reprogram your security system to allow for top level clearance and teach your CNS to trust your new range of motion.

Let’s assume you’ve spent 12 hours a day sitting since you were 10 years old (e.g. sitting at your school/work desk, playing video games, reading in a chair, etc.) and are evaluating things at the age of 30. If you also began stretching your hamstrings one day a week for 10 minutes over the course of those 20 years, here is what those two activities would look like when compared side by side:

This is kind of scary, right? How are you ever going to make up for this lost time?

First of all, you’re not. Second of all, you don’t need to.

The good news is our bodies are incredible adapters and although you’ll probably continue sitting more throughout the day than stretching, you can work on closing the time gap that is your current reality. Let’s take a look at some ways you can ease into a sustainable flexibility program and begin living each day with a new spring in your step.

START CARVING

Before you even begin asking questions about what and how you should stretch, you need to focus on a very important shift in your mindset. Remember, Fitness in Five is a lifestyle change. The habits you are developing are not something you “fit” into your schedule. They come before any semblance of a schedule even exists.

When you plan your day’s to-do list, you will always have your core habits sitting at the top. There is no “I’ll get to that tomorrow.” You need to convince yourself that a successful day is defined by taking active steps in improving the functionality of your mind and body.

What activities do you do throughout the day that you wish weren’t so difficult or painful?

This is your first step in developing an unwavering commitment to the more physically active aspects of fitness (e.g. flexibility, balance, strength, and endurance). You want to start with a focus on flexibility because if you can’t move your body as it was meant to move, how can you possibly start performing activities like jogging or getting that first push-up? I’ll answer that for you. You can’t. Or, you can, but you’ll only be forcing your body into unnatural positions (i.e. using poor form), which will result in debilitating injuries down the road. Let’s not do that.

So, with your attention on flexibility, I want you to dedicate 15 minutes every day (yes, EVERY DAY) to an intentional flexibility program. There is a wonderful article on Breaking Muscle by Andrew Reed (check out his resume here) where he reflects on the necessary discipline to achieve noticeable flexibility gains and no, you aren’t an exception.

You know how much of a fan I am with taking on monthly challenges, so I propose the same challenge to you. Spend the next 31 days committing yourself to 15 minutes of flexibility training (every day) and then turn those 31 days into 62 days and so on and so forth. I don’t care if it’s the very last thing you do all day. Don’t you dare get into bed before getting a good dose of stretching in.

WHAT HURTS?

One of the biggest discoveries I made when exploring the beautiful science of flexibility was my inability to perform movements that even sedentary individuals could accomplish without any issues.

This only added to my understanding about how unique all of our bodies are and the critical importance of self-assessment. So, that’s your next step. Find out what hurts or doesn’t feel right. What activities do you do throughout the day that you wish weren’t so difficult or painful?

My go to source for understanding my body's mobility is GMB's BAP Assessment found in their Focused Flexibility program, but they also offer a free video on YouTube for general exercise readiness.

One of the most widely used assessments is called the Functional Movement Screen. There are eight movements when scored together give you in depth knowledge about your current abilities. I encourage you to play around with these movements, and simply ask yourself what is most difficult about each position.

PICK YOUR GOLDEN THREE

Depending on your current level of flexibility, you might listen to your body and realize every last fiber is in need of some attention. Of course, it would be unwise for you to select 25 different stretches in order to address all of your issues. You won’t stay committed and your goals will feel unattainable. The good news is (I’m full of good news today) you’ll likely discover once you’ve increased your mobility in one area, other areas will begin feeling “looser” as a result.

Whether you decided to do the assessment recommended above or already know where you lack mobility and flexibility the most, I want you to share your assessment in the comments below or email me personally, so I can provide recommendations on the three stretches you should choose. Once you have your three stretches established, you will follow the simple guidelines below with great intention and focus:

  1. Hold the stretch for 5 seconds then relax for 5 seconds (repeat 5 times)
  2. Take a deep breath and sink into the stretch one last time and hold for 30 seconds, sinking deeper into the stretch with each exhalation
  3. Exit the stretching position very slowly and relax for 30 seconds
  4. Repeat this sequence one time then move onto the next stretch

I’m actually being nice to you here because if you are stretching both sides of your body at the same time, this sequence will only take you about 12 minutes. As time goes by you will build yourself up to 45 minutes to an hour worth of stretching on your rest days while maintaining your 15 minutes of stretching on active days.

I would usually end with these three steps, but I am so ready for you to improve your mobility that I want to give some bonus tips outside of your intentional flexibility sessions.

The majority of us work in a sedentary promoting environment (I hope you're at a least performing mentally stimulating tasks). The jury (a.k.a. science) is still out on whether or not standing desks and treadmill/pedaling desks are better than sitting in a chair all day, but one thing is for certain, if you aren't moving, you are kind of dying, seriously.

No matter where you work, there are plausible options to get yourself moving more throughout the day. Even adjusting your position while sitting can be beneficial. Two of my biggest strategies to get myself moving throughout the day are staying hydrated, which means more trips to the bathroom, (and opting for the third closest bathroom) and simply going for a brief walk intermittently throughout the day. Unless you are under the nano-management of Elon Musk, you shouldn't need to inform your boss why you're stepping away from your desk for a moment.

Another idea to implement is to really lounge back when you’re sitting at home. Get your legs fully stretched out in front of you and recline back around a 135-degree angle. The beauty of recliners is that they actually promote an optimal sitting position for your hamstrings, hips, and spine. If you don’t happen to own a recliner, still get your legs out in front of you whether you’re on a couch or have a coffee table to prop your feet up on. Just tell your mother it’s for the betterment of your health.

By including the strategies above, you will be drastically reducing the time you spend sitting with your hamstrings contracted. You will also find less aches and pains in your back and neck.

To summarize everything above and give you one last final push to continue down the path Fitness in Five embraces, let's look at some hypothetical scenarios. The three graphs (plus one to compare where we started) below represent the redistribution of your time spent sitting over the next 20 years if you begin implementing these strategies.

In graph number one, you have reduced your time sitting to 11 hours per day and began stretching for just ten minutes every day. This small change will reduce your time sitting by over 300 days over the next two decades. 

In graph number two, you convinced your workplace to provide you with a standing desk (assuming you are using it properly) and have reduced your sitting time by four hours each day. You also bumped your stretching time up to 15 minutes and as a result will reduce your sitting time by more than four years over the next two decades.

In graph number three, you have fully embraced the Fitness in Five lifestyle, which keeps you active every day with little time spent sitting in front of your television or home computer. You have also committed to three days of a focused flexibility regimen (45 minutes of stretching) and continue stretching 15 minutes on your more active days. In this final stage, you have reduced your sitting time by over 58% or nearly 6 years!

Graph #1: Reducing your sitting time to 11 hours per day and stretching every day for 10 minutes.

Graph #2: Half your work day at a standing desk and stretching for 15 minutes every day

Graph #3: Living the Fitness in Five lifestyle and stretching every day for 15-45 minutes.

Graph #4: Remember where we started?!

I hope you still aren't questioning whether or not you should start working on your flexibility, but I’m sure you still have quite a few questions, so please share your questions, comments, or concerns below or email me personally at paul@yourpenpaul.com.


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