The Importance of Flexibility

Most people understand that building and maintaining flexibility is important, but do you know that it’s even more important than a strength training or cardiovascular routine? I hear a lot of fitness trainers, enthusiasts and therapists discuss the benefits of cardiovascular workouts and also strength workouts, but little emphasis is put on the importance of flexibility. Whether it’s due to the assumption that their clientele already understand flexibility is beneficial, or that they actually believe the other aspects of physical fitness are more important than flexibility, is not what I want to discuss. Let’s talk about why, above cardiovascular and strength only workouts, flexibility training is the most beneficial workout regiment for overall health and wellbeing.

Body Balance

Most injuries are a direct result of body imbalances. An imbalance occurs when one muscle or tendon is contracted, in other words shortened, while the opposing muscle group is lengthened. Think of your body in terms of Newton’s third law of physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If one muscle contracts the other has to relax. These are referred to as antagonist and agonist muscle groups. Antagonist and agonist muscles often occur in pairs. As one muscle contracts, the other relaxes. An example of an antagonistic pair is the biceps and triceps; to contract – the triceps relaxes while the biceps contracts to lift the arm.

Pair of scales is made of stones on the cliff

All of your muscles, tendons, and the entire web of fascia in your body function on this model of pushing and pulling. There is an entire field of study dedicated to the understanding of these systems known as biotensegrity. When your body is pushing or pulling too much in one area this results in the entire balance of your body being disrupted. This manifest itself as pain, discomfort, or injury. When your body is balanced, with equal push/pull being distributed throughout the physical structures, there is no pain, discomfort or injury.

A great example of this, which I’ve witnessed, is clients coming in with lower back pain. When questioned about daily habits that might be contributing to their back pain I find it is generally due to one of three things; One, a spinal misalignment due to injury causing weak erector spinae muscles. Two, poor office habits of hunching over a desk which causes shortened abdominal muscles and lengthened spinal muscles. Three, strength training only abdominal muscles which results in shortened abdominal muscles and weak/lengthened spine and lower back muscles. This is an easily fixable issue; strengthen and rebalance the torso. In other words, retrain the torso to maintain an equal push/pull ratio.

So, you might be wondering how one goes about balancing the body if there is such a discrepancy. This is where the “F” word comes into play…. not that one, but the other dreaded “F” word, “flexibility”. Here’s why, if the body functions on Newton’s third law of physics, then physically working on lengthening one side is going to inversely shorten the other. So, back to our previous example, if your low back is pained due to shortened abdominal muscles, what would be the fix? Stretch your abdominal muscles. By stretching your abdominal muscles you’ll inadvertently strengthen and shorten your back muscles bringing your trunk back into alignment and balance. All the physical structures in your body function this way, albeit on a somewhat more complicated manner, sometimes.

Strength

So, if the body functions on Newton’s third law of physics, then power and strength can be built simply by stretching. This is fantastic news for a few reasons. First, the time you save by stretching is nothing to shrug at. If you regularly workout, my guess is you break your routine into three segments; cardio, strength, and flexibility. We’ll discuss cardio later, but just think, you can now combine your flexibility and strength routine saving you time.

Second, you can build some real strength through flexibility training in two ways. By no longer isolating muscle groups to build strength you are able to improve strength not only in superficial muscles but also in deep muscle tissue and fascia. In addition to building muscle through Newton’s third law of physics you can also build muscle in the actual stretch. Let’s look at this a bit deeper.

Think of how muscle is built. By exercising, or putting physical stress on the muscle your goal is to put little micro-tears in the muscle tissue. This is what builds strong muscles. When we think of putting stress on our muscle tissue we think of it only in terms of stressing it through overload. Meaning by increasing the weight the muscle is bearing we overload it resulting in micro-tears in the muscle. There is another way to overload the muscles resulting in the same micro-tears. You guessed it, you can achieve the same results through stretching. Have you ever stretched too much and you were sore for the next few days? Those are the micro-tears in your muscles that are producing lactic acid needed to heal your muscle tissue and build it stronger. To make this point even clearer, just look at a gymnast. They are powerhouses build through bodyweight exercise centered around flexibility and balance. I’ve not seen anyone accusing gymnasts of being weak.

The other point that I want to touch on here, before I get any complaints, is that you need weights to build the big bulky muscles that a bodybuilder has. Actually, you don’t. The equation that builds a bulky physique is tear and repair. Whatever muscle tear you accomplish needs to be repaired by an adequate amount of protein. The more tear and repair cycles you put your body through the bulkier your body will become. That’s it. If you don’t repair with adequate protein you will maintain a lean, but strong physique. Think of the slender but amazing strength of ballet dancers.

Cardiovascular Health

So, you can improve your strength and balance of your body by only focusing on a flexibility routine, but what about cadiovascular health. Can you improve your cardiovascular health by only focusing on a flexibility routine? The answer to that is, it depends on you. The most common flexibility routines are structured pilates, yoga or some sort of routine you’ve created yourself. If your flexibility routine is achieved through yoga and pilates you can definitely improve your cardiovascular health. If you’re putting together your own routine, you’ll need to be cognizant of the exercise and breathing structure to achieve cardio results.

Let’s look at what improves cardio function. Achieving a heart rate in the zone as I discussed in the article The Benefit of Aerobic Exercise is what improves cardio function. So, can you achieve a heart rate in that zone by sitting in one spot and breathing? Of course! So, if you have conscious breath focus you could essentially hold a stretch position and control your breath in order to elevate it to the rate that reaches your target respiratory rate. This is why it’s so easy to achieve cardio benefits in flexibility routines such as pilates and yoga.

The focus of pilates and yoga is structured around breath work, meaning you inhale and exhale at specific times and specific rates during each stretch or pose. In pilates the breathing techniques are known as deep breathing and also lateral breathing. Both are very specific ways of breathing which increase the heart rate and expand the lung capacity. In Yoga there are similar techniques. Pranyama is the practice of breath control (prana = energy + yama = control). There are several pranayama techniques based on the result or focus, but the main cardio improving breathing technique is the ujjayi breath (victorious breath).

You can achieve the same cardio results in your own structured flexibility routine if you focus on your breathing as you would in a pilates or yoga routine. The cardio benefits are always achieved as long as you get your heart rate in your specific zone for at least 20-30 minutes.

Stress Relief

So, you can achieve balance, strength, and cardiovascular health in just a stretching or flexibility routine! All the time you’re saving by working your body as a whole is definitely going to result in stress relief, but did you know that the breathing and focus you put into your flexibility routine will also result in stress relief? I know you’re not surprised to hear it does.

Taking the time to clear your mind and focus only on the task at hand always results in lowered blood pressure and decreased stress levels. Not only does taking time to focus on your flexibility routine improve stress levels, but it is noted that the more a person can practice being in the present moment the lower stress levels are shown and also the happier a persons outlook is. Living in the past or the future increases stress.

What do you think?

It’s personal preference whether you prefer pumping iron or going for a run over doing a flexibility routine. If you enjoy doing it, I recommend you keep on doing it, just make sure you’re structuring your routines in a balanced fashion. The risk of achieving body imbalance increases by segregating your routines. This doesn’t mean you can’t if you do enjoy a good old iron pumping routine. Just be aware of working in a fashion that maintains equality among your bodily structures as well. Also, don’t forget about adding a flexibility session in. Take time to stretch after a strength or cardio routine. You will definitely decrease your risk of injury.

There is no one fitness regiment that is best. Whatever gets you moving and makes you happy is the best one for you. All you have to remember is to keep it your routines balanced, just like everything else in life. Let me know what you think. Do you prefer pumping iron, going for a run, or a good flexibility workout? Whatever you do, keep doing it because a body in motion stays in motion.

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