Two (un)common ways to improve your flexibility

In the quest to become more flexible, people often focus on reducing the tension in their muscles. And, ideally, they are breathing while they do so.

This makes sense.

However, in this post, I would like to have a look at breathing correctly and deliberately creating muscle tension and how those two things can improve your flexibility.

Wait, what? you might say.

Breathing correctly? I breathe all day long, you would be accurate in pointing out.

Creating muscle tension? Aren’t I trying to decrease the tension I’m feeling? you could quite reasonably ask.

Those are all reasonable things to wonder about.

And in a moment, we’re going to dive right in and have a closer look at both breathing and tension development…

But first, a little bit about flexibility in general

There are many reasons why a person might want to improve their flexibility. Maybe you just want to be able to touch your toes again, or have that split you had in your youth or squat down to base a human or to take a photo of your cute puppy-doo.

There are also many reasons why a person might experience limited or decreased flexibility.

Sometimes it’s as simple as use it or lose it. If you haven’t been regularly moving your body (really, joints) in that particular range of motion for quite some time, then chances are that your body thought: Well, I guess we don’t need to move in those places anymore, and eventually you arrive at a point where you can’t move that way anymore. In fact, trying to move into those old ranges of motion can be interpreted by your body as risky and your muscles will tense up in an effort to protect you from injury.

Similarly, it could be a motor control issue. This means that it’s not so much a matter of the muscles being too short (per se), but that your nervous system isn’t really sure how to move your body into the position you’re aiming for.

Motor control is basically the process by which our brains coordinate, engage and sequence all of the muscles required for movement.

Or it might just be a mobility issue–where mobility is joint related, and flexibility is soft tissue related. This means that it could be a restriction at the joint level.

Any one of these reasons can benefit from the techniques below, but if you find that after a little time practicing them that your flexibility is not improving or you feel pain as you try, I highly recommend seeing a physical therapist or another medical professional–particularly if you are experiencing any pain. (Feel free to reach out, we may know one in your area)

Breath Work

Now then: let’s talk about breathing.

First, let’s get this out of the way: you must breathe while you stretch. The whole time.

Why is focusing on your breathing–and in particular the breathing exercise below–so important? Your breath plays a huge role in how tense you are feeling.

For some, this may not be big news and that’s great. But, I would like to discuss a nuance of breathing and a common mistake that we encounter when people are engaging in “deep breathing”.

We can use the breath to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system (which is a science-y way of describing the part of our nervous systems that governs all of the “rest and digest”/”chill out” functions of our bodies) and significantly reduce unnecessary muscle tension.

For many of us, we spend a lot of our days hurrying around trying to accomplish all the things we need to do, maybe feeling rushed or stressed and that tends to make our breathing a bit more rapid and shallow. In this state, our sympathetic nervous system (which governs all things fight or flight/stress-response) is being stimulated, resulting in extra muscle tension so we can be prepared to run from danger…even though there’s usually no real danger to fight or flee.

Adding the breathing exercise below to the start of your training, the beginning of your stretch session or even periodically throughout your day can be really good for not only the tension you might feel in some muscles, but also for your overall health.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

Additional Tips:

  • As you exhale, purse your lips and make sure to do a long exhale. Feel how your [external] obliques contract towards the end of the exhale to assist the diaphragm in pushing out all the air. This is often uncomfortable to do at first.
  • **This is not a sucking in of your stomach muscles. Simply focus on doing that long exhale.
  • The pursed lips make it harder to force the air out and this is good: it helps to activate the core towards the end of the exhale.
  • Hold a moment at the end of your exhale. It might feel uncomfortable and there may be an urge to immediately inhale, but try to relax and wait 2 seconds before the inhale.
  • Do 5-10 breaths this way. Normally we program 5 before a training program, but before any flexibility work, we suggest 8-10 breaths. With practice, you’ll begin to notice that some days, you might need to do more breaths to start to feel your ribcage (and other muscles) shift into feeling more relaxed.

How to use this when you are actually stretching?

When you are doing your flexibility work, be sure to maintain those long, deep breaths. You don’t necessarily have to always exhale forcefully, but definitely make a point of doing a long exhalation through those pursed lips.

Often times, your breathing can become more shallow or more rapid when you enter into a place that is uncomfortable. Or you might even hold your breath. This strategy is counter productive when we are trying to tell our bodies that it’s ok to release… so make sure you maintain your breathing.

The movement below is actually a mobility drill, but you can also think of it as a moving stretch for the adductors (your inner thighs). Using that long exhale through pursed lips as you rock your hips back will bring that relaxing quality of the breath to the movement and the adductors.

Quick extra tip: Maintain a neutral pelvis (this may feel that your are tipping your tail bone towards the sky as you rock back, but ensures the benefit of the movement is happening at the hip and not just rounding the spine.

Creating Muscle Tension

Suffice it to say, both of these people are creating some serious muscle tension.

I know this seems counterintuitive, but purposefully creating tension can really help muscles relax.

As mentioned above, when we don’t use ranges of motion for a while our body begins to think we don’t need them and then we feel tight when we try to move into those ranges as your body’s way of protecting itself.

Essentially, your body doesn’t feel stronger enough in those ranges of motion to feel safe moving there. Engaging the muscles and building strength in that area should, over time, result in an increase in your range of motion. In particular, we are talking about isometric muscle contractions (meaning there is no movement associated with this muscular effort).

But there’s more to this than just squeezing your hamstrings at the end of your stretch. You also need to incorporate the core and the muscles surrounding the joint you are focusing on.

Your core’s main function is to keep the spine safe. After all, the spine does house your spinal cord, which is basically an extension of your brain.

Creating core tension–that core contraction that happens reflexively toward the end of the exhale that you learned above–and then radiating that tension out to all of the muscles surrounding the joint (or joints) you’re focusing on, sends a signal to your brain: the spine is secure and safe, so it’s ok for {insert joint you’re working on here} to move more.

As these muscles get stronger at those end-ranges of motion, the nerve signals you send to them become stronger, and as you do this more often, you’ll see your range of motion, your flexibility, improve.

How to create tension while practicing your flexibility?

Let’s begin with an exercise that teaches you how to control the amount of muscle tension you generate. The video below describes how to begin with your contracted core and irradiate that tension throughout your body. (The sequence in the video uses what are called PAILs and RAILs contractions, which are a part of Functional Range Systems.

Next, we can take things a step further by adding some movement on top of the initial isometric contraction. One way to do this is with lift-offs, which help to close the gap between your passive flexibility and active flexibility.

Below is a front leg lift-off at close to the end of my active range of motion. When you do this, use the exhale to make sure your core is actively engaged before you even try to move your leg. Maintain this tension and irradiate that tension outwards to your whole body.

Imagine you are a volcano erupting very slowly and you are trying to contain all of that energy within your body. On each exhale, think of floating the leg off the surface.

I hope you feel ready to add these techniques when you are working on your flexibility. Feel free focus on incorporating the breathing and see how you can take that to your flexibility training. Then, once that feels natural add one of the muscle tension actives to your flexibility routine. As each one becomes natural add another option, until you have all these techniques in your tool box.

Let me know how these new techniques go for you. Happy training. ~Theresa