Super flexibility

Bryce Lane 8-6-01

An article about Flexibilty? That noodly bendy stuff that skinny yuppies go to mountaintop retreats so they can enhance their spirituality and deplete their checkbooks? "No not for me, I'm a powerlifter! Hard as a rock. I have my wife and kids to tie my shoes for me. I don't need to bend, Why I've got itches on my neck from 1970 and I've just learned to live with em'". This is too close to the truth to be anything else than sad and funny at the same time.

Unlike what you read in the popular exercise media, real flexibility IS about strength. Its not about "forcing" yourself into crazy dysfunctional positions. Fuctional flexibility is about being able to go to the far reaches of your range of motion and get this: COME BACK UNDER YOUR OWN POWER! Forcing yourself into a split, backbend or frontbend by "stretching", ripping tissue and having or having a partner "force" you into a place where you cannot go under your own power, not only doesn't help but can actually reverse what you are trying to accomplish; As you may have found out already.

I am going to describe a principle by using several examples and you may feel free to look at this creatively and make your own variations upon the theme. This is a concept which is plenty big enough to improvise with.

At one time everyone has seen someone do the splits, side or front. You were, whether you admit it or not, probably a bit envious. You know you are not suposed to be envious of such things, but thinking of your abilities only in terms of three lifts can kinda get to you after awhile. Its good to look "over the fence" and see how green the grass really is now and then. You probably tried it (the splits) somewhere well out of sight and discovered it hurt, for one, you couldn't do it and saw little hope of doing it anytime in the future for two. I want you to try it again, except try it this way. For this you will need, a slick floor, two fluffy towels and some means of supporting yourself. I use a couple of auto jackstands, but you can use a couple of chairs or whatever will allow you to stay in control.

What you do is put your feet on the towels and while supporting yourself on the jackstands let your feet "scissor" apart fore and aft until you are down a bit, then keep your legs straight and scissor back up. Each time try to go a little further, still under control. If you go down to where you cannot gracefully scissor up again, you have gone to far and need to keep practicing right on the edge of where you "lost it". The things to watch are keeping your legs as straight as possible and keeping your hips as square as possible. Cheating will get you nothing but pain here. You can also do this same exercise to work a "side split" where your feet are going off to your sides rather than for and aft.

What you are doing is teaching your nervous system to go into a new area under muscular control and working on strengthening and expanding that range. As you get stronger, and frequently practice going there, you will gain fuctional use of that range of motion that was "off limits" to you before.

Your body will not let you go voluntarily into positions where force and control cannot be applied. When you try to go into such a postion, you CNS will fight back by tensing the muscles "in-charge" and letting you go no futher. You can force the issue at that point and actually stretch tissue, or you can teach yourself to relax, but in neither case are you gaining fuctional use of that range of motion. If you use resistance such as a barbell, dumbells, surgical tubing or your own bodyweight, and turn what was a "stretch" into an exercise and gain strength, then that range of motion is yours to use.

Now lets try a frontbend. You need a barbell for this somewhere around 75 to 135#'s, no more. You will not gain a thing by using more weight and you can hurt yourself. None of this is "safe", nothing you can do with a barbell, firearm or automobile is "safe". The world belongs to people who can deal intelligenly with risk and if you are doing this, you wanna be one of those people.

I hold the bar in the crook of my elbows "Zercher style" however you can also do this on a platform like an SLDL. I start with my heels together and slip my elbows under the bar then I squat it up to where I am standing with the bar in the crooks of my arms. Now lean forward as far as you can go. Let your elbows stretch towards the floor and let your breath out slowly sinking towards the floor. When you have sank as much as you reasonably can, then take in a full breath and come up to standing again. Thats one rep, about five should be enough. You can use this same technique with a straight leg deadlift from a platform or taking the bar from blocks or stands if you need to at first. Just keep the weight to a level that makes you work slightly on the way up and makes you resist its pull on the way down.

Another frontbend you can use is to sit down on the floor with your legs out in front of you and do "floor good mornings". You have someone hand you the bar, 75-100# should be fine. You bend forward as far as you can, then push your heels into the floor and bend back up again. Eventually you can get to the point where you can fold all the way over, or start with the bar down by your feet, bend over with you legs slightly apart, then with your face in the floor, roll the bar back over your head and come up.

For backbending, there isn't much that beats a plain old wrestlers bridge. Why? Because you need to develop strength to go there, you don't just "flop" or relax into a bridge. Matt Furey has covered this excellently and there is not much more to be said, but I'll try anyway. One variation I have found to be extremely useful is to do reverse pushups against a wall. You go into a bridge and touch your chest to the wall. Once you are there then do the reverse pushup, trying to keep your chest in contact with the wall on the way up. You will not be able to do this at first but eventually if you learn to relax your abs while contracting your glutes, lumbars and hamstrings, you will develop the skill and strength to do this. Eventually you will be able to do a really good crabwalk bent over that way if you practice. For backbend you can also do roman chair situps on a bench that allows that kind of range, simply concentrate on getting as much backbend as you can and then returning gracefully to upright maybe holding a smaller iron plate. You can do this same bend over anything that supports your hips and eventually work towards removing any support and doing a "bridging gymnasic" ala Matt Furey/Karl gotch, or a "walkover". There are tons of variations, which you can figure out in moments if you use some creativity and grasp the basic principle.

For your shoulder area, you can apply the same principle. The best way I have seen is the regular pullover with a bar or dumbell. The only difference is to do them on an incline bench so the floor won't get in the way once you have some flexibility. Simply lower the weight, relax and let your breath out, sink a bit and then bring it back up. a 25# to 45# bar or dumbell should do just fine. Too much weight will work against you in a way you won't like.

Doing these exercises two or three times a week after your regular workout should be fine. You can get real sore on this stuff just like anything else you do with weights so don't go too crazy. One piece of good news is that once you gain flexibility this way, it tends to stay with you with very little maintenance. Once you get it, its really easy to keep it by just practicing the skill once every month or two. I've gone without doing a front split for months and then drop right into it on the first try after that long of a break. The kind of flexibilily you get from "passive stretching" can diminish over hours, the kind you get from building actual strength in those ranges stays with you.

All of you know that dumbells and barbells are the way to go for strength but it is not often mentioned that the same principles you use to develop functional strength, can also be the key to functional flexibility. Good dancers, gymnasts, contortionists, acrobats and martial artists don't just "flail" at the further reaches of ROM, they have strength and control there, weightlifters can too. If you think that flexibility and strength are not compatible imagine John Grimek doing gymnastics, look at old pictures from muscle beach and imagine yourself in them. Then go out in the garage or go down to the basement and make reality more like that.