I remember being a sophomore in high school, sitting in French class behind a friend of mine, a cheerleader named Claire. She’d always sit in her chair, face and toes facing forward, but she’d take both hands and, while grabbing the back of her chair, rotate her entire torso so that she was both cracking her back and facing me, and we’d spend a few moments talking and cracking jokes while she did it.
I remember marveling at her ability to do that. I mean, it’s weird, right? But she always seemed so relieved after she’d done it. A quick stretch, and her back would crack and she’d always say, “ugh, that feels sooooooo much better.” I asked her to teach me what she was doing, and we had a quick talk about why that stretch felt sooooo much better. It wouldn’t be until months later that I’d realize what she meant.
Our bodies are all collections of bones and blood, muscle and fat, the inner workings of our digestive systems (in other words, everything you’ve eaten and drank recently), and connective tissue that helps hold it together. There’s connective tissue that binds bone to bone, bone to muscle, and muscle to muscle. With regard to flexibility, you’re primarily talking about muscle and the connective tissue that connects muscle to muscle, known as “fascia.”
If you sit on the floor (and I do mean the floor, not your bed), with your legs flat against the floor and your knees together, you’re likely already used to sitting like this with no issue. Try to lean forward to touch your toes, though. If that’s easy for you, try to touch past your toes, with your chin touching your chest. Then, instead of flattening your back, round it out. If you’re especially flexible, you might not’ve felt much difference between each step I described. If not, however, at some point in there you felt a bit of discomfort.
That’s your flexibility—or, rather, your lack thereof—at play.
The ability to reach behind your head and scratch your back, with your elbow pointing directly above your head instead of outward diagonally away from your body? That’s flexibility. Splits? Flexibility. That’s your muscles and the connective tissue attached to it working together to hold a position even while it’s being pushed to its limit. It also teaches your body, specifically your nervous system which controls all of your movement consciously and subconsciously, that even though a certain movement feels like unchartered territory, it is still safe to perform the movement and avoid injury.
Not to mention, flexibility training is a major stress reducer. It wrings out your muscles, helping to release any tension and stress that might’ve been building up, and leaves you feeling relieved and relaxed afterwards. Dedicated flexibility training is a few moments out of your day dedicated to you and only you, giving your mind a reprieve from the daily onslaught of stressors. And, as a recovering emotional eater, I cannot tell you enough how much flexibility training helped me with putting an end to my habit. If the accumulation of anxiety was a trigger for me to spend my evening binge eating, then flexibility training helped me wring all of that right out, helping me to avoid ever needing to overindulge in the first place.
Flexibility is, in a nutshell, your body’s ability to safely and securely perform any given range of motion. Flexibility is a quality of life issue, because those who age without thinking much about “range of motion” find themselves approaching their 60s spending more time laying down than walking or sitting, and find even those basic movements to be difficult and even painful.
What’s more, but flexibility and strength training go hand in hand. Strength training ensures your muscles can support the rest of your body through a given motion, while flexibility training teaches your body that the motion is safe to perform without injury. Teaching your body that you’re strong enough to support you performing a given movement requires actually being strong enough. And developing that strength means that you have to perform the movement regularly, and frequently showing your body that it is safe to push those limits.
In this series, I hope to go in-depth and try to simplify movement, range, and strength for the everyday sister out there, with the goal of spreading the word that quality of life training is just as important as exceptional training like marathons or tough mudder type events. You can enjoy them all, but you can’t perform at your best in any of them without strength and flexibility… and that’s a fact.