July 6. 2011
by Cat Fitzgerald
Did you know:
“We are supposed to peak athletically between the ages of 35-45; not in our teens.”
“True flexibility is cumulative and permanent.”
You should be a little perplexed, maybe even a little peeved, but interested – dubious, yet hopeful. When I picked up Bob Cooley’s The Genius of Flexibility for the very first time and read these two statements, a few things cascaded like Pachinko balls in my head: “Nobody I know thinks they are as flexible, or more so, now, than when they were younger,” “This isn’t what I witness in everyday life nor experience myself,” and “If this is true, I have to know what [Bob Cooley] knows.”
Not to burst any bubbles out there, but, the memories of our flexible youth, of splits three ways, contorting to fit into luggage bags (if you had an older brother like mine), and back bends around beach balls and telephone poles, are lies. More accurately, they are misconceptions.
We all have photos of those magic tricks proving that we could wrap our ankles behind our necks; it just wasn’t flexibility that allowed us to perform all of those nimble feats. It was hyper mobility of our joints and soft tissues – the very things that allowed us to bend, bounce back from injury, and sometimes bounce back uninjured from that which should have been devastating. The irony is that we feel like we are missing now what we didn’t actually have back then.
The good news is that we CAN have it today. We can have now what we never had, even though it feels so very unattainable. It just takes a bit of work.
Settling on Terminology
Long muscles are not automatically flexible ones, and short muscles aren’t necessarily tight. We tend to confuse Range of Motion (ROM) and Flexibility with our ability to get a task accomplished. Every person to whom I say, “You have inflexible hamstrings,” as they stand before me, straight legged with their palms firmly planted on the ground, gets upset with me, to say the least. Sure they may have long hamstrings, but, when the muscles ability to contract reciprocally is not present, there is a problem.
Flexibility is a muscles ability to lengthen and to shorten. There is a clear distinction between “shorten” and “contract.” We can contract and shorten – Concentric Motion, or contract and lengthen – Eccentric Motion. ROM is just what it seems: the distance and direction a joint can move between the flexed position and the extended position without the benefit of substitution or recruitment of other bones, joints, or muscles, and it is easy to measure. Here’s a quick exercise:
Stand in front of a mirror and lift your straightened arm until it is pointing to the ceiling. Take note of the relationship between your arm and your head. How far apart are they? Which direction is your elbow pointing? Now, look at your shoulder. Has the distance between your neck/ ear and shoulder changed?
Now do it again, but stop as soon as you see your shoulder elevate, making the space between your shoulder and neck or ear smaller. This is a more accurate picture of your actual Range of Motion. Next time I will give you the keys to increase your ROM and get you started on your path to a healthier, more resilient, more flexible body.