Do you scroll through pictures of high kicks on Instagram, stare in awe at gymnasts slinking into the splits or feel bitter about still not being able to comfortably touch your toes? Us too. While improving flexibility is a great way to score points at a party or a dance class, it’s actually about so much more than just being able putting your legs in impressive positions.
So what exactly is flexibility, other than the ability to contort your body? It’s defined as the ability to bend without breaking, but flexibility in our bodies is actually a passive skill. It’s about stretching to our ‘end range’, or as deep as possible.
“Being flexible is important to support your training, whether that’s yoga or weight lifting. If you can’t get into the positions you need to be in then you compromise the movement,” says Corinne Holt, coach at Lift: The Movement, a fitness space in Shoreditch that is focused on physical health and longevity through producing functional bodies.
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“But we also need to be able to activate when we are in the stretch, aka be mobile, to support the joints,” Corrine adds, which is why it’s so important to train strength, mobility and flexibility together, as the classes as Lift do.
And flexibility doesn’t just impact how we move during exercise, but also our day-to-day life. A study from the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that poor hamstring and quadricep flexibility is associated with low back pain – not something to be sniffed at given that 55% of people are experiencing an increase in back pain since working from home, according to the Institute for Employment Studies.
We know what you’re thinking: you’re past being able to get flexible. But think again. “The good news is that with the correct work and application anybody can achieve these positions. None of it came naturally to me. I’ve worked really hard every day to get where I am,” says Corinne. So don’t be disheartened if on the first attempt you can’t get your foot to your head – consistency is key.
Corinne recommends training your flexibility alongside mobility and strength, and focusing on full-body moves rather than isolated stretches for a balanced and stretchy body. She’s shared her three favourite moves to practice to get more flexible – remember, stick with it and you will feel the benefit.
This seated stretch will improve the hamstrings, hips, groin and lower back. Sitting on the floor in a straddle position, reach your arms forward and lean your stomach towards the floor. The goal is to have your chest and head reaching the ground.
Some simple progressions to help you get there include the standing pancake, where you stand with your feet wide apart and hang forward, trying to get your head in between your legs.
“A Jefferson Curl is excellent for flexibility of the full posterior chain,” says Corinne. Standing with the feet together, round through the neck, shoulders and upper back as you roll the body down the legs towards the feet, then pull through the hamstrings to stand back up and unroll through the back.
Eventually, you should be able to do these on a raised surface, holding a light weight, so that you can get more depth to the movement and have more resistance as you lift up.
Don’t be scared. This is great to work through the anterior body, or the muscles at the front. Gymnasts may be able to drop back into a bridge from standing using the flexibility of their abs, chest and quads, but there are some simple progressions you can make before that, such as wall bends.
Lying on your back, lift the hips off the floor so you can into a glute bridge position. Push down into the floor through the arms so that your upper back begins to lower off the floor and you feel the stretch through your chest. To progress, take the arms away from the floor and hold them together under your back.
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Images: Getty / Lift: The Movement
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