What does it take to become flexible like a gymnast ? The short answer is hard and smart work. Flexibility training is absolutely vital in your life. It improves mobility, prevents injuries, maximizes the strength of all joint movements, improves posture by balancing the tension, reduces stress in the exercising muscles. Generally, it improves the performance of everyday activities.
If all you are after is a nice physique and general health, dedicated limbering sessions before and after your workouts might be all you need. But, if you want to stand out from the crowd or you think of flexibility in terms of gymnastics skills, diving, or ballet dancing, you’ll need to take your stretching to another level, and for this, a few sets of 30 seconds hold after your session won’t be enough. Planche, V-Sit, Press to Handstand or even basic handstand will require from you dedicated stretching sessions.
CAN I BECOME FLEXIBLE LIKE A GYMNAST ?
The only way to find out how far you can get is to start stretching. Saying this, there’s a reason why, to be very good at gymnastics or contortion, you absolutely have to start as a very young kid. Part of flexibility involves influencing how the joints themselves take shape.
The body becomes adapted, quite literally optimized, at a structural level during this process, and that takes time to say nothing of other variables that work against you as you get older. (eg. less elastic ligaments, tendons, increased muscle tone.)
So if you are, let’s say 40, and you don’t have some genetic abnormality in your connective tissue (hypermobility), you may never reach the extreme flexibility limits of top-level gymnasts.
Saying this, it does not mean you can’t get really good at this. Splits, pancake, full pike or bridge are all possible and well within your reach. Persistence, exceptional work ethic and smart approach may yield excellent results.
While a man can have the same potential for flexibility as any female, differences in muscle mass, bone structure, and chemical make-up, mean that it is generally easier for women to achieve a certain level of flexibility or range of motion.
State of Mind
Don’t write it off ! Like anything, if your attention is divided, the results are diminished. Your focus, or if you prefer a degree of mindset plays here a very important role.
The goal of stretching is not only to improve flexibility through lengthening the tissue. It’s also very important to create appropriate CNS adaptation. In CNS adaptation, your central nervous system learns to allow a greater range of motion before it reflexively contracts the muscles to prevent damage.
One way to make your nervous system relax your muscles is not to push too hard and progress through your routine slowly. By gradually increasing ranges of motion, you prove to your CNS that the stretch is safe.
CNS adaptation can also be efficiently trained with PNF stretching. PNF can be done much more frequently as it does not damage the tissues very much.
TYPE OF STRETCHES
There are many ways to stretch your muscles. Weighted mobility drills, dynamic, active, passive and static stretches are equally important for beginners and advanced trainees. Passive and active stretches are often used interchangeably and mean the same thing. However, some people make a distinction between the two.
If you don’t have a lot of experience, you should be very careful with advanced ballistic stretches. You can easily injure yourself if you don’t know what you are doing. Other ways to get flexible include isometric stretching and PNF stretching.
How Often Should You Train Flexibility ?
In my experience, 3-4 dedicated stretch sessions a week, combined together with frequent limbering throughout a day is the absolute minimum goal to yield advanced results. Beginners might have to start with 1 or 2 hard sessions a week to allow adequate recovery, while still performing daily limbering routines. Depending on your goals a dedicated session can take from 30min to 1.5 hour.
Light mobilization throughout every day is absolutely essential, especially for people with sedentary kind of jobs. Doing 1-3 stretch workouts a week combined with 8-10 hours of every day sitting in the chair is often enough to set you back with enough stiffness to hinder your progress.
Try to stand up from your chair or take a break from not so active activity as often as you can and perform light mobility drills or hold essential stretch positions for a short amount of time (10-30 seconds).
Since your body won’t be warmed up for these short bouts of mobility, judging intensity and not forcing excessive depth is absolutely crucial here. The goal here is to keep this session as a recovery bout. So keep it light and do not treat it as a workout.
Just because you can move your muscle to its limit without warming up, It doesn’t mean it is ready for a proper stretching routine. Even though it is a part of a warm-up, stretching itself is not warming up! Before you start your dedicated flexibility workout, you will need to raise your core body temperature and gently increase the stretching intensity. Otherwise, you risk causing damage to connective tissues which will make you sore and even stiffer than before.
A light cardiovascular activity like short jump rope session, easy jogging, or simple mobility exercises that also include gentle dynamic stretches, will get your blood flowing and get your body ready for the more intensive workout. Still, start your routine with gentle passive positions before increasing intensity.
Before and After Workout Stretch
It is imperative to include stretching before and after a workout. I don’t think I have to stress it too much. It won’t only add to your flexibility gains, but it will also reduce muscle tension, promote faster recovery, improve exercise performance and reduce the risk of injury. You can treat it as a part of your daily limber routine or, if you have the time, you can incorporate your dedicated stretch session into your after workout cooldown. This is actually a perfect opportunity for your flexibility training. Your muscles have already been warmed up, fatigued, and they are primed for the benefits of stretching.
Before you push your limits and see how far you can take it, you have to build a solid foundation. Many people assume they can push to the limits right from the beginning. It might work well for building stamina and endurance but applying the same principle for flexibility in the beginners usually means losing the battle.
I already briefly mentioned CNS adaptation. This protective mechanism also called the stretch reflex, sends signals to an overstretched muscle in order to contract them. By limiting lengthening of muscles, your CNS simply protects its fibres from tears. Too aggressive approach strengthens this contraction and works against gains in flexibility, and it often leaves you puzzled why you are not making a progress despite the hard work.
In the beginning, try to avoid aggressive approach (especially ballistic stretches) and instead, ease into it and hold a stretch without pushing the limits. The steady approach will get your muscle fibres used to the increased length, it will slowly reduce the level of the reflexive contraction, and eventually, let you kick up the intensity.
How Long Should You Hold The Stretch ?
Another way to overdo things is to hold your position for a too long period of times. If you are a beginner and you hold a stretch for too long (several minutes), it can actually slow your progress in improving flexibility. It will simply cause too much damage to connective tissues the same way stretching without warming up does. This damage will need the time to repair.
So, if you frequently feel enormous stiffness that takes more than 3 days to recover from, you probably are overdoing it. Don’t run straight away stretching even more through this kind of stiffness. Let your muscles recover and start again, only with shorter stretches. Anything between 30sec – 60sec in a single set usually works well for beginners. More advanced athletes can increase the time to several minutes.
Is After Stretch Soreness Always Bad ?
No, not always. As long as it does not takes ages to recover from (which simply means you pushed too hard), your soreness means that you’ve successfully elicited a supercompensation response. This usually is a positive response.
Remember to rest and give your body time to recover. Don’t do any heavy stretching until soreness has passed. Just proceed with your light daily limbering routine. Not allowing your body to recover will lead to overtraining and it will hinder the positive effects of supercompensation.
Does Increased Flexibility Reduce Muscle Strength ?
From a practical point of view, this question literally is not worth thinking about. Unless you’re for example top sprinter competing for a world record, increased flexibility of the muscle combined with appropriate strength training and CNS adaptation isn’t going to be enough to significantly impact your performance in other activities.
Your muscle is not the same as dough or putty and does not get thinner when it lengthens. A few studies even show that some stretching protocols can actually make the muscle thicker.
Can You Overstretch Muscle Fascia ?
Muscle fascia adapts to flexibility training and lengthens during the stretch. It does not mean it stays in this state and provides less stability and support to your muscles.
So, It is Safe To Stretch Like a Gymnast
No, beginners don’t stretch like gymnasts. But, there is nothing inherently wrong with working toward being stretched like a gymnast, as long as it’s done correctly. The key is to know your limits as you progress and make the process gradual instead of going hardcore.
CNS adaptation and keeping the muscles around the joints strong are very important. Such a level of flexibility DOES make your joints inherently less stable without proper muscle strength. If you are just starting and trying to do it like a gymnast, more likely than less, you’ll get yourself hurt.