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Flexibility and Optimum Mobility – The Big Difference

The first time I started to stretch regularly, I was about 6 years old. After watching American Ninja several times, my mother took me to a karate club nearby to our home back in Hungary. During the warmup we did a lot of stretching to aid our flexibility, which was useful in particular when it came to kicking. I remember Jean Claud Van Damme in the movie Bloodsport being pulled by his trainer with ropes between two trees, and while Van Damme was initially suffering, through meditation he overcame his pain, and in time he was easily able to stretch his body to its full potential and free himself. Although my mother refused to assist me in the same experiment, I didn’t need any more motivation than that to push myself as much as I could, even though I wasn’t even of school age. I learnt from many of my favourite ninja and kung-fu movies that the more flexibility I had, the better fighter I could be, and thought that being as flexible as possible would be a highly desired ability in any sport. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

When I started the course to become a certified personal trainer in Kuala Lumpur, I learnt that too much flexibility (hypermobility) can be just as bad as not being flexible at all (hypomobility), and that every joint in the human body has an optimal range of motion (ROM). A ‘joint’ is where bones meet, and movement occurs. Muscles cross joints, and through the tendons they pull bones closer together. If muscles are at an optimal length, the joint they cross will have optimal ROM. However, if a muscle at one side of the joint gets short, then the muscle on the other side gets long, as well as the other way around. This process will misalign the joint, which in turn can produce a faulty movement pattern every time it moves. An obvious sign of altered muscle length is poor posture – for example a hunched back, forward back or lumbar lordosis – but joint pains and issues also often originate due to the same altered muscle length. Now imagine that somebody has a muscle that is already more lengthened than it should be, and then that person starts stretching it even further. This process is not going to do much good for the muscle, neither short-term nor long-term. So, does this mean that we should stop stretching completely?

There are certainly people who say that stretching is useless, but I disagree. As a personal trainer in Mont Kiara I always tell my clients that if they decide to stretch, they should know what muscle they’re going to stretch, for how long, and why they’re stretching it. If they cannot answer these questions, they might be wasting their time, or even making things worse for their bodies. It is also important to remember that in some sports or activities (yoga, martial arts, gymnasts, etc.) people can benefit with more than optimal flexibility, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these people’s joints are going to be healthy as they get older. There is well documented literature about the common injuries that participants of these sports (including yoga!) can suffer due to their extreme flexibility.

gymnast, stretching, flexibility
Gymnasts are often the ones who struggle with joint issues later in life due to their extreme flexibility

There are also different types of stretching that are used to achieve different results (e.g. static, active-isolated or dynamic), and they too lead to different tissue adaptions and changes. One of the main differences between these types of stretches is how long a person keeps their muscles in the lengthened position. If somebody has ankle issues, for example due to limited ankle mobility, it’s better to do static stretching before running rather than after. If the person doesn’t have any ankle issues, then the person perhaps shouldn’t do static stretching, but instead active-isolated or dynamic stretches only. It’s also important to remember that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ method when it comes to stretching. What muscle to stretch and how should always be based on the results of movement assessments as well as the individual’s compensation patterns.

If you’re not sure what muscles to stretch and how you should stretch them, just ask the advice of a certified professional such a physiotherapist, or a certified personal trainer who is knowledgeable in corrective exercise. Don’t be shy to ask the question of ‘why’ multiple times when your personal trainer tells you to do a certain stretch. Alternatively, if you live in Kuala Lumpur or in Mont Kiara and want to have a complimentary movement assessment, you can also contact me and I will be more than happy to assist you!

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