Okay, guys, let’s take a second here and have a bit of a chat, will we?
When I say flexibility, what comes to mind? I bet the first thing that you think of is as strong as f**k, right? Not. That’s because when people think of flexibility, they think of little gymnasts folded in two just hanging out, or dancers in splits for what seems like forever.
Now you’re not wrong there. The practice of holding a stretch and allowing gravity to pull you into it is a type of stretching called passive flexibility. Depending on the context, as the context is king, after all, it might well be the correct choice.
But I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of passive stretching as I’m not a fan of creating all this extra range of movement if you’re not making the joints stable or you aren’t developing the strength to support them. Because creating a new range is only one part of the puzzle.
The Square of Awesomeness
You can’t forget the square of awesomeness. (A shit name I know). The four elements or corners are:
If you train only one of these four elements, the square falls to hell, and I’m afraid that is where injury lies, my friend. Each of these elements is vital for creating a strong, mobile, and most importantly, a versatile body that can adapt to the unexpected.
So how do we build strength, length, or mobility all at the same time as stability?
Stretch With Weights
Wait; what? That’s right, you heard me. This magical thing I speak of is called active flexibility.
Active flexibility is stretching with purpose. You are using a full combination of things to build that range and, more importantly, the strength and stability in that range.
You are using your muscles if you’re doing any active flexibility correctly from the engagement and extension to the antagonist’s muscles, pulling you into the stretch.
If you’re doing it right, you should be all a-quiver and have a pump afterward.
You are naturally flexible. Just look at passed out drunks. Your brain is what inhibits that natural flexibility.
Your brain won’t let you do anything it thinks isn’t safe and that you have a chance of f**king up. So, if you’re not strong enough to get yourself out of a position, then hell no, it won’t let you get into it.
So, a way around this is to give your brain a task. The brain loves tasks.
If your brain has a task, it will allow you to move into deeper ranges to accomplish that task.
Every time you step into those ranges, you’re cementing those neural pathways telling your brain you’re not an idiot, you won’t get hurt, and you’re safe in that range.
We can use weights to help us move into deeper ranges and build muscle and stability in those ranges. Which, in turn, will build neural confidence. After all, you’ll always regret not training the position in which you got injured.
You need to develop the link between body and brain that says you have the strength to move through these positions.
I’ll cover one exercise for front splits, one for middle splits, and one for a straddle fold. Let’s start with the front splits. We’ll apply the task principle here:
What we are going to do is get into a half-kneeling position with a small ball in front of the lead foot. Straighten the front leg and slide out into as big a split as you can while pushing the ball in front of you.
Now here’s the task part:
As you reach the limit of your split, you need to hook the foot and press that straight front leg into the floor. Bring that ball back with you as you return to the start position.
Watch the video to see how to do it.
Next, we’ll go with the straddle fold and the working muscles principle:
We are going to start quite high, so sitting on the couch is perfect. Shuffle your bum to the edge of the couch. Get your legs into as wide a straddle as possible. This is your starting position. Lean forward and try to get your upper body as close to parallel to the floor as you can. From there, you’re going to engage those glutes and adductors to help yourself stand up without momentum. Then you’re going to lower yourself back down, under control to the couch.
Here’s the video to get you started:
Lastly, we’re going to bust out the weights for the middle splits. I’m sure we all know the horse stance as a conditioning tool, but if not, I cover it in the video below.
We get into a nice wide horse stance while holding a weight in each hand.
We need to make sure we can still get deep enough that our knees are bent at 90 degrees. We are then going to shoulder press the weights alternatively, and every time we press up, we straighten the legs to stand up. As the weight comes back down to the shoulders, we let that extra weight help us sink deeper down into the horse stance each time. Eventually, we keep widening the horse stance until it resembles the middle split.
Here’s the full video:
True For All Training
Out of all these different aspects of active flexibility comes one thing, and it’s true for all training. Flexibility, movement, and muscle activation live in the brain.
When you train at the gym, you aren’t training your body. You’re training your mind. You’re giving your brain a task, and as it does that task, it’s building neural maps and increasing the muscle activation needed as it sees that task has to be completed regularly.
To accomplish any training goal, you have to convince the brain that the goal is safe and vital enough on which to focus because, after all, your brain’s priorities aren’t necessarily your priorities. Your brain doesn’t give a shit if you want a six-pack. It wants you not to fall off that balcony trying to impress Brenda.
Get some flexibility gains and some brain gains by taking a more neuro-biomechanical approach to your training. Think of the square of awesomeness. You’ll get in a hurry less, and you’ll never look back.