Flexibility & Stretching Zone!

Extreme Flexibility

by Donald A. Chu PhD, PT, ATC, CSCS and Kyle Barbour MS, CSCS

There are several Olympic sports that have an extreme flexibility requirement associated with them. Gymnastics, Synchronized swimming, Martial Arts and Rhythmic gymnastics are just a few such activities that require flexibility beyond what most would consider to be the normal range of motion. 

Extreme flexibility can be defined as requiring a full frontal split between the two legs with the crotch resting comfortably on the ground. Hyper or extreme flexibility is the rule in many of the above mentioned sports. Synchronized swimmers are said to require 10 degrees of hyper extension at the knee and may be penalized by the judges if they can't reach these hyper flexible positions. Sport activities outside the realm of the Olympics such as Sumo wrestling and dance have extensive flexibility requirements. Fitness activities such as Yoga and Pilates also emphasize the flexibility of soft tissue in order to achieve balance and symmetry within the body.

The challenge becomes one of achieving this extensibility in the soft tissue without damaging the joints. Pathological hyper-mobility of the joints opens the door for trauma which can cause disability and functional limitation. Many times an athlete will find it difficult to position their body in the correct posture to achieve the desired stretch and as a consequence, either inadequately address muscle length, or at worse risk damaging sensitive connective tissue around the joint complex.  Among the newest of innovations in avoiding this problem is a simple wedge shaped pad known as the Flexcushion. The Flexcushion is an aide to achieving normal flexibility and range of motion as well as going beyond these to the practice of extreme flexibility.

Developed in Japan by Nao Sakata, a member of the Sumo wrestling team at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, his efforts to achieve the "Matawari" or split position necessary for Sumo training, Nao discovered that a small increase in the height of his pelvis aided his ability to achieve his split position. By making it easier to properly position the pelvis and placing the muscles on stretch in correct line of pull, the achievement of split flexibility was more effective and longer lasting. Nao has exposed the Flexcushion to professional baseball teams in Japan, the Japanese National Soccer team and numerous other athletic populations. The Flexcushion has made its way to the United States and many NFL, USA Track & Field athletes, MLB players and fitness experts and enthusiasts have found the benefits of using the Flexcushion in their training programs.

The real key to achieving long lasting, extreme flexibility is to be progressive in your program. Use exercises which start you out in the right direction toward gaining extensibility in specific muscle tissue, then by using similar but different exercises, progress in intensity until you achieve your goals. However, before I show you some of the favorite sequences used by our athletes, let's consider some basic "rules of the road".

1. Before muscle tissue considers becoming more extensible, it loves to be warmed up. By this I mean elevating the body's core temperature. A good rule of thumb in achieving this is to consider doing 15-20 minutes of low level cardiovascular exercise.

2. Research shows the most productive method of increasing blood flow and elevating core temperature is to exercise the muscles. This form of activity can be body weight exercises performed at low level of intensity until you "break a sweat".

3. A static stretch is considered the best method of obtaining long lasting extensibility. Once and exercise position is begun it should proceed until tissue resistance (just before the point of discomfort) is encountered and then the position is held for a long period of time. Although 10-30 seconds is generally accepted as an appropriate time period for holding a position, some studies have shown holding for 60-90 seconds can actually be even more effective.

4. When someone is trying to gain extreme flexibility they want to do two things physiologically; first, one wishes to avoid exciting the Myotatic Stretch Reflex. The "stretch" reflex is intended to create a muscle contraction in a direction opposite the one in which the force is being applied. It reacts to rapid or quick stretching. It is part of the "stretch-shortening cycle" which is part of the Plyometric training programs that athletes use to develop explosiveness. Two, one does wish to stimulate the Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO's) which are sensitive to sustained stretch. When a muscle is held in an elongated position for some time (usually 30-60 seconds minimum) the GTO's are stimulated and they actually inhibit a muscle from contracting or shortening and the muscle can usually be elongated until another tissue barrier is encountered. Thus, when a muscle is inhibited it is most likely to elongate to new lengths and is more likely to maintain this new flexibility for a longer period.

5. As you move into a position of stretch you should always "exhale" letting the breath out will reduce the pressure in the thoracic and abdominal cavities and allow the spine to have greater movement. Relaxing and attempting to let go of a muscle is yet another way of moving through the barrier of tissue tightness one encounters in this type of program.

6. If the exerciser finds that a particular position causes a muscle to feel even tighter or they develop pain, they should slowly come out of the position and reposition themselves before attempting the position a second time. This is one of the distinct advantages of the Flexcushion, by adjusting ones position on the angled pad appropriate body position can be achieved and progressed or regressed as needed in the athletes program.

7. Some individuals find that after releasing themselves from a position of stretch, they feel better if they "shake out the limbs". This might be a technique you want to try or maybe you will find that rubbing or self-massage is your preferred method of relaxing a muscle further.

So here are some progressions for you to try! Applying the above principles to increasing your flexibility and reaching for that Extreme Flexibility.

Hamstring Stretching 1

Start: Toe Touch- Seated on the edge of the Flexcushion with your legs extended straight out in front of you and your feet together.
Movement: Allow the Flexcushion to tilt the pelvis forward as you exhale and reach with your hands towards your toes.
Finish: Maintain this position with your back flat and chin tucked for 30 seconds before slowly releasing the position.

Hamstring Stretching 2

Start: Front split- Assume a front split position with the back thigh supported by the Flexcushion and the front leg extended straight out in front of you.
Movement: Maintaining a tall posture, exhale and reach with the chest towards your forward leg. As you do this allow the rear leg to extend as comfortable.
Finish: Maintain this position in a proper posture with a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds before slowly releasing the position.

Hamstring Stretching 3

Start: Extreme Front Split- This advanced position requires two Flexcushions. One is used to support the rear thigh as in the regular front split, the other is positioned underneath the ankle of the lead leg in order to achieve a more extreme range of motion at the hip and knee.
Movement: Maintaining a tall posture, exhale and reach with the chest towards your forward leg. As you do this allow the rear leg to extend as comfortable. Be sure to ease slowly into this stretch.
Finish: Maintain this position in a proper posture with a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds before slowly releasing the position.

Quadriceps Stretching 1

Start: Kneel on the Flexcushion in a split squat position with the foot of the front leg flat on the floor and the pelvis in a neutral position.
Movement: If the hip flexor being stretched is tight it may require some effort to tilt the pelvis into a neutral position.
Finish: Maintain this neutral hip position with a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Quadriceps/Hip Flexor Stretching 2

Start: Kneel on the Flexcushion and grab ankle/foot of the rear leg.
Movement: Elevate the chest and achieve a neutral position at the pelvis. Slowly pull the rear ankle/foot towards the buttocks.
Finish: Maintain a neutral hip position and tall posture with a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Quadriceps/Hip Flexor Stretching 3

Start: Kneel on the Flexcushion and grab the ankle/foot of the rear leg.
Movement: Elevate the chest and achieve a neutral position at the pelvis. As you slowly pull the rear ankle/foot towards the buttocks lean forward to increase the flexibility requirement of the Hip Flexors/Quadriceps.
Finish: Maintain proper posture while leaning your body weight forward into the stretch; continue a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Hip Adductor Stretching 1

Start: Butterfly Stretch- Seated on the edge of the Flexcushion with your feet together and heels pulled in towards your groin.
Movement: Maintaining a neutral spine position lean forward with the chest and slightly press the elbows against the knees to open up the hips.
Finish: Maintaining this proper posture continue to press the knees down and out with the elbows for a minimum of 30 seconds. Be sure to maintain a relaxed breathing pattern and consistent pressure (don't bounce) down and out at the knees.

Hip Adductor Stretching 2

Start: Seated on the edge of the Flexcushion with your legs out straight and spread out to the side in front of you.
Movement: Maintaining a flat back position, lean forward with the chest towards one leg at a time.
Finish: Maintaining a relaxed breathing pattern and proper posture lean towards each leg for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Hip Abductor Stretching 1

Start: Seated on the Flexcushion bring one foot across the body and rest it on the floor near the opposite thigh.
Movement: With an upright posture hug the knee into your chest.
Finish: Maintain this upright posture pulling the knee into the chest while continuing a relaxed breathing pattern for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Hip Abductor Stretching 2

Start: Seated on the edge of the Flexcushion with one leg bent at a 90° angle in front of you and the other leg in a 90° position behind you.
Movement: Allow the Flexcushion to slightly tilt your pelvis as you exhale and lean forward from the hips maintaining a flat back.  
Finish: You may lean towards the knee or foot of the forward leg as long as proper posture and control is maintained. Hold each position for a minimum of 30 seconds or as programmed.