Flexibility

Dear Steph,
Enormus respect for everything you represent – I believe that sublime’s all that comes on my mind to say. you are truly an inspiration, nature’s child of free spirit, ability of mental control, urge to push the limits, balance and simplicity, and all that together in my opinion is the highest one can get as a human being.

I would use your advice, my problem is flexibility. My body constitution is rather muscular (not to get the wrong idea, I’m no bodybuilder-type :)) I started climbing 7 years ago and I’ve been skiing all my life before that. Since I can remember in climbing power and endurance have never been a problem, technique came very naturally to me, but being flexible was always my weakness. I feel like if I could bring my foot where my hand held my performance would improve dramatically. I’ve tried yoga, I’ve tried stretching every day…besides not feeling comfortable in the positions, the next day I’d fell even more rigid and my whole body feels like beat up. I’ve been careful not to push too much and trying to make very very slow progression but I’m not sure if I’m on the right path or what to expect. I was wondering if you could help with a program, solution method, what could I be possibly doing wrong or what should I focus on. Any advice will be gratefully received and followed strictly.

thanks
emilio

Hi Emilio,
I was always less flexible than most too, with climbing. Unlike many female climbers, I did not come into the sport as a former gymnast or dancer. I’ve been an avid trail runner for years, and I like to lift weights and carry around heavy packs–these are things that do not help with flexibility at all. For years I hated stretching because it felt bad and was boring. I would always rather “DO SOMETHING”…. People who are extremely athletic and muscular have much tighter muscles, and this can become a barrier to stretching.

As a result of that, I had unbelievably tight (and strong) hamstrings, and my lower back would hurt. I also noticed limitations in climbing because of my lack of flexibility. So I started to stretch and do yoga about 10 years ago. This made a huge difference in my climbing and my overall wellbeing. The problem I had with yoga was that I am usually pretty worn out from all my activity, and yoga can be extremely tiring as well. So sometimes it’s hard for me to have the energy for yoga, which means that I neglect stretching. However, if you stretch after working a muscle, you actually get 30% more strength gain from that muscle–this means that you have actually wasted 30% of your strength workout if you don’t stretch, which adds a lot of motivation. So in every possible way, stretching should be a top priority for both flexibility and strength.

When I went to Japan last summer and stayed with a yogi friend at the Yogajaya studio in Tokyo, he recommended that I step back from doing regular yoga poses completely, because his observation was that I was more drawn to meditation. His advice for me was to start a morning routine with a focus on extremely fundamental hamstring, sacrum and back stretches followed by meditation.

These few exercises are extremely simple, but over the course of even just the first few days, you notice real improvement in the large, tight muscle groups that I’m sure you have the same as me–hamstrings, hips and back. It only takes 10-20 minutes, unless you would like to stretch for longer, and then the meditation is whatever you want (if you want to meditate).

Start by sitting on the floor with legs straight in front of you, and simply reach forward towards your toes. Notice the stretch in the back of your legs, but also in your sacral area near the spine. The longer you can do this stretch, the better.

You can continue this by standing up and doing a normal forward bend. The next step is to cross one leg in front of the other and push the tip of your toe on the ground for balance. Now do a forward bend again, and you will feel the stretch targeting your hamstring. Do that with each leg, again, for as long as you have the patience.

Sit back down on the floor and cross your legs in front of you, trying to make a wide circle with your legs by having your feet and knees touching out ahead of you, rather than tucked under your thighs. Now reach your arms out and gently bend forward. This is an amazing stretch for the muscles in your hamstrings, and targets different muscles than the forward bend. Do that on each side.

The last thing he taught me is to take a yoga block and lie down on the floor (I had to buy one, and it was very worth it). Put the yoga block under your upper back on its flattest side, with the top just under your shoulder blades, raise your arms above your head and grasp your elbows with your hands and lie down with the block under your back. Your head and shoulders will be arched back toward the ground, and you should try to keep your lower back on the ground too. This is a stretch to open your chest and back muscles. As it becomes more comfortable, you can turn the block on different sides to make it higher. At first this hurt me and I actually found it kind of scary, and now I feel tight and bad if I don’t do it every day. It feels very good now to lie on the block.

After doing all these stretches, you can sit in meditation. Even if you don’t want to meditate, simply doing these extremely basic stretches will start to loosen your muscles. The key for athletes who have built muscle for years without stretching is to start with the simplest, most fundamental stretches, so I think this will be a great help for you. It will also keep you from having back pain, which is really important over time for people with overdeveloped leg muscles.
🙂 Steph


  • Chipper Williams

    Maybe all round total flexibility isn’t for you. I knew an old Veitnam Vet. You could grab him from behind, around his neck and he could shift his weight on to one leg and kick straight up with the other hitting you square in the head. Hard! Well, hard enough ya’d let go anyways.
    Thing is, he couldn’t do the splits to save his life.., sure could kick ya in the head if ya got behind him though. RIP John D.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t do the splits either….

  • Stefanie

    Consistency seems to be the key. I had the same problem and when I first started yoga, it felt like I was hurting myself more than helping. But I kept it up and my lower back and hamstrings are looser and stronger than ever. I recently tweaked my lower back and feared that it would take weeks to recover. It took one day and one yoga class to release whatever it was. So my advice is to just stay with and you will see good changes before you know it.

  • Anonymous

    In martial arts there’s a great deal of emphasis on developing flexibility which is advantageous in a number of respects, it helps the body to absorb energy and thereby avoid injury in all manner strenuous physical activity as well as combat. There is an element of genetics when it comes to joint flexibility, but tendons and muscles are much more easily stretched when we are young so there is a great deal of emphasis on developing and maintaining flexibility at an early age in order to maintain it throughout a lifetime. It’s much more difficult for someone in their 30s or 40s to elongate established muscle groups then it is for someone who is still developing in their teen or preteen years. Simply put there is no substitute for starting early.

    I think one of the reasons that so many top-level athletes get serious injuries or have their careers cut short by the permanent injury is because they did not develop adequate flexibility in their youth. Sadly most athletic programs in the US fail entirely to emphasize this most vital of athletic components. If we started teaching kids in elementary school to develop proper stretching techniques I think we would see a great reduction in injuries across the board for athletes not to mention everyone else who engages in strenuous physical activity.

    I started tae kwon do when I was 14 and by 15 I could do nearly a full split and easily get my face down to my knees bending over from a standing position. And even after a lifetime of serious heavy weight training I still retained much of that flexibility. I have no doubt that if I had started earlier I would’ve developed even greater flexibility.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’re right, we should get and keep kids stretching early. But flexibility can be improved at any age, though the results might not be as dramatic, and every little bit helps…. 🙂

  • Vanessa….

    Thanks! I just realized I do those stretches every time I came back from running, but I still feel like Im missing something. I was thinking maybe yoga, or doing those stretches always? The thing is that people tell me that stretching “cold” muscles is kinda bad, so Im always in doubt about what to do

  • Anonymous

    maybe it’s time for more flexibility, and you could take a yoga class?

  • I’m so incredibly inflexible, you wouldn’t even believe it. It seems that my hamstrings have just continued to tighten up so much that I can barely stretch them without pain- although it doesn’t hurt at all running/exercising/climbing.

    I’m going to give these a go and see if it helps. It’s gotten so bad, I was going to go see a physical therapist to get some ideas.

  • Anonymous

    I really think this will help.
    Another stretch that is amazing for runners with tight hamstrings is the yoga cow pose. Don’t worry if you can’t sit in it “right,” just start slowly putting your legs in position as much as they will. You could add this to the other stretches. I hope it helps!

  • Kat

    Check out the book Relax into Stretch by pavel Tsatouline.lots of great info and techniques

  • Anonymous

    thanks!

  • Jill

    The foam roller is about the only thing that loosens me up. After this many years of weights/strength training, just plain stretching won’t do it! I’m looking forward to trying Steph’s tips and seeing if they help.

  • gossway

    Steph hi – this is a great routine and good advice. I am an old fart climber and do a 20 minute routine every morning in the shower (‘shoga’) that targets the same tight spots. It’s become a kind of meditation for me. Wastes water, but preserves the soul.

  • Sam

    Hi Steph,

    Being both a yoga teacher and climber I can bear witness to the positive impact that a yoga practise has upon my climbing… Not just in terms of flexibility, but also in improved balance, core strength, awareness and ability to calm ones nerves through focusing on breathing.

    I’m currently in the process of developing a yoga workshop that gives climbers the opportunity to experiment with some of the aspects of yoga that should improve their climbing… I’m therefore very interested in your comment that “if you stretch after working a muscle, you actually get 30% more strength gain from that muscle”… I would be very grateful if you could point me in the direction of the research that supports this.

    All the best –   Sam

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sam,
    This is not the original article I read, but has similar information: http://www.fitcommerce.com/Blueprint/Page.aspx?pageId=117

  • Stephanie Marie

    Hello Steph,

    As a fellow climber and runner that values the link between organic strength and Yoga; I am interested to know what disciplines you’ve explored thus far? Have you incorporated a multitude philosophies or styles into your routine?

    Personally, I struggle with gruesome forearm flash pumps during climbing. (Regardless of patient observation of static & dynamic warm ups) Obsessively searching for relief through Yoga, I’ve become fond of Yin/Yang sequences to flush the limbs of lymph & blood. Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers has been the textual reference for this approach.

    Are there any Yoga related techniques that you use while on-sighting, projecting or battling a crux?

    Namaste
    Stephanie

  • Hi Stephanie, I am not a very “precision” yogi as far as knowing what disciplines everything is: I basically do hatha yoga asanas in the morning. I have noticed that the practice each morning of relaxing into a pose comes to mind quickly when I am in a rest stance on a route. So I feel able to relax my muscles more easily in odd positions on a climb, which definitely helps.

  • Alan Marmo Nehemy

    Steph,

    That’s a great article! I would like to add an advice that I received from my Ashtanga teacher, that I think applies to all of us that are used to train hard and to push ourselves to our limits. He says that, in yoga, one should focus on the present moment and focus on how each pose feels. One should only concern about feeling good on a given pose – not lazy (not stretching enough) nor greedy (pushing too hard). He says one shouldn’t compare oneself to other people (how one looks while at a pose, how much one can stretch, and so on), and one shouldn’t compare oneself on a pose to where he/she was before, on that same pose, during other practices. You aren’t before, you are now, and there are a multitude of factors that may influence how stretchy you are and how a pose feels on a given day. Practice frequently, be gentle and patient. If you make it a priority and a routine, the results will come. I personally prefer to set a less frequent goal (1-2 x week) and do more if I can instead of setting a more challenging goal and risking being upset with myself and potentially dropping it all off for not achieving it (I just know that’s how I usually work). Even at 1x a week (plus normal stretching after working out), I’ve become the most flexible male at my crossfit, after one year of 1x/week yoga and I highly recommend it.

    Sincerely,
    Alan.

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