This series of blogets will examine commonly held flexibility beliefs that miss the mark. Some may have a grain of truth, applying some of the time for some people, but rigidly holding onto these ideas often holds you back.
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Myth 1: Tight muscles are weak muscles
Strengthening is an integral part of any flexibility training program, but feeling tight doesn’t usually indicate weakness. Conversely, strengthening isn’t always the answer if you feel tight. For example, it’s common to feel tight when you are cold, first thing in the morning, or at the start of your training. After warming-up you may feel less tight, but this doesn’t mean you are suddenly stronger or have longer muscles.
You may also feel tight when: it's more effortful to get to the same depth than usual; you compare the relative openness of one area with another, e.g. ‘my shoulders feel tight compared to my lower back; or when training with others who are more flexible. ‘Tightness’ is both subjective and relative. Feeling tight is a personal experience based on physiological, psychological and environmental cues that infers a change or difference in perceived tension, with or without a change in range of movement.
Myth 2: Stretching shouldn’t be painful
It’s normal to experience pain when stretching. In fact, a large part of increasing flexibility is gradually increasing your tolerance to the discomfort of this type of loading.
Stretching is painful because bodies are sensitive to interpreting unfamiliar inputs as threatening. Anytime you stretch further than usual, new sensory inputs (mechanical, thermal, and chemical) are perceived as potentially dangerous by your central nervous system (CNS), which is wired to be protective. While pain is a personal, multifaceted experience, in this context, pain is at least in part a message ‘this range is new, are you sure about this?’.
Myth 3: There is no point in passive stretching
Passive stretching is not easier or less valuable than other types of stretching. Just like other types of stretching, evidence shows that passive stretching increases flexibility. The vast majority of athletes, dancers and performers that require a greater than average range of motion include passive stretching in their training.
Whether passive stretching should form a significant part of your flexibility training depends on your goals.Your flexibility goals should drive your training. If your goal is a passive position (e.g. splits on the floor), your training needs to include passive stretching.
To optimise your flexibility training, you should focus on what you find most challenging. If you find it hard to spend time in stretches or tolerate the discomfort of stretching, passive stretches are going to be particularly beneficial to you.