Have you ever thought, “I’m tight, I’m just not flexible, maybe I should try yoga.” Seems logical, right? Yoga is great for flexibility–they do movements with huge ranges-of-motion. It has to get you more flexible, right? Well…sort of. Although yoga is hailed for its ability to improve flexibility, it is not necessarily the most effective way to improve your range-of-motion issues.
Before we explore yoga and the concept of flexibility in general, it’s important to understand that I am not saying yoga is bad or ineffective. Yoga confers a strong psychological benefit and does offer exercisers another exercise modality. On both of those levels, I strongly encourage those of you performing yoga to keep doing it! I’m here to talk about what we know physiologically about the human body and how it works. Let’s consider these points and after I’m done, I’ll let you be the judge of what you consider the most effective way to improve your flexibility:
1.) To be flexible you have to do some exercise plus some stretching.
I know this might sound pretty intuitive, but two groups of people complain to me more than any other about not being flexible. Group number one are people who don’t exercise. These people come through my door and say “I’m tight, I just don’t move so well, I need to get more flexible.” Non-exercisers often confuse lack of overall fitness with lack of flexibility. True lack of flexibility means you can’t move so well, but so does lack of fitness. Get fit first, and flexibility will follow. The second group of people are the people who exercise but don’t stretch. Again, I know this sounds fairly intuitive but this concept eludes a lot of people. If you’re exercising and not doing any type of stretching, it stands to reason you won’t be flexible. Just as your cardio would be poor if all you did was strength train.
2.) Extreme ranges-of-motion don’t improve functional flexibility well.
Simply put, flexibility is relative to your lifestyle and its functional requirements. The type of flexibility required to be a high school gymnast is different from the kind of flexibility necessary to alleviate lower back or knee pain. You don’t need to go into extreme ranges of motion to improve flexibility, and this is one of the physiological issues with using yoga as a tool to improve functional flexibility. The positions you achieve in yoga are mechanically VERY different than what you achieve in your day-to-day activities and exercise. Therefore, transference to functional range-of-motion is not improved as well as it would be with good targeted static stretching.
3.) Flexibility is a dynamic capacity, not static.
When we’re trying to be flexible during our day, it is generally a part of some type of dynamic movement (such as bending over to pick something up). Functional flexibility requires movement, but yoga is largely static. I’ll grant you that there is transition from pose to pose, but it’s far too low velocity to truly alter functional flexibility.
Again, this article is not an indictment of yoga and its ineffectiveness; in fact to the contrary, I think yoga is a beneficial exercise modality. However, it’s not the most effective way to develop functional flexibility. You can accomplish that by:
- Performing full range-of-motion strength training, as this takes you through functional ranges-of-motion, while producing force/bearing load (like in daily life).
- Strengthening weak muscles. A basic neuromuscular rule of the body (called reciprocal inhibition) states that when muscles on one side of a joint are weak, muscles on the other side are tight (such as weak glutes and tight hip flexors, for example). You can stretch the tight side all you want, but if you really want to target the flexibility deficit, you must strength the weak side to allow the tight side of the joint to relax.
- Perform dynamic stretching pre-exercise and static stretching post-exercise. Take the time to stretch the areas on your body that are tight, both pre- and post-exercise. Use dynamic stretching before your workout to get your muscles warmed up, and then do gentle static stretching afterward to elongate shortened or inflexible areas of the body.