The Importance of Flexibility

One of the most overlooked aspects of physical health and fitness is flexibility.  Poor flexibility can lead to a host of problems, including injury, overcompensation, poor performance, or hitting plateaus.  However, people with above average flexibility can typically continue to progress in training without having many injuries.  In this article I want to discuss four reasons why flexibility is important, and also a few suggestions to know if your flexibility is lacking and what to do about it.  But first, let us define flexibility.  Flexibility is the range of motion that your joints are able to move through.  If you can move a particular joint through all different ranges of motion easily, then you have ideal flexibility in that joint.  

Now that we know what ideal flexibility is, let’s discuss what happens when we do not have full range of motion in a joint or joints.

1. Injury

The biggest problem that occurs from poor flexibility is injury.  When I first started CrossFit, I ran into this vicious cycle.  I would work very constantly and hard for a few months and make good progress, when all of the sudden I would develop knee pain or shoulder pain.  Since it was early in my CrossFit journey I did not really know how to perform maintenance on my body or what to do to prevent these injuries, and I would lose a month or two waiting for the pain to go away.  Then, once it was gone, it would take me a few months to get back to where I was.  It is a very frustrating cycle, and anyone who has been through this knows how demoralizing it can be.  These injuries I am referring to I would classify as tweaks and strains and are nothing serious enough to require surgery (I have had one surgery in my life and it was a torn labrum in my shoulder from baseball).  Now let us talk about why was I experiencing these tweaks and strains so frequently, and why their frequency pretty much subsided now.
The modern lifestyle has been developed to put an emphasis on convenience over health, and our bodies are starting to pay the consequences.  The majority of our day is sent sitting, either at work or in the car or on the couch, and we spend hours a day looking down at our phones.  The result of all of this sitting and poor posture is loss of range of motion in our hips, ankles, and shoulders.  When we lose this range of motion, we are not able to get in positions that our body was designed to get into, such as sitting in a full squat or reaching our hands over our heads with our arms straight.  Therefore, when we do try to get into these positions, whether with weight or not, our body compensates to get into the positions, and many of the muscles that should be doing the work of these movements are not used.  Lats, Glutes, core, and lower traps end up getting shut off and smaller, secondary muscles end up doing the work of these larger muscles.  These muscles end up getting overworked which can quickly lead to injures such as tweaks and strains.
Another problem that I had was my background of baseball and lifting weights.  I have been lifting weights consistently since 7th grade, and most of this lifting consisted of bench press.  It was not until CrossFit that I started lifting overhead, and by then I had developed a serious set of tight shoulders with an anterior tilt.  I also played baseball from 5 years old until I was 24, two years after college.  Baseball is a very anterior dominated sport, and many former baseball players struggle with overhead movements in CrossFit.  These two combinations, as well as a lack of proper stretching, left my body poorly prepared for reaching full range of motion in most CrossFit movements.  However, mostly out of necessity, I have done a ton of research on how to fix these problems and have made tremendous progress in these areas.  My body is much better prepared for the movements required in CrossFit (although I still have a long way to go), and therefore I am able to perform the movements without constantly developing tweaks and strains.  I have also learned a lot of self maintenance techniques along with seeing a chiropractor, physical therapist, and massage therapist regularly.  All of these combined have led me to be able to train CrossFit six days a week without any serious injuries in the last few years.

2. Overcompensation

The second problem that occurs with a lack of flexibility was discussed a little previously, and that is overcompensation.  When we cannot access the big muscles who are supposed to do the work, then they get shut off and smaller muscles overcompensate and do the work of the big muscles.  These muscles are designed to have more of a supporting roll, but when they are forced to be the main movers than problems occur.  They get tired and overworked much more easily, and our bodies have to work harder to do the work as a result.  This can lead to the last two problems of poor performance and plateaus, as well as injuries which have already been discussed.

3. Poor performance

For people who are trying to compete in the sport of CrossFit, or in any other physical activity, perhaps poor performance is the biggest downfall of poor flexibility.  When a person has poor flexibility and cannot access the correct muscles to perform a task, they are missing out on a higher level of performance.  Let’s take the glutes for example.  If a person sits most of the day, then the chances are they are missing out on some of their glute function due to poor flexibility.  If this person wants to compete in any sport where using the lower body is important (which is most sports), then they are effectively missing out on much of the power of the biggest and strongest muscle group of the body.  Let’s say our competitor is competing in powerlifting and wants to squat as much as possible.  If their glutes are not fully engaged due lack of flexibility, then smaller and weaker muscles will be forced to do the work that the glutes should be doing.  This will lead to a lower back squat number(perhaps much lower) than could be achieved if the glutes were fully engaged. The body is very good at compensating to get a task done, but when it does we miss out on a lot of performance that could be achieved by using the muscles that we should be using.

4. Plateaus

The final problem with poor flexibility is reaching a plateau in training.  This goes hand in hand with poor performance, and is very common in people who have been training for multiple years, especially those who did not start training until later in life.  If a person does not have the proper flexibility to perform certain tasks then, as discussed before, the smaller muscles will do the work that the big muscles should be doing.  Eventually these smaller muscles will reach their full potential, which leads to a plateau.  No matter how hard you try or how much work you do, you will not get any better until you learn how to recruit the bigger muscles to do the work that the smaller muscles are doing.  This can be a very frustrating process and can lead some people to quit training altogether.  If you have reached a plateau then it might be a good idea to see if you have full range of motion in all of your joints.

Now that we have discussed the main problems with poor flexibility, let’s discuss a few very basic tests you can do on yourself to see if you might be lacking.  First, let’s check out the lower body.  Squat down into a full squat (hips below knees).  If you can not sit in the bottom of a full squat comfortably with your chest vertical then you are missing range of motion somewhere in your lower body.  Now, let’s check the upper body.  Sit against a wall with your butt completely against the wall and your legs straight out in front.  Now externally rotate your arms until your elbows and hands are flat against the wall without flaring your arms away from your body.  Now, in the same position, raise your hands straight over your head until both arms are straight and touching the wall next to your head.  If you cannot get into both of these positions without shifting your body or arching your back then you are missing range of motion somewhere in your upper body.  These are very basic tests and a professional can go into much more detail with you, but they will give you an idea of what your flexibility looks like.  If you, like me, cannot pass these tests easily then you should consider adding some extra mobility and flexibility work in.  It will pay off in the long run.

Coach Hunter