Tuesday Tips: Hip flexor flexibility
I get asked a lot about how to increase flexibility but since I’m not an expert and I haven’t received any formal training in flexibility instruction, I’ve always been a little hesitant to write an entry about it. However, lucky for you guys, my good friend Ellen Lovelace (aka Ottersocks, or my favorite nickname ever, Doctor Sultry) is a pole dance instructor out at Poletential in Redwood City, CA, and she IS an expert! Among many other things: she is a certified aerial yoga instructor, has two Masters degrees (in Public Health and Russian Studies), and is a personal concierge! Additionally, Ellen is a resistance stretching trainer, having studied the Ki-Hara method under Anne Tierney and Steve Sierra, who train and stretch US Olympic swimming champion Dara Torres. She has put together a guest video for today’s tips, with some resistance stretching exercises designed to help you lengthen and strengthen your hip flexors. So, thanks Ellen for all your help, time, and effort.
Resistance stretching is something that I discovered as a way to strengthen AND increase flexibility at the same time. The theory behind it appeals to my way of thinking, and I also like that it’s very difficult to overstretch or pull a muscle using resistance techniques. I also find that for my body, resistance stretching found the fastest gains– I literally got my splits from resistance stretching over maybe a month, taking only one class a week. However, not every kind of stretching is equally effective for everyone. If you’re serious about gaining flexibility, do your research, listen to your body, and try out many different kinds until you find what works best for you, and feels right. So, without further ado, here is Ellen!
I discovered resistance stretching when my Rolfer showed me some of the stretches to do in my quest to restore movement to a hamstring that was locked up with scar tissue for almost 20 years. She also referred me to a resistance stretch trainer for assisted stretch sessions (there is a whole other form of this work that involves being hands-on stretched, kind of like a Thai massage but WAY more intense.) I started to see tremendous gains in my flexibility, and realized the power of this form of stretching for me. Passive stretching always hurt, and I’d find that the next day, I was just as tight as I’d been before stretching the previous day. With this method, I found that each time I stretched, I maintained some of the gains from the previous session. By engaging my muscles while stretching them, I realized that I couldn’t overstretch, and therefore never felt like I was injuring myself, while I was able to go deeper into stretches than ever before. The first time I used resistance in a center straddle stretch, and my nose touched the floor in front of me, I was hooked for sure! When the Ki-Hara people offered resistance stretch training in California, I couldn’t wait to attend and learn more.
I’ve seen a lot of the same gains in clients with whom I’ve used these techniques. Both in people who are trying to achieve gains in flexibility for pole, and in people who are just looking to be looser and more comfortable in their bodies for everyday life. Forward bends get deeper, splits get closer to the floor, hips open, and bodies feel longer and stronger.
Resistance stretching is the concept of continually contracting a muscle while you move it through its range of motion. If I contract my bicep (“make a muscle”), and you pull my fist away from me to straighten my arm while I gently resist you, I am getting a resistance stretch of my bicep. The main advantage to this method is that you cannot overstretch a muscle since you are actively engaging it during the stretch. Also, as you’ll see in the video, each stretch has a counter-move, so that in one direction you are strengthening the muscle (while you contract/shorten it), and in one direction you are stretching it (while you extend/lengthen it).
In resistance stretching, we focus on the balancing muscle groups in the body. Think again about “making a muscle” with your bicep. When your bicep is contracting, your tricep is extending. When you straighten your elbow, the tricep contracts while the bicep extends. In theory, if your tricep was really weak, you might not be able to straighten your arm, no matter how long and flexible your bicep was. Now apply this to your leg: if your quads (front of the leg) are very weak and can’t contract effectively, your central hamstring (back of the leg) won’t be able to fully lengthen. I can just work a client’s quads, have them touch their toes, and watch them get closer to the floor than before, without ever going near their hamstrings. This is why we do both a strengthening move and stretching move for every muscle we work on–we need to be both long AND strong in all the balancing muscle groups in order to achieve maximum flexibility. Today’s stretches are all about the hip flexors, but the medial, central, and lateral hamstrings are every bit as important!
The main challenge people have with this method at first is the tendency to resist themselves too hard. You should be providing gentle resistance, such that you can smoothly move through the range of motion, and are not shaking with effort. About 60% of your max resistance is all you need. Keep the target muscle engaged/resisting through the entire range of both the strengthening and stretching motions—you should never be relaxing the muscle. These stretches should feel like work! And remember, unlike traditional static stretching, there is no need to “hold” the stretch at the end range. Rather, you should be continually moving, contracting and extending, strengthening and stretching. To see these concepts illustrated, check out the video below or take a peek at it directly on YouTube here.
One last hint for you: your hip flexors are directly balanced by your hamstrings. If your hamstrings are very weak and cannot adequately contract, your hip flexors will never be able to fully lengthen. Picture your back leg when you’re in a split: that hip flexor is stretched and that hamstring is contracted! (And vice versa! Strong hip flexors are able to contract and pull your hamstrings long!) So don’t just stretch your target muscle—also strengthen its balancing muscle!
It is normal to be sore after resistance stretching. Not in an “oof I overstretched” kind of way, but sore as if you’d been lifting weights. Your resistance is working like weights do, and you are tearing down muscle fibers just as if you’d been lifting. Finally, be patient. It’s taken a lifetime to tie your fascia into the knot you are today. It will take a while to undo it!
You can find Ellen on her Facebook page! She does long distance stretching over Skype as well. If you want more information on resistance stretching, you can read Bob Cooley’s book, The Genius of Stretching or check out his website.. There are also DVDs by Dara Torres and you can buy a resistance stretching app in the Apple store for an iDevice.
Tomorrow’s post: Perspective…