Flexibility: More than meets the eye

Flexibility. There’s more to it than meets the eye. 

Especially when flexibility doesn’t seem to come easily for you. Sure, some folks seem to have this natural flexibility that allows them to be able to perform a squared-hip, 180 degree front split or a full straddle split or even that nice rainbow-shaped backbend–but they are actually a rare minority in the world.

I know it doesn’t feel that way when you’re in your circus class or even a yoga class, but that’s because like dance, more flexible people tend to gravitate towards those activities. That doesn’t mean everyone is flexible, but I understand that it can feel that way.

If we go back to those naturally bendy folks, there are probably a couple things going on:

  • They could be moving into large ranges of motion in their hips, shoulders or back with control and on a regular basis for the body to feel safe being in those ranges of motion…where safe generally means strong.
  • They have more than just flexibilty, they have mobility at those joints. There is a difference and I’ll highlight that below.
  • They could be a hyper-mobile individual, which comes with its own set of needs for joint health, which I will also discus below.

The Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they do mean different things. They both have to do with ranges of motion around a joint, but that is where they end in similarities.

Flexibility is a matter of how much certain muscles are able to passively lengthen in order for a joint to move through a larger range of motion.

Mobility is the ability to actively move that joint through its ROM, which involves much, much more than just muscle-lengthening.

Let’s Chat About Stretching

Let me start with: not everyone needs more stretching. The ‘sit down, scroll through IG and have a friend sit on you at the same time‘ stretching. Actually please don’t have someone sit on you or push you in a static stretch, it’s not really going to help and potentially may injury you.

Moving on.

Working on your flexibility–your passive ranges of motion–through static stretching isn’t all inherently bad or even a waste of time–but only if it’s paired with an active muscle activation. Because just static stretching isn’t going to help you to actively do the cool flexible thing you want to do.

Take the photo at the top of this post. This person definitely can sit on the floor and do a 180º split, but also they also have the strength to activate those muscles to do it standing. This is mobility, the active part of moving the joint through its full ROM, sometimes called active flexibility.

Your active ROM is where you use your muscles to ‘pull’ yourself into flexible shapes. For example, if a person can do a 180º squared-hip split on the floor, but when they get into a hand-stand, they are nowhere near the 180º, this is because there is a deficit between their passive and active ranges of motion. A small deficit is normal (about 20º), but more than that increases our risk to injury.

Photo demo of the difference

It might not look like too much of a difference, but there is.
The photo on the left is gravity pulling my legs into a split and the photo on the right is me pulling my legs into a split while inverted.

Let me dive deeper into that thought for you.

Say from standing someone can take your leg and pick it up in front of you and passively stretch it up your shoulder. That is a large passive ROM. Now let’s say that person isn’t going to lift your leg and they ask you to show them how high you can lift your leg up in front of you and you can only lift it to hip height. The close to 90º difference between your active and passive ranges of motion is where injury is most likely to occur. This is why working on muscle strength in joint positions close to the end of your active ranges–where you don’t have control–is really important as a way to mitigate injury and to increase your active range of motion to meet your passive range of motion.

Active muscle control over the full ROM not only helps to avoid injury, it makes you stronger, gives you more control over your joints and your movements. And if you happen to be a hypermobile individual, this becomes even more necessary for long-term joint health.

See this post or this post about strength and control of flexibility when you’re a hypermobile individual.


For the rest of this post I want to offer some options to improve not just flexibility, but mobility with some exercises you may not have tried before. The exercises below focus around hips, shoulders and upper back because I am always asked ‘how can I increase my…..front split, straddle, pancake, backbend?

What you find for all the exercises below is a similar theme, that of working rotation in a joint. One of the best ways to work on increasing mobility in a joint is working on rotation of that joint.

Exercises

Let’s begin with the hips to help improve mobility for splits, straddle and straddle pancakes.

90/90 Hip Stretch

If you are not particularly bendy, we will first spend some time in a bit of a passive stretch of internal and external rotation of our hip joints. This will prepare us for the next exercises.

If you are more on the bendy side of things, I suggest skipping this first part and scrolling to the next exercise.

  • Sit with front shin parallel to back thigh and front thigh parallel to back shin.
  • Pelvis is parallel to front shin
  • Knees, hips and ankles are making a 90-degree angle. If this feels a little ouchy, then you can change the angles of the knees, hips and ankles to a little less than 90.
  • Actively press front knee into the floor
  • Sit up tall and anteriorly tilt the pelvis forward to create a stretch in the front leg glute.
  • If you feel a pinch or crunching in your spine because of too much side-bending in spine while trying to sit tall, lean out on same hand as front leg.
  • Hold position for 8 deep breaths
  • Then rotate pelvis to face back knee. Keep pressing front knee into the floor.
  • Place your hands behind you for support
  • Press back knee into the floor, feeling a stretch across the top of the rear leg.
  • If you feel a pinch in the top of your back hip lean back a bit.
  • Hold position for 8 deep breaths
  • Then switch which legs are front/back

After you have stretched into the 90/90 position, you can follow it up with some activation of your internal and external rotators.

If you’re a bendy person, this is where I suggest starting (though I would read about the 90/90 set-up above).

90/90 Internal Rotation and External Rotation of the back hip

  • Set up for the Internal Rotation Lift Offs
  • From you 90/90 position, facing your front leg, inhale deeply and exhale to create core tension (read: isometric contraction) and then radiate that tension out from your core to all your muscles. Hold this whole-body isometric contraction throughout the exercise.
  • Your hands will be placed on the floor in front of you.
  • On an exhale, FLOAT your back heel off the floor. This is done through contraction of muscles in your outer hips and other internal rotators.
  • Hold for a moment in the lifted position and then inhale return the foot to the floor with control. The important part being with control-don’t just let it fall, this would be a sign that you lost the whole-body tension.
  • Repeat for 10 reps.
  • Things to be aware of:
    • The more you lean forward away from the back hip, the easier this will be (and in the beginning, you may have start here).
    • The more you sit up tall, the more challenging this lift is.
    • Hands can be pushing into the floor to help create more whole-body tension or they can be pressing into one another. Pressing hands into one another is more challenging.
    • Lastly, make sure that you don’t tip the pelvis forward in an effort to lift the heel off the floor. Just move the leg in the hip socket.
  • Set up for the External Rotation Lift Offs
  • Same as above, but now you will exhale and FLOAT the back knee off the floor. This is done through contraction of the external rotator muscles in your outer hip.
  • Hold for a moment, then lower with control.
  • Repeat for 10 reps.
  • Things to be aware of:
    • The more you lean forward away from the back hip the easier this will be. Again, that may be necessary in the beginning.
    • The more you sit up tall the more challenging this lift is.
    • Hands can be pushing into the floor to help create more whole-body tension or they can be pressing into one another. Pressing hands into one another is more challenging.
    • Lastly, make sure that you don’t tip the pelvis side ways or tuck under in an effort to lift the knee off the floor. Just move the leg in the hip socket.

Now let’s work on the upper body for improved shoulder mobility with shoulder and upper back (T-Spine) mobility exercises.

Improving your thoracic spine rotational mobility improves your scapula’s ability to move on the rib cage. Increasing T-Spine rotation also increases its ability to create some more extension-improving your back bend, but also helps with scapula movement in raising your arms overhead.

Child’s Pose T-Spine Rotation 

  • Sit back on your heels in child’s pose. 
  • Place hands either behind head or around the front of you to grab your ribs. The video below shows both. Do one or the other or both versions.
  • On a long exhale out your mouth like you’re blowing out your birthday candles, rotate sternum towards ceiling.
  • Maintain a slight curl though your low back as you twist. You want to make sure that the curl is maintained so that the rotation is happening at your upper back and not your low back. Your T-Spine is designed for twisting; your low back is not.
  • Inhale return torso and head to facing the floor.
  • Do 5 reps on each side.

Sleeper Stretch with PAILs & RAILs

If you are a bendy type person, skip the stretch and gently move into the PAILs and RAILs contractions.

  • Lie on your side with something to support your head
  • Hip over hip and shoulder over shoulder
  • Make sure top hip isn’t sunken down so that spine is arched sideways–lift up through waist line to bring spine into neutral posture. 
  • Bring bottom arm out in front at a 90 degree position. Rotate arm down into sleeper stretch
  • Hold a passive stretch for 2 mins with the other hand on you wrist, you will feel this in the back of your shoulder. Just a light stretch.
  • BE GENTLE WITH THIS STRETCH
  • Contract core and radiate that tension out-about 50-60% max tension in the body
  • (Everybody now:) PAILs contraction for 15 seconds, slowly ramping up to your safest maximum effort (which could be 100%). This would be pressing your hand up into the opposite hand 
  • RAILS contraction for 15 seconds trying to pull your hand away from the opposite hand. Slowly ramping up to your safest maximum effort (which could be 100%). 
  • After the RAILS contraction, relax into the newly acquired range of motion for a few breaths before repeating one more PAILs & RAILs contraction cycle.
  • Repeat on other side

Prone External Rotation lifts offs

Quick note, if this next exercise feels pretty challenging, then try this exerciseinstead. Work on that for a little while and then come back and try this next exercise.

  • Lie face down, exhale and bring the ribs into rib cage depression. This should make the lower ribs and stomach feel like they are not pressing into the floor.
  • With a tennis ball in your hand, place wrist on an elevated surface. The surface height will be based on your ability to passively move your shoulder joint into external rotation while maintaining core tension (see first bullet point).
  • On an exhale, contract core and radiate that tension out from your core to all your muscles. Hold this whole-body isometric contraction throughout the exercise.
  • On your next exhale, move the hand that is squeezing the tennis ball so that it FLOATS off your elevated surface.
  • Make sure not to lose the ribcage depression and not to hike the shoulder blade up near the ears.
  • Inhale, lower wrist to surface with control.
  • Perform 10 reps on each side.

Swap these exercises in for some of the other drills you are doing in your flexibility/mobility training during the week. Try these exercises once or twice a week. I wouldn’t do more than twice a week. These are strengthening exercises and may make you feel sore, so having some rest between exposures is good practice.

Please reach out if you have any questions.

And as always, happy training, Theresa

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