When I was in my yoga teacher training, we had an assignment to watch various yoga classes and report what we witnessed. I remember observing one Vinyasa class taught by a pert, friendly and enthusiastic instructor. She flowed easily from one pose to another, and a lot of her students knew the drill and kept up.
But there was one guy in the back of the room who not only didn’t know where to go next but could barely bend over. He tried to keep up with the fluidly moving women surrounding him, but couldn’t.
I have often thought of him — and wished that someone had taken the time to show him how to use the proper range of motion for himself. Men are different than women, and they need to use a different approach to moving and stretching than a lot of them take — wildly struggling and trying to force their bodies into positions that are beyond their comfortable range.
If only this man understood what actually constitutes desirable flexibility, and how to achieve that without causing pain and damage.
Men: Less Flexible Than Women
It’s commonly accepted that most men aren’t as flexible as most women. Reasons for this can include hormones that prepare women for childbirth; arthritis or painful soft tissue injuries; the shape of joints and bones; gym routines that focus more on bulking up rather than lengthening muscles or habitually sitting at a desk all day and never exercising. That said, “as we age, we all lose flexibility,” adds Dr. Alan M. Reznik, a Connecticut-based orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, advanced arthroscopic surgery and member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) communications cabinet.
The Wrong Way to Stretch
Men may have the best intentions in the world, but some approach stretching the wrong way. Deborah Bowes, a San Francisco-based Feldenkrais trainer (Feldenkrais is a type of exercise therapy), talks about a former patient whose ideas about flexibility were formed in the military. “They would stretch the lower back and hamstrings by holding a 25-pound weight in each hand, bend over [forward] at the waist and someone would push down on their backs really hard and quick,” Bowes recounted. Needless to say, this strategy can be a recipe for disaster, such as a torn hamstring, ligament or muscle or injury to a joint capsule, vertebral disc or hip joint.
“A number of studies show that stretching causes micro-tears in the muscles,” Bowes explained. “Muscles don’t stretch, they lengthen.” Bowes pointed out that if you stretch chicken meat, it rips.
So how can men improve their flexibility without pain and strain? And what kind of range should they be going for?
Surprise: There Is No ‘Normal’ Flexibility
While there might be norms for joint range of motion, there is no normal range of flexibility, according to Dr. Allen Chen, director of physiatry, assistant clinical professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “People are built very differently,” said Chen. “I believe there’s a significant genetic component to it.”
There are, however, normal ranges of motion of joints. “It is easy to confuse normal joint motion and flexibility,” explained Reznik. Range of motion implies the function of a joint; flexibility refers to the movement of the tendons, ligaments and muscles around the joint.
“Although there is limited research, the medical community still considers flexibility important for overall good physical health,” noted Chen.
So how do you determine whether you are flexible enough? “The key is: Can people do what they want to do without discomfort?” Chen said. There are significant consequences to the lack of flexibility, he warned. For one thing, it may severely impair activities of daily living.
Bowes noted that everyone should have sufficient flexibility to cut their toenails, look at the bottom of their foot and reach behind their head, not to mention being able to climb and descend a stairway and get up from a chair or the floor. “If you can’t get up and down from the floor, and you fall, you won’t be able to get up,” she noted.
The Right Way to Stretch
Bowes maintains that very gentle stretching works — if you stop at the first sense of pull. “Just go to when you first have a sensation, and stay there,” she said. Don’t do anything that sets off shaking or internal alarms.
“Your body knows you’re hurting it, and you are going to tighten up. That is a protective mechanism to prevent you from going too far in a stretch,” she explained. Do not do ballistic-type (bouncing) stretching. “If you push or bounce, you get micro-tears, then you get micro scars, which then thicken and the tissue becomes less flexible.”
How the Feldenkrais Method Improves Flexibility
Another way to increase your flexibility without pain or strain is through the Feldenkrais Method, an innovative movement education system that is growing in popularity among older adults. By making some simple, easy movements in a small range of motion, you could, for example, increase your ability to bend forward by several inches effortlessly. (I give instruction on this here.) The men in my classes are often astonished at how well they can do without painful stretching.
“Feldenkrais increases flexibility because you slow down enough to pay attention to the way you move,” explained Bowes. This way, you reduce the body’s need to defend itself against a stretch and tighten up.
Typical Feldenkrais movements combine many joints to achieve a given range of motion. “When you focus on only one joint, that’s just one part of the movement,” Bowes said. Joints are part of a kinetic chain, linking one to another. If you’re not using the entire movement chain and put too much movement into only one link (such as only certain vertebrae of the spine), that’s when you can get damage.
“Stiff movement habits are long-standing,” Bowes said. “You have to know what you’re already doing in order to do something different.” Feldenkrais lessons facilitate this process by increasing your awareness about your own movement habits — and learning more efficient ways to move.
Bowes cited the example of a former patient we’ll Hal, a retiree in his late 50s who had undergone multiple back surgeries. He was so stiff he could barely put his shoes on. “Hal brought his knee to his chest but he never bent his spine,” she recalled. “He had been told never to move his spine.
Bowes taught him how to soften his chest to include the upper back and use the entire spine for this activity. Not only could he put on his shoes easily, but his whole life changed. Hal loved to work in his garden but had to pay people to prune his trees. After the Feldenkrais lesson, he had flexibility to bend and reach — and do all the pruning himself without pain.
Take a Tip From Your Dog
Whatever you do, make sure that consistently elongating muscles is part of your fitness routine. “You can’t stretch once every two months and expect much benefit,” Chen warned.
If you don’t maintain flexibility, over time you can wind up like one of my older clients: He couldn’t put on his coat because his shoulders were so stiff, he couldn’t bend over to pick up his keys or anything else he dropped and his stride was short because his hamstrings and ankles were so tight. He had lost the ability to get up from the floor.
He knew all too well how uncomfortable — and limiting — his lack of flexibility made him. Stretching shouldn’t hurt, and it’s well worth the time you put in.
According to Reznik, dogs have the right idea. He said: “When they get up in the morning, the first thing they do is stretch. When they take a nap and get up, they stretch. We should do the same.”
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