The Truth On Flexibility

Flexibility is one of the big goals people pursue in health, performance and mobility, and the holy grail for achieving this has always been stretching the muscle or tissues in various degrees of complexity and intensity. Stretching does have its place in the therapeutic and health realm, but the notion that you can tug and tug on a part of you and have it change is entirely flawed. The nervous system is what controls our soft tissues and what they’re doing at any given time, including how tight muscles are. If a 20 year old ballet dancer, and a 60 year old lifelong desk worker both get in a car accident and do not survive, their bodies are suddenly just as flexible. If the mechanical tension model of a muscle literally being too short would not allow this to be the case if it were true. Even in the most severe living tissue cases, such as frozen shoulder where someone gets severe mobility limitations for their arm in the shoulder, once they are fully anesthetized, full mobility is again possible.

I don’t feel like it’s necessary to try to fight the issue further, so let’s take the discussion in the more appropriate direction. So if the nervous system has decided to make some tissue tighter, or even looser, the obvious question that no one seems to ask is why? There are a few possible reasons, but what it all comes down to is the body protecting itself either directly or through a more complicated strategy.

The simplest reason is that the muscle, tissue, or a connected tissue (like the tendons attached to that muscle) are damaged and if we allow too much stretch it will tear more or rupture completely, let alone heal. The nervous system simply will not allow you to stretch to that point, and so trying to push past that acute hard stop in your range of motion will only cause damage and prevent healing. It may also be weak and be tightening because it does not have confidence that it can stretch fully and hold itself in that mechanically disadvantageous position safely.

A similar mechanism is that a bone, joint, or other part of the body that the tissue you are stretching is attached to, is similarly going to need to minimize its ability to negatively impact this joint. Usually instead of being tighter, muscles that would pull on this spot would actually become inhibited and possibly more flexible, while muscles that will minimize the range of motion in that joint or injured bone will often get tighter. When there is an injury to a joint or something as crucial as the spine, this is very common and can lead to some severe tightness and dysfunction to keep the spine or other joints compressed as a way to manage a sense of instability or injury.

Taking to a bit of a more complicated situation, tightness is a way the body adapts to feeling some more global (whole body) instability. Hamstring flexibility seems to be the ultimate holy grail of mobility, but no one ever asks why. With so many other muscles often not working that keep the hips in their proper place such as the glutes not working to keep the back of the hips down, the QL’s (muscles above the hips acting like suspenders for them) pulling them up, and then similar on the front of the hips. The hamstrings end up being one of the few things still working that can keep the hips in place and extend the leg backwards at the hip. To stretch the hamstrings is to add even more instability to the situation.

NKT lower cross Sometimes stretching is beneficial and useful, but to use it to become more flexible will make the muscles react by becoming even tighter to protect themselves or whatever structure they’re attached to. Show the body that past injuries are healed, and get muscles turned on so that joints will be stable and don’t need the brain to protect it with a tightening compression strategy and flexibility can return. Stretching in this situation is just like trying to make someone feel safer by locking them up or attacking them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the body does mechanically and, more importantly, neurologically adapt to the actual life your body leads. If you spend the whole time at your desk with shortened hamstrings, slack abs, tight hamstrings, and other such situations, that is where your body feels comfortable and the range that it believes it should be fit to ‘perform’ in. Living more active and in a more standing and dynamic lifestyle is going to be one of the most important things to keep these problems from happening in the first place and then reemerging. NKT can fix you, but you have to live so that it won’t just be put right back! Our species spent two million years walking around all day, crouching, climbing, carrying and throwing. Sitting is a relatively new ‘invention’ or behavior as far as humanity is concerned, for more than a few minutes to an hour a day to now we do it all but a few minutes a day. Standing desks, walking, and moving dynamically is more key to creating and maintaining flexibility than having a few moments of high stretch could ever be. With Neurokinetic Therapy™ we can find out what protective strategies the body is using to find a sense of stability, why, and how it is carrying them out. We can then fix these dysfunctions and faulty tissue relationships, thereby allowing flexibility to return without damaging tissues or making the body less stable.

Breathing: The Foundation Of Movement And Proper Technique

For some people the detail and minutiae of lifting technique is very appealing, and they may find themselves driven to make every rep the ‘perfect rep.’ For most it is something to generally shoot for but it seems like a mere distraction on the way to finishing a set or reaching a new max weight. As a trainer and a rehabilitative specialist I definitely count myself in the second category; why do something if you’re going to do it wrong? And the issue goes deeper than whether or not you’re targeting the right muscles (though this is a big deal). Our goal is to give us function and improved performance, and I certainly expect that my clients want this ability to translate into being able to have better movement and performance in real life applications, not just to hit a max lift once in a gym setting to the detriment of their body.

As is quite common these days, let’s fall back for a moment on a race car metaphor. If everything was on the line for one last career race, a drag race let’s say, I’m sure many people would be perfectly fine burning through their engine, their breaks, and every last bit of the car to get to the finish line as fast as possible. All we want is the single best performance in one instance, and nothing else matters. But what about a different kind of race, a Formula 1 for example, where it is certainly not the last race of your career. To insure the best performance in that race you will want to hit every turn perfectly to get the maximum speed in the corner without crashing, you’ll want your pit crew to be as fast as possible while keeping your car in good condition and the engine will be tuned more carefully than the space shuttle. The results of this care and attention? A faster time and a car that doesn’t fall apart during the race, making it so you either don’t finish or you certainly don’t do more races without being completely rebuilt.

So the analogy should be fairly obvious. When lifts are done without technique it wears on the body, especially in the joints. The heavier the weight and more intense the movement or exercise, the greater impact it has. Everyone in the industry has seen extreme competitions go incredibly wrong as a muscle, tendon, or ligament tears under the strain of a lift, most often so during bad compromised form. This never applies so specifically to my clients but what if you’re working out at good intensity, as we often do, with just sub-par technique? It may not lead to an engine meltdown…but it’s like running that race car without changing the oil. It will wear things down, and in life outside of metaphors, we’re never on our last career race; there’s no such thing.

I think you get the picture pretty well. It burns down to better technique keeps you from injuries where too much pressure is put on a mechanically compromised structure, and better technique minimizes the wear and tear from the activity. I’ve no interest in giving people strength, speed and endurance if it’s something that can’t last in the long run. Technique for lifting as well as technique for how to move in daily life is something that we have lost in our day to day culture and it is so important. Simply learning how to stand and sit from a chair, let alone the ground, is becoming more of a ‘lost language’ each year.

Time to get to the real point I want to make today, however (Obviously I couldn’t just come out and say it, this is me after all!). The particular movements, their order, and the posture during a lift or functional movement is a large part of technique but breathing is the lynch pin of the entire foundation of stability. Before we make any movement, even as simple as reaching for a glass of water, muscles other than the ones that will move us prepare to stabilize the joint and other parts of the body to keep joints and organs in place. When it comes to more substantial movements like running, jumping, or lifting something heavy, the sequence of muscles that allow us to breathe and stabilize our core are the most vital. This is because while most of the force we generate to move through and manipulate the world is generated in the limbs hips and shoulders but all this force has to transfer through the torso, and thereby the ‘core.’ The core musculature is what keeps us upright, lets us transfer this force functionally through our legs to arms (or the other way around) and out into the world, while also keeping our organs and spine protected.

So, seriously, what am I getting at with all this? All of the ‘back story’ is about how and why this is all important, but I’m getting to the ‘good stuff,’ I promise. We have several main abdominal muscles, most of which people are familiar with. The rectus abdominus is the ‘6 pack’ muscle, and the internal and external oblique’s are the abdominal muscles on the side of our abdomen. The lesser known muscle that is responsible for so much of our stability (especially for our organs) is the transversus abdominus (TVA), which wraps around our entire torso from belly button to spine and acts like a weight belt or corset. When we need to brace and keep our organs in, it contracts and goes rigid, keeping any force going through our torso from pushing organs out. When our interabdominal pressure increases (as in when there’s more pressure in and around or organs because we’re lifting something heavy) the TVA is what keeps our organs safe and prevents hernias. If you get a hernia, the chances are your TVA wasn’t working when it needed to be to prevent that organ attempting to escape. This doesn’t mean the TVA is weak, or even that it doesn’t work (which it usually doesn’t), but that it’s not working when it needs to be.

The TVA and core

So why does this happen? Let’s add a smidge more anatomy to the picture for our explanation. The TVA and these other abdominal muscles stabilize the core and help forces transfer through, basically increasing abdominal pressure when they contract, but also containing it. When we breathe in (activating the diaphragm) these abdominal muscles relax to create room for the expanding lungs, so they become softer and don’t perform their intended role at the same time to the degree that it’s needed. The pelvic floor also relaxes, which is a set of muscles at the very bottom of the torso around the genitals that essentially holds everything in from the bottom (If you get ‘leaking,’ especially from mild activity like jumping or laughing, your pelvic floor probably doesn’t work. If you’re severely constipated, it may be over active). So in effect our core turns off to a significant degree when we breathe in. Does that sound like a good time to lift something heavy or be in a compromised state? Certainly not; it’s an easy way to get injured, let alone trying to get performance out of a soft unstable torso instead of one that can transfer force.

The solution is simple timing and patterning. When we apply force (contract or actually go to move with power in a situation like a heavy lift [deadlift!]) breathing in is a horrible idea for the reasons we’ve just detailed. Instead we should breathe in when we are relaxing and setting a weight down, and during the contraction we should breathe out. Not only does breathing out not turn off the abdominal muscles, but actually turns them on (specifically the TVA) to increase pressure and help push our breath out, especially when it is a strong forceful exhalation. This simple breath out and lift, breath in and set the weight down, creates a far more stable movement that is not nearly as likely to lead to injury. You can see many athletes in the gym going for very heavy weights and aside from the common sight of already questionable technique, you often see the breath being held (along with other postural ‘cheating’ compensations like jaw clenching) which creates pressure in the abdomen but doesn’t contain it in a way that can transfer force safely!


The breathing is the foundation for so much of our movement in that our brain will adapt our movements after what our breathing does and then incorporate movement around it. If you spend thousands of reps holding your breath or breathing in during the concentric load bearing portion, your body will start thinking that it should be using the diaphragm to stabilize (which it does poorly compared to the TVA!). These get burrowed into our movement patterns in no small part because we’re already breathing 20-25,000 times a day so it becomes deeply ingrained very quickly once it takes hold. This means every time you have to stabilize outside of the gym through the torso, your body will also try to use this faulty pattern, so it will infect all of your movements creating a core that may be muscularly strong but can’t actually do anything for you! All the weight and force transfer will go through your low back muscles, spine and your organs, and this is the biggest cause of hernias and one of the biggest reasons for back pain. Spare your back and organs and let your core do its job.

And lastly: don’t hold your breath! Not breathing in is not enough, focus on breathing out during the toughest efforts of your lifts and functional movements, both in the gym, on the field, and in daily living and you will be rewarded with better actual performance (higher numbers on the wrack), fewer injuries, and a lot less pain (ever get back pain during/after heavy lifts?). Don’t just work hard, work smart!