I was asked by one of my clients the other day- Can I be too flexible? I suppose if she was a circus performer, maybe no, but for us regular folks- absolutely! Often, being too flexible creates more physical problems than being too tight. When the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the body do not have the tension- i.e. strength – to hold the bones in proper alignment, you can get in real trouble.
There are many more hyper-flexible women than men. This may be partly because women typically did not perform strength training as a population until recently-20 years or so- and that would’ve helped to balance out our flexibility. But mostly, it‘s because, genetically, we are more flexible than men. For women, flexibility is promoted and applauded through sports like gymnastics, cheerleading, skating and dancing. Women are the first to embrace yoga for “improved flexibility” , but most yoginis are already too flexible! Of course, we all like to do what we are best at, but ignoring one aspect of fitness and overemphasizing another is a recipe for injury.
The topic of “hyper- flexibility” has been on my mind, as I have several women clients who are over flexible and have lots of chronic pain. I really feel there is a connection between years of lack of stability and strength and pain syndromes like fibromyalgia. Coincidentally, I was attending a fitness conference at Cressey Performance in Hudson last week, and Eric Cressey mentioned the same findings I have observed. (Eric works primarily with throwing athletes- baseball is his specialty- and he is top in his field). He discussed that there are men as well who are hyper- flexible, and this can be a benefit in some sports like baseball. Eric explained that pitchers, for example, are often highly flexible. But, while this can be a great plus, they still need to balance their flexibility with lots of functional strength training. And yet, many young pitchers have been taught by coaches to do a lot of stretching. Of course, this trickles down from the majors, where some pitchers routinely over stretch their shoulders and backs. This does not end up well for many of them, as, over time, flexibility without stability always produces injuries.
I have seen the same issue occur with golfing athletes- pros or otherwise. Flexibility alone does not make a good golfer, as some people think. Flexibility is important in golf, but it has to be in the right places at the right time. Over flexible shoulders with tight lats and chest muscles from poor posture will lead to shoulder and elbow injuries. Conversely, strong shoulders, with optimal flexiblity of the upper back and torso, leads to strength, resilience and golf success.
For us average people, we often over stretch because we feel tension somewhere. As I have mentioned in previous columns, just because a muscle feels “tight” does not mean it is short and needs lengthening with stretching. Sometimes muscle tension is a sign of weakness, or over use, or even referred tension from other areas. A classic example of this is when tension is felt in the hamstring. Most people feel tight hamstrings and then do excessive stretching, without considering any other exercise therapies. You may actually need to strengthen the hamstrings themselves, or the muscles of the hips and core to help prevent the hamstrings from over working. (PS- If you can easily touch your toes, or bring your straight leg to 90 degrees when lying on your back, then you don’t need hamstring stretching)
So, if you are very flexible, please add stability exercises like planks, bird dogs, lunges, push-ups to your exercise regimen. Try and get out of the habit of continually over stretching- it just does not benefit you as much as you think! While stretching may temporarily decrease pain, over time, it’s just making things worse.