Flexibility is a movement capacity that has long captured attention in the fields of physical fitness and healthy ageing. But what exactly does flexibility mean? Does flexibility actually influence your fitness performance and overall well-being? And, if it’s so important, how is it achieved?
Flexibility and mobility: what’s the difference?
Put simply, flexibility generally refers to a muscle’s extensibility (ability to stretch or extend) while a joint expresses its potential range of motion (ROM). Several factors can limit joint ROM, including individual anatomy, an injury, or a feeling of muscle stiffness or tightness. Many people incorporate stretching regimens into their fitness programs and training plans in an effort to improve their flexibility.
Mobility is another movement capacity that considers a joint’s ROM. But while flexibility considers how far a joint can move and muscle can extend (passively or actively), mobility considers how well you’re able to move through a ROM with coordination, balance, and strength.
In short, flexibility measures ROM distance while mobility measures dynamic ROM strength and control.
What limits flexibility?
Did you know that stretching does not really impact the overall length of your muscles? As your muscles have fixed attachment points on your skeleton, your overall muscle length won’t change. While it may seem like short muscles are the cause of inflexibility, the main driver of flexibility is actually a feeling (called stretch tolerance), which is a function of your central nervous system (CNS). When we move into ranges of motion that our bodies and nervous system are less accustomed to, the CNS sends out sensation (tightness, pain, intolerance) to caution us from moving into potentially injurious territory.
Our flexibility is also significantly influenced by what we do with our bodies most of the time. For instance, if we frequently spend our time hunched over a desk, our nervous system and postural muscles will adapt to make it easier for our bodies to assume this habitual position. The trade-off? We’ll be less able to access, initiate, and control other expressions of movement.
How flexibility training affects your fitness
First, it must be said that the goal of flexibility training is not to turn you into a contortionist or a living Gumby. The goal of flexibility training is to help restore and maintain normal ranges of motion, so that you can continue to remain agile as you age and prevent conditions such as arthritis.
By bringing our bodies into diverse movements and ranges of motion, flexibility training can help us retrain our nervous system, increase our stretch tolerance, and move into normal ranges of motion with greater fluidity and ease. Flexibility training is not a matter of intensity. Instead, flexibility training is a matter of frequency. As your body responds to the demands that you most frequently put upon it, you’ll experience the most benefits through regular, diverse, and moderate flexibility training.
How Qigong exercises can improve flexibility
The dynamic movements of Qigong promote eccentric muscle contractions — a muscle contraction that occurs while the muscle is actively lengthening. An eccentric contraction allows us to control how quickly a muscle extends, acting as a built-in “braking” system. As this “braking” response tells the nervous system that all is “safe and under control,” eccentric contractions may help increase flexibility and connective tissues strength more than classic static stretches or the passive stretches found in some yoga practices. With correct and consistent practice, Qigong can improve your self-awareness, focus, strength, bone health, balance, and proprioception–all qualities that enhance flexibility training.
The flexibility benefits of Qigong mindfulness
As well as physical movement, the skills developed through Qigong mindfulness are especially applicable to flexibility training. As mindful movement increases your capacity to focus on and respect your current bodily experience–instead of mindlessly pushing through it–mindful movement encourages intentional movement while developing your self-awareness.
Like yoga and other mindful movements, Qigong places great emphasis on improving your most vital function: your breath. In any situation, mindful breathing is the link between your consciousness and your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs your stress and relaxation responses. Mindful breathing, like flexibility training, is a form of neurological conditioning. Partnering mindful breathing with your flexibility training helps you communicate with and retrain your nervous system, facilitating a sense of calm and safety while reducing stress and muscle tension.
Try these Qigong exercises in your next workout
The Dragon from 5 Elements Qigong is one of the most effective exercises for lower back pain and soreness and is practiced by martial arts enthusiasts from all disciplines. Step forward with your left foot and bend this leg at the knee (as seen in the photo above). Reach your right palm up towards the sky, while the left arm moves out to your side like you’re throwing a frisbee. Then, while keeping your free planted planted, turn your torso to your left as far as you can, activating a deep stretch in your lower back.
Crane spreads its wings
Embody the free spirit of the majestic crane whilst deeply building your strength and balance. The twisting motion of this exercise from the 5 Animals Qigong ebook activates muscles and joints in your legs and down the sides of your torso, creating strong leg stability in all four of its major muscle groups. This is a great deep stretch for runners, especially.
The Leopard from 5 Elements Qigong is a deep full-body stretch and meditation technique combined – activating the arms, legs, and sides of the torso. Keeping the weight balanced on both legs, reach up with your right arm until its straight and lean your torso to the left (as seen in the picture). At the same time, allow your left palm to face upward, holding it steady around your armpit level.
The more we safely and mindfully explore various ranges of motion, the more comfortable our nervous system and muscles become with entering various ranges of motion.
If you’re looking for dynamic flexibility training with the additional benefits of mindfulness, look no further than Qigong. More of our comprehensive flexibility training tools and techniques can be found in our ebooks and online courses, or by browsing our Qigong blog.