Focused Flexibility – Strength, Power, Pain and Learning to Breathe
Strength, Power, Pain and Learning to Breathe
I felt my jeans tear as I sat down to the fire pit. Uh oh. A quick draft of cold air confirmed that my butt cheeks were now exposed. I guess my ass just got too big. Or maybe it was that my muscles were tight like piano strings. Either way, with my jeans torn and my testicles exposed, I knew a change was needed.
When it comes to strength and power training, it’s rewarding to make gains – big thighs, powerful glutes, and muscular calves are indications of progress. But even with aesthetic and performance gains, the everyday athlete must realize that strength and power training can result in tight muscles and discomfort in daily life. For me, even sitting on the toilet had become a burden because my thighs and glutes had become so taut.
I decided to weigh the benefits of my strength and power training, and how they were affecting my daily comfort, recovery, and body’s longevity. For years I used the excuse of being a “sprinter” to justify my lack of flexibility. But this false reasoning grew old and I wanted to make real changes to my stretching habits. I wondered if there was a “master quality” that could balance my over tight muscles with my ability to get tight for lifting heavy weights, sprinting, and jumping.
First, note how psychotic my training was throughout my 20’s:
Frequency: 7 day per week/2 x per day 7 heavy gym workouts, 7 outdoor workouts (running, climbing, hiking, etc)
Focus: Push/pulls, Power/Strength gains for sprinting, Bodybuilding for aesthetics.
1. Dynamic warmup (locomotion patterns, opening hips, shoulders, jump rope, light jog)
2. Heavy compound movements (barbell cleans, squats, deadlifts, snatches, presses)
3. Accessory lifts (bis, tris, rear delts, obliques, lower abs) + correctives,
4. Conditioning (sprints, burpees, med ball slams, rowing)
5. Light Stretch (less than 5 minutes)
What was missing?
1. Myofascial Release (foam rolling, massage)
2. Well-rounded stretching routine (dynamic, progressive resisted)
3. Calming system post-workout to alleviate exercise-induced cortisol (encouraging parasympathetic nervous system over sympathetic)
4. Light intensity/volume days
5. Breathing practice (meditation, yoga, etc)
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
In retrospect, I was an elite athlete…super fast, super strong, and super motivated. But in reality, heavy weight training in my 20’s had produced negative effects to my overall goal of holistic health. My lack of flexibility in my shoulder girdle and hips had begun to affect my recovery between workouts, my mobility and posture, and caused general discomfort while sitting, driving, and standing.
It had gotten to the point that at age 28 I could no longer sit crosslegged. How does it look when your personal trainer can’t comfortably sit on the ground? Although I was setting personal records in my athletics pursuits, I suddenly had reason to question my overall physical fitness. Where had my flexibility gone?
In order to address my weaknesses, I took inventory of my strengths: muscle activation, power, and strong central nervous system recruitment. I wondered if I could use these attributes and apply them to my weaknesses. What if the tightness that my body was so good at creating could also work to allow deeper, more effective stretching?
I had heard of isometric stretching that gymnasts and martial artists used for advanced flexibility, but in my vain attempts, it had only resulted in further tightness to the muscles being stretched (in some cases even injury, ever tried straddle pancakes?). Was there something I was missing? Could my breathing be the missing key?
Alignment Breathing and Saying Goodbye to Neck Pain
At age 27 I discovered Buddhist Vipassana meditation. In my personal meditation practice, my goal was to overcome the “monkey mind” that had been stealing my present moment. Vipassana meditation gave me a singular mantra to focus on: “Breathe in white light, exhale black smoke.” I found that when I aligned my diaphragm with my posture, breathing began to feel natural and uninhibited. This was a strange feeling for me, but the results were functional: what I found was more calmness at work, better concentration, and that my tight and painful neck began to release its tension.
Bingo. I was onto something. Meditation focused on the breath, calmed my mind, and was easy enough to practice. I had a “win” in my lifestyle training and wondered if this breathing technique could be applied to my pre and post workout stretching.
On a side note: I had always been offended when my friends and family would tell me that I was a “loud breather.” As I began paying more attention to my breathing patterns in my Vipassana practice, I realized the “noise” was because I was a mouth breather! This explained the overwhelming tightness in my neck and traps – the accessory respiratory muscles in the body, like the scalenes, had become like tight piano strings. They were bearing the load of respiration that my diaphragm should have taken care of.
In my due diligence, I read the flexibility manifesto, “Stretching Scientifically,” by Thomas Kurz. I realized that a practice of “focused flexibility” was more like the attributes of strength that I had already practiced, rather than an inherent trait of being loose and bendy. Since my heavy lifting attempts required a “valsalva maneuver,” or, holding my breath through the sticking point of a lift to increase intra-abdominal pressure, I realized breathing was more the key to my strength and flexibility combined than I had originally thought. (The Valsalva maneuver is performed by moderately forceful attempted exhalation against a closed airway https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valsalva_maneuver)
This was my “aha moment.”
Controlled muscular tension, with relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing, were the keys to restore my flexibility.
I realized that if I could regain the tissue length that was seemingly lost, I would be less prone to injury and my posture while standing or sitting would improve. This would alleviate the constant pain in my neck and traps, and give me the secondary benefit of being calm, focused, and cognitively sharp. Not only that, performance and strength would likely increase. The new found range of motion would allow more precise starting positions and bracing during heavy lifts that had previously been restricted.
Practical Application – How I Became Flexible
Before learning about the contract-relax method of stretching, practice your alignment breathing using these steps:
- Lie on the floor so that you can more easily observe your diaphragmatic posture.
- Take a long inhale, slowly counting to 1-2-3-4 as you fill the bottom of your belly with air. Your belly should resemble that of a baby’s during normal respiration.
- At the top of the inhale, hold your breath as you calmly count 1-2-3-4. Take note that your abdomen is pushed out and tensed with air.
- Deeply exhale with an audible sigh for a count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Note that the upper shoulders, belly, and jaw lose tightness.
- Practice the breathing counts for several more repetitions.
- Do you feel more calm? Relaxed? Good! This is an important first step. Practice this exercise any time you feel stressed, need a break, or just need some fresh air.
The Contract Relax Method
My preferred stretching protocol is known as the “contract relax” method. Thomas Kurz, in Stretching Scientifically, presents the method of advanced flexibility gains with these instructions:
“Tense your muscles prior to relaxing and stretching them, and tense them every time you want to increase your range of motion during a stretch…. As your strength in stretched positions increases, so does your range of motion and your ability to use increasingly greater range of motion without a warm-up.”
By using alignment breathing (deep diaphragmatic breathing like in meditation) with the above contract-relax method of stretching, anyone is capable of high degrees of flexibility in a short period of time.
Alignment breathing with the contract-relax method in stretching works like this:
Let’s assume we are engaging in the Frog Stretch for the groin muscles.
- Assume the Frog Stretch position. You should be balancing on your two straight arms directly above your hands while allowing both knees to move out to the sides as much as possible. Keep an arch in the back.
- Take a maximum inhalation through the nose to tighten the body – paying attention to the target muscles of the stretch (the adductors of the inside of both thighs).
- Use your arms to rock the hips backward. Ensure the low back is arched.
- Using very shallow breaths that allow you to maintain tightness, imagining pulling your knees together, applying force into the ground. Your tightness levels should be high, but not too high to avoid potential injury.
- From the tensed position, allow the breath to completely release with an audible sigh.
- As you exhale, rock the hips back even deeper into the groin.
- Repeat the process for several more breaths.
In the Frog Stretch Example, the trainee uses inhalation to develop tightness and force into their knees. The force was led into the ground to create an isometric contraction, which would stretch the groin muscles.
As tightness developed through holding the breath, the trainee relaxed as they pushed their hips backward to sink deeper into the frog position. The contract, then quick relax, worked to effectively tire out the groin’s muscles from the high degree of tightness involved in the isometric contraction. As the trainee exhales, the muscles of the fatigued groin had to relax and subsequently lengthened while the trainee pushes back upon exhalation.
The contract-relax method produces quick and effective results, but must be performed with absolute control over the breath. Remember, breathing is key. I want you to always focus on the slow, controlled exhalations…