Flexibility is the capacity of the muscles and tendons to elongate or shorten for the purpose of movement—that is, of moving bones in key parts of the body (see Figure 2.1).
However, there can be no movement without strength. We are most flexible when we are infants, but we are also at our weakest at that stage. We have to practice in order to gain the strength to turn over, sit up, crawl, and eventually stand.
We lose flexibility because of how we live, not because we age, as can be seen from the fact that people in their advanced years can be highly flexible and strong.
One time, at a friend's wedding, we saw an older couple dancing the cha-cha. Everyone was watching them because they were so elegant, their movements so smooth, rhythmic, and fast. We were shocked when someone told us that the man was 90 and the woman 93.
After the dance, we went up to the couple to express our admiration for their youthfulness. When Aniela asked them how they managed to stay so flexible and coordinated at their age, the woman said, "I simply stretch and lift weights every day."
"Do you do the same routine every day?" Jerzy asked.
"Yes, every morning I do exactly the same stretches to restore my flexibility from the previous day, and the same weightlifting routine to regain my strength from the previous day. That's what keeps me flexible and strong. In a way, it's like dancing for me. I've repeated the same movements with the same weights for the last sixty years, so it's easy. The routine has its rhythm, just like music."
The man, who had been listening to this conversation, added, "Doing the same routine every day is essential. It’s easier for the body, especially as you get older. Imagine that you learn to play one of the most difficult pieces of music by Chopin. If you learn it when you're in your teens and play it every day, it will be easier to play in your eighties. But if you try to learn it in your eighties, that will be almost impossible."
This couple proved that if you do the same exercise routine every day, you will be able to do it well throughout your life. That assumes, of course, that the exercise does not injure you. It must support your body’s full range of motion, improve your muscle function gradually, and not exhaust you. In The Happy Body program, we recognize three phases of flexibility. First, one has to develop range of motion. Second, one has to develop strength in the movement. Third, one has to develop speed in the movement.
In The Happy BodyTM program, we recognize three phases of flexibility. First, one has to develop flexibility of movement. Second, one has to develop strength in the movement. Third, one has to develop speed in the movement.
A yogi, for example, develops only the first phase of flexibility, aiming more for elasticity than for strength or speed. A power lifter develops the first and second phases, but not the third, by lifting heavy weights slowly. The Olympic weightlifter develops all three phases, lifting heavy weights with speed. Thus, it is possible, like the yogi, to be flexible without having strength or speed. And it is possible, like the power lifter, to be flexible and strong without developing speed. But it is best of all to have developed all three and to be flexible, strong, and fast.
Ironically, to achieve flexibility, strength, and speed, one need only focus on speed, and the other two will result automatically. That is because in order to become faster at any movement, one must increase one’s elasticity and one’s strength. For this reason, the best ways to achieve flexibility is through movements that involve explosive speed—namely, pulling, squatting, jumping, and throwing. All of these are combined in Olympic weightlifting training.
The Standard of Flexibility
One day, while we were walking on the beach in Santa Monica, Aniela pointed to a toddler stumbling around on shaky legs. Whenever the child was on the verge of falling, she would lower herself into a squat. After balancing her body, she would stand up without difficulty, but then become unsteady again as she attempted to walk.
"Look," Aniela said, pointing to the girl. "She can’t walk well, but she has no problem squatting."
We realized that we all squat before we walk, and it is one of the most natural things in our lives, but we gradually lose this ability as our bodies age. In weightlifting, there are three kinds of squats: the Back Squat, the Front Squat, and the Overhead Squat. In the Back Squat (Figure 2.2), the lifter holds the bar behind the neck, resting it on the shoulders. In the Front Squat (Figure 2.3), the lifter holds the bar in front of the neck, resting it on the shoulders.
In the Overhead Squat (Figure 2.4) , the lifter holds the bar above the head with straight arms. Because the Overhead Squat simultaneously improves the mobility of the wrists, elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles, we thought at first that it would be the ideal test of flexibility. However, while it is an excellent test of strength and speed, it turned out that an even better test of flexibility is a modification of the Overhead Squat that we named the Candle Squat (Figure 2.5), which brings the hands and feet close together, and therefore requires more flexibility.
Degrees of Flexibility
There are five degrees of flexibility:
- Very Good
There are five techniques for measuring flexibility:
- The Table:
Bending forward with a flat back (Figure 2.6)
- The Jackknife:
Bending forward with a rounded back (Figure 2.7)
- The Bow:
Bending backward to see the ceiling (Figure 2.8)
- The Corkscrew:
Twisting the body without moving the feet (Figure 2.9)
- The Candle Squat:
Squatting without leaning forward (Figure 2.10)
To measure the flexibility of your gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calves, stand upright with your feet directly below your hips and bend forward with your toes curled up, your knees locked, and your back flat. Then see how far your fingertips can reach:
To measure the flexibility of your lumbar spine, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calves, sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you and your toes curled up toward you. Bend forward to see how far your fingertips can reach:
- Poor: You can place your hands directly over your knees.
- Fair: You can touch your toes.
- Good: You can rest your palms on the bottom of your feet.
- Very Good: Your palms can touch the floor in front of your feet.
- Excellent: Your elbows can reach your toes.
To measure the flexibility of your cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, front of the neck, and rib cage, lie down flat on your stomach, facing a wall, with your palms facing up and your head facing to either side. Arch your back with your shoulders and arms relaxed, your palms and toes touching the floor, and your eyes looking upward:
- Poor: You can look straight down at the floor.
- Fair: You can look at the bottom of the wall.
- Good: You can look at the middle of the wall.
- Very Good: You can look at the edge of the ceiling.
- Excellent: You can look straight up at the ceiling.
To measure the flexibility of your legs, hips, spine, rib cage, and neck, stand in the middle of a square room, facing a wall. Place your feet directly under your hips, holding a stick behind your neck with your elbows down and your forearms perpendicular to the floor. Twist your body to the right:
- Poor: You can look at the wall to your right (90º turn).
- Fair: You can look at the second corner to your right (135º turn).
- Good: You can look at the wall behind you (180º turn).
- Very Good: You can look at the third corner to your right (225º turn).
- Excellent: You can look at the wall to your left (270º turn).
Repeat these steps to the left side.
The Candle Squat
To measure the flexibility of most of the joints in your body (fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, spine, rib cage, hips, knees, ankles, and toes), stand up straight with your feet together and your toes curled up. Then lift your arms above your head, holding a book on your open palms. Keeping your heels on the ground and your arms vertical with the elbows locked, squat down as far as you can without leaning forward:
- Poor: You can only barely bend your knees.
- Fair: You can squat with your thighs higher than parallel to the ground.
- Good: You can squat with your thighs parallel to the ground.
- Very Good: You can squat with your thighs lower than parallel to the ground.
- Excellent: You can sit on your calves, totally relaxed.