Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Inflexibility Myth - Stiffness or Intrinsic Weakness?

Demonstrating the Deep Squat with two 24kg Kettlebells in Seoul with Sr RKC Jon Engum looking on

It's a common complaint in the fitness world. You hear individuals complaining that they're too stiff or too inflexible to achieve a certain range of motion. Even coaches & instructors criticize their athletes & students this way as well. Especially in martial arts, where kicking is a priority, this phrase hangs in the air more than Michael Jordan did in his prime.

The first exercise we usually teach in the RKC progression is what's called a "Wall Squat". It's essentially a squat patterning drill that teaches the user how to squat by means of loading the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc.) without relying on his/her anterior chain (quads).

In many groups, there's always someone who complains that he/she can't squat down because of being "too stiff" or "too tight" in the back, the legs, or wherever. They'll try to squat down, and it'll take an act of God to get their hips down anywhere near their knees.

But if you put those people on their backs and all of the sudden they can bring their knees within a fist distance of their chest, then the root problem ISN'T stiffness. It's WEAKNESS.

When prime movers are allowed to get weak, the stabilizing muscles have to create movement in their place. So the kinetic chain gets flip-flopped.

What does that mean for the squatter?

Simple, instead of using the proper postural muscles to stabilize during the squat, the "stiff" squatter doesn't have the hip strength to pull him/herself down into the squat, trying to achieve the depth by bending forward from the lumbar spine instead... or in some cases by coming forward onto the tiptoes.

There are plenty of ways to rectify this, but perhaps the simplest and quickest way is to practice an assisted squat while working to develop the strength needed for the 3 Prys (see the previous post below).

You'll find that one you can stabilize better, your active range of motion usually increases! For this and more such fixes to your movement problems, check out the technologies in the "Secrets of" series presented by the Functional Movement Systems gang and the Kettlebells from the Ground-Up pack that we put together!


SG Human Performance said...

That article is right on Mark. Terrific post keep up the good work! I am going to push my readers towards this!

Dak Ink said...

Im proof of this article. I was in Docs Sunday Am class 3 weeks ago and was having trouble getting deep into the squat and I said" I dont have the flexibility to go lower..." So Doc had me lay on my back and sure enough knees to chest...Doh! It is a stability issue.Been working on the 3 prys,and some goblet squats and my squat depth has improved quite a bit( almost to parallel).It still has a ways to go but I know what to do to improve it. Thank you for the insight Doc, it is always worth the price of admission.

Nick Chertock said...

Great aricle, I'm wondering though if being able to bring knees to chest demonstrates adequate hip and hamstring flexibility when someone could just excessively round the lumbar spine to achieve that position?

I will work on those 3 prys.

Dr. Mark Cheng said...

Nick, one could certainly flex the hell out of his/her lumbar region to bring the knees to the chest, but the point of the supine test is to see if he/she has the capability for the range of motion without pain or structural limitation.

Most people who can do that supine test create more movement in their lumbar spines and not in their hips. It's our job to re-educate the system so that those roles flip-flop, giving the lower back more stability and the hips more flexibility.