Flexibility training: are you doing enough?

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I feel like a bit of a hypocrite writing about flexibility training since it is not my favourite thing to do by any stretch of the imagination (pun intended). But alas as I’ve gotten older and debatably wiser I’ve learned that it’s a good time investment as compared to more strength training. It may surprise you to read that, given the name of this blog, but its true. I mean, you can only spend so many hours knackering your fingers, right? So rather than risk injury  and burnout from overtraining, you can work on your flexibility instead. By doing this you can even reduce the load on your fingers when climbing because you can position your body better. Depending on the scenario you can even use a leg like it’s an additional arm, which is pretty darn cool, right?

Here’s a guy copping a heel hook in Fontainebleau, while demonstrating some respectable flexibility.

Heel hook mantel in Fontainebleau

What is flexibility, anyway? Pretty simple, outwardly – it’s basically the ability of your muscles to lengthen, resulting in greater range of motion (or ROM). Our muscles exhibit what’s called the stretch reflex. When they approach the end of ROM, the stretch receptors say “whoa – not cool!”, invoking a reflex that makes the stretched muscle contract, thereby shortening it and stopping the stretch from going any further. So, flexibility training’s main effect is to gradually reduce this reflex and allow the muscle and joint structure to safely reach deeper ROM without invoking this reflex. To be sure, there are other adaptations to connective tissue beyond what I’ve described but for this blog, this should suffice.

Muscle spindle

So, what is the best way to work on your flexibility? Well there are lots of ways to do it and it’s doesn’t have to be overly complicated. First, let me define two general types that I think you should understand: passive stretching and active stretching.

Passive stretching is the standard type where you use gravity, a partner, or other limbs to create leverage on one or more joints, and approach the end of the range of motion. This is your basic type stretch that you probably did in gym class. Active stretching is where you use the opposing muscle of the one you want to lengthen to generate the required torque on the joint. Apparently, this muscular effort inhibits the stretch reflex in the stretched muscle. This variety is more difficult to do as it requires a lot more effort, but it may result in more sport specific performance improvement. An example is performing a high-step while on a climb. Usually you don’t have a free hand to help pull your leg up! So you have to use your hip flexors to haul that foot up.

I would venture to say that there is a continuum from pure “active” to pure “passive”, not necessarily one or the other. This would apply to yoga which uses a bit of both depending on the style and which posture, but tends to be more active in “Power Yoga” and comparable forms.

My personal preference is to do passive stretching to improve ROM after warming up (mainly lower body) then while doing my climbing session, I’m more likely to use the greater ROM, thereby strengthening the surrounding muscles as well.

Click here for more reading on factors affecting flexibility. The link also mentions  Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (or PNF) which is an advanced method you might want to look into if you’re really keen.

I think the following image of competitor Jain Kim clearly demonstrates the need for improved hip/knee ROM and strength in those extreme climbing positions! I assure you, she is applying a lot of downward and inward pressure on that heel. Very impressive.
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How to do it.

Many climbers know how to stretch, but just choose not to do it, or don’t really do it seriously. Either way, to make it simple for you, below I’ve shown some stretches that have served me well, focusing on the the most important ways I need to bend and contort while climbing.

In terms of programming, I recommend that you do your warm up activity (easy climbs or boulders, jogging, calisthenics etc) then do a lower body stretch – I generally do about 15 minutes total stretching (one minute per stretch) if it’s part of the warm up, before a climbing/bouldering session.

If I’m doing a dedicated stretching session I might do 2 minutes per stretch to make it a 30-40 minute session.

Recommended Stretches (Lower Body Focused)

The following are some pics of me unashamedly working on my preferred lower body stretches.

“Splits”
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Torso Twist

IMG_1696Cobra Pose (aka Andrew’s Bastardized Yoga Pose #1)
IMG_1694 Downward Dog (aka Andrew’s Bastardized Yoga Pose #2)IMG_1692

Hamstring Stretch (can be done with one or two legs at a time – I do both for good measure)IMG_1688I don’t have a name for this pose so I shall call it the “Jain Kim Pose”

IMG_1687Lunge Stretch Variation 1 (knee under shoulder)
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Lunge Stretch Variation 2 (knee beside shoulder)
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So there you have it. Some theory, some advice, and some photos of people bending themselves whilst climbing, plus a guy in a garage. It really doesn’t take that much effort but the rewards are great. So what are you waiting for?

Alas, I couldn’t resist including this photo since this blog is about climbing strong… flexibility is a great asset but sometimes there is no substitute for fingers like steel hooks. Mina Markovic of Slovenia demonstrates this nicely below. :)

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Thanks for reading and happy training!!