Main menu

What is flexibility?

Understanding flexibility so that you can improve it

What is flexibility really about?

Flexibility isn't just about being able to do the splits. If all you can do is sink down into the splits and not control yourself as you lower, that's just floppiness.

So what is flexibility?

What is flexibility. This picture shows neil keleher doing half moon pose against a blue background. The muscles of the standing leg are engaged with torso angled slightly above the horizontal. The botto hand is lifted. The top hand rests against the lifted thigh. Both feet (and their toes) are active. Gaze is directed downwards. To go deeper into the pose, control of the hip joint is required. The deeper into the pose you can go while maintaining control, the better your flexibilty. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

One way of thinking about flexibility

One way to think about flexibility is that it is about being able to do the same thing in different ways (no matter what the circumstance). It's also about being able to do a wide variety of things with control. So if you can flop down into the splits and you can also control yourself as you lower down into them, then that's an example of being flexible.

Having flexibility gives you options

In the case above, being able to lower into the splits with control, and being able to flop down into them, what you have are options. The more options you have, the greater your flexibility.

In one case the muscles that resist you going down into the splits are active, in the other they are relaxed. In terms of movement and posture, your options relate to how well you can use your muscles to feel and control your body.

Defining flexibility

In terms of the body, flexibility is being able to control your joints throughout their entire range of motion (or as much of it as possible) and it's about having a large range of motion. The greater your ranges of motion, and the more control you have throughout those ranges of motion, the more flexible (and strong) you are.

In this case, control means being able to turn muscles on and off at will.

It also requires the ability to feel when muscles are activated or relaxed.

How do you improve flexibility?

So how do you improve flexibility? By working on the things that control your joints, your muscles, while being aware of (and controlling) the joints themselves.

What causes flexibility to be limited?

Apart from the fact that you've not practiced being flexible, why might your brain limit flexibility?

Muscles have overlap

While muscles are important, (they are what enable you to both move and stand still) they have a lot of overlap. This overlap is what enables us to move smoothly between a wide variety of positions. And it's what allows us to lift things of varying weight. It also means that within smaller ranges of motion, and over reduced lifting capacities, muscles have some redundancy.

This means that if one muscle isn't working properly, or needs a rest, other muscles can cover for it, leading to, ideally, temporary reductions in either flexibility or strength, or both, in particular actions or poses.

Joints don't (have overlap)

While muscles have overlap or redundancy, your joints don't. As a result, you could consider them as critical structures. Given the choice between protecting a joint versus protecting a muscle, which is more important? Which would you sacrifice?

Your brain uses your muscles to protect your joints

If a joint goes (i.e. no longer works, becomes ruined beyond repair) you can't cover for it. It's gone. It's like blowing up a bridge to hinder your enemy. Compared to losing the use of a muscle, losing the use of a joint can really screw up your day.

So in terms of getting more flexible, what do you think your brain concerns itself with first, protecting your muscles or protecting your joints? And then, how does it go about doing the protecting?

The assumption that I'm going to work on is that your brain works to protect your joints first and foremost, when it can.

While your brain uses your muscles to control your joints, it also uses muscles to protect your joints. It limits muscles when it thinks a joint will be in danger.

If you might get so far doing a forward bend, or front splits or side splits and then your muscles put on the breaks. Actually, your brain turns on your muscles to prevent you from going deeper.

Or it turns on the pain.

Note that it can't protect your joints if your muscles aren't active.

Your brain limits movement based on its predictions

This use of muscles to prevent joint damage is a predictive mechanism. Your brain doesn't know if your joint is actually in danger. It just acts as if it is. It will tighten or engage muscles to prevent you from moving beyond a particular range of motion.

It may also turn on pain signals for the same reason.

Working around your brain's predictive features

Note that while joints are the critical structures, muscles are what keep them safe and operable. And in extreme positions, the way that your muscles work together to keep joints safe becomes more critical. And so one of the ways you can get more flexible is to learn to work around your brains protective and predictive features.

Note that if you've just experienced an injury say within the last few weeks or even months, then this is the last thing that you want to do. But if you've had flexibility problems for a while then one potential way to get more flexible is to work around your brains protective mechanisms for your body.

For more on how muscles keep your joints safe, start of here in the anatomy section with Sensational yoga anatomy: ligaments are active.

That leads into this idea on how synovial joints are lubricated.

And to reinforce the main point, Joints are strategic structures.

Getting around your brain's protective programming

The more control you have the greater your flexibility. It's an active thing. And what control means is being able to get your muscles to turn on and off at will.

Control also involves feeling your body. That means noticing the sensations that are driven by your muscles. That means noticing when particular muscles are active or relaxed, and noticing when connective tissue is being stretched.

You have to know when your control efforts are working or not. And so you have to be able to feel whatever muscles it is that you are controlling and related connective tissue structures.

These are the basic tools you need for getting around your brain's protective programming.

If you are working to circumvent your brains protective programming, then caution is key. Particularly if you are working around an injury. How you move, how you control your muscles will matter.

Having tools is one thing, using them is another. So as you learn to feel and control your muscles (and it isn't always that easy) the trick is understanding how to use your muscles to trick your brain into letting you go deeper. And actually, you aren't so much tricking your brain. You are actually learning to use your body effectively.

Key elements to learning flexibility

So by now you've ideally got the point that if you want to get more flexible, then it helps to learn to feel and control your muscles and in addition notice tension in connective tissue, in particular: connective tissue within the belly of a muscle, ligaments and tendons).

Another key point to improving flexibility is noticing your joints. Here the key is to focus more on ligament and tendon tension.

How do you go about learning to feel and control your muscles and your joints? Once you've got the ability to feel and control your muscles, how do you then use it?

A key point to learning to feel, or proprioceive, is to practice moving slowly and smoothly. Another point is to give whatever muscles you are working on controlling a fixed end point. You could think of this as creating a stable foundation. Another point is to isolate so that you can focus on learning little bits at a time. And perhaps one of the most important points is learning to adjust or fine-tune. These are some of the basic tools that I use in all of my lessons.

For a taste of basic muscle control and proprioception that you can do anywhere, check out smart yogi pe. You'll learn the basics of feeling and controlling your body and a large portion of the exercises can be done while standing. That means you can do them anywhere.

For 5 simple yoga routines that teach you muscle contorl and then shows you how to practice it in the context of a basic yoga practice, check out smart yogi 5b (5 beginners routines)

If you've already had a few years of experience on the mat (i.e. the yoga mat) or are fairly active already, and you want to learn about how to apply muscle control to improving flexibility, then smart yogi mcp teaches you the basics of muscle control in 6 routines. Find out our more about smart yogi mcp.

Published: 2020 02 07
Updated: 2021 01 29

Neil Keleher

Hi, I'm Neil Keleher.

I have a degree in Systems Design engineering. Before that I served in the British army for five years. My main job was fixing guns.

I've been teaching yoga for about twenty two years now. I also do a lot of programming in python and node.js.

One of my other main projects is studying Chinese, but it's been hold while I developed tools to make studying easier. One of those is a Chinese character dictionary and the other is a Chinese word and phrase dictionary.

Both include a lookup system for Chinese characters that is foreigner friendly and that I'm proud to say that I designed.

Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
Main menu

Return to TOP of Page