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Active vs. passive flexibility, and the relation to strength requirements for GST


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A helpful member sent me a question/comment that was posted over at the GB forums. Please understand that Olivia and I have been banned from even viewing these forums, so (talking about the future now) if any of you want our perspectives on anything to do with flexibility and it's posted over there, we can't see them.

Please send them to either of us privately (confidentiality will be respected) and I will simply post the anonymous question here. Here is the first one: A GB Forum member wrote:

one important thing that must be said is that straddle v-ups is an active flexibility. the active flexibility is about muscle tension to achieve the position.

in order to achieve that you need to win the passive connective tissue tension of hamstring. by the way if you are a beginner probably 2 legs lift is actually to much for your body to overcome the total muscles tension.

said that i need to clarify that for gymnastic the passive elongation or passive stretching is recognized as non-functional. what is the reason to develop extreme muscles length if you do not have the strength to move along it?

There is wisdom and confusion mixed in this perspective, in my view. Understanding which is which requires an understanding of the reciprocal inhibition reflex. Let's refer to this as "RIR" from now on; and understanding how this works in the body is crucial to understanding why it does not matter how strong you make any muscles, if they are being inhibited by the opposing group in the execution of an element, this strength cannot be used.

Talking about the straddle V-up), the key relationship is this: when the brain, through the neural system, experiences that an opposing muscle group (in this the hamstrings and adductors) have reached the end of their present ROM, this reflex literally switches off the brain's connection to the muscles you are using to try to lift the legs (RA, TFL, and the hip flexors). RA= rectus abdominis, TFL= tensor fasciae late. This switching off (the technical term is inhibition) is why you feel you 'can't' lift the legs, or that you feel there is no strength there—even though you might be able to do weighted hanging leg lifts in other parts of the same ROM with (say) 10Kg. Once the muscles on the other side of the joint signal that their present ROM has been reached, it's all over: you can't access that strength.

This is why actively pulling yourself into the pike or pancake with the core/TFL and HF muscles feels so different to using your hands to pull you deeper into these positions, too.

This is where the alleged "non-functional" passive elongation techniques referred to above become highly functional: you choose exercises that stretch the opposing muscle groups (here, all the muscles I identified in yesterday's post re. 'Mastering the pancake'). And then, once you have gained some new ROM in this pattern, you go right back to the active flexibility practice (in this case, the straddle V-up) and you try it again. Instantly, you can get the legs a bit higher: the brain's restriction has been lifted, and that RIR cuts in later in the straddle V-up's ROM. it still cuts in, but later than before. Your experience is that you feel that you can lift your legs higher. I can't stress this critical point enough: what you FEEL you can do is what you CAN do. There's complex neurophysiology in play here, but this experience is the primary point. All this is mediated though the proprioceptors, those organs that sense a limb's position (and there's a set that are time and position dependent, too, and these need separate training; subject of another post).

This is why actively pulling yourself into the pike or pancake with the core/TFL and HF muscles feels so different to using your hands to pull you deeper into these positions, too: once the brain's connection to the core/TFL and HF muscles has been heightened (and we have techniques for this, too), when you activate them in the straddle V-up, they in turn inhibit the hamstrings and adductors. The RIR works in both directions. We play one against the other; the result is enhanced capacity to exert force in the compressed positions, and enhanced capacity to let the opposing tension go.

And (referring once more to the quoted comment) no one, least of all me, is arguing for "extreme muscle length"—where did that come from? We are arguing that to achieve all the gymnastics positions you use ST techniques to identify whether the restriction is more neural or fascial and use the appropriate technique to improve that, and then go right back to the movement pattern you are trying to achieve. Any gains are instantly incorporated into the mind's concept of what it can do.

As an aside, it's fascinating to me that so much interaction on forums and wider life is positioned as oppositional terms ("it's this, or it's that"). Very rarely is this the case. I researched this very human tendency for may years at a post-graduate level (google dichotomy, bicameral mind, etc.) before realising that these limitations were 100% mental constructs. They are not real. Only the experience of doing, or trying to do, something is real. Find your limitations, and work on those. ST has the tools to help you do this.

Comment welcome.

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rings a bell with what I'm experiencing with laying doing flat against the floor in a supine position whilst doing PPT.

Kit, I am so pumped for this.

I've been under a lot of emotional stress as of late, very related to "standing on my own feet" and wonder if these feelings are what have held back my hip mobility this entire year. I commenced GB style GST in January upon the release of the Foundation series and my upper body has felt an immense leap in ROM actively and passively.

around June, in this euphoric journey of building my body and doing mechanics(like fixing things here and there to get up and running) I came across your fascial rolling for middle splits and applied the technique to my quads, straight down, down the sides, TFL, glutes, Calves, then lower back and there was an explosion of ROM from one moment to the other.

here is a picture of my Arch body hold in Aprilpost-2881-0-10618100-1392330444_thumb.jp

and then this was RIGHT AFTER an intense foam rolling session with bruises the next day and the whole lot. needless to say, my everywhere was super rigid. but then this magic happened:post-2881-0-74513000-1392330492_thumb.jp

but once I started going through a more intense emotional turmoil and went inwards(not really telling people my problems and etc) even though I foam roll and find no tender spots compared to my first time, I went back to the ROM in June.

what are your thoughts on this? yes, I stopped rolling for a while, but once resumed, it's as if it doesn't solve the problem.

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Hi to everyone, i'm happy that my answer created the opportunity to talk about that argument.I do not have problem about anonymous user, i'm here to learn from everyone sharing my opinion). i want to state that i'm a big fan of Kit works and his wok solved all my problems until now.

I want to emphasize that my words were simplified so that i wan able to put some light on my point of view. This is not only my point of view, i'm very critical about what i can learn during my life, this statement about NON-functional was told to me at LEVEL 1 gmnastic coach course. At the beginning i had the same reaction as you Kit, simply because i did not understand how i can freely generate strength without the proper RIR. My considerations came from my knowledge about neuroscience that is one of the most important aspect of my university course for now.

There is no doubt that a solid basis of passive flexibility is needed , i make in my mind always the same question" i have super strength but i cannot stretch?! why?" . Kit gave us a great answer to that why.

Personally i find that for the most average of people is better develop ROM in exercises using active flexibility while performing passive flexibility but not only passive.

During the flexibility day of that course o talked about this aspect with a 20 years national coach and his opinion is that there are 4 approach to flexibility

-passive flexibility

-dynamic passive flexibility

-static active flexbility

-dynamic active flexibility

while if you posses the last one you can easily demonstrate the previous, this is not happening if you can demonstrate the first one.

The point of the discussion after moved into "how use the flexibility with clients if they have to play with it without any support (stand alone stretch)".

To win against the passive muscle tension there is , for the best result, the myofascial release, but i need to admit that my knowledge here is limited but of course is not something easy to do, especially if you are alone. The best way to stretch in a SAFE way is use your strength, you will never reach a danger-zone if you use it. It's the only way? probably not, is a final goal. Probably i could address a flexibility problem with different approach, but if i need a safe approach with someone with bad body control, i will choose active movement less then ONLY-passive-flexibility approach.

For the rest i'm the first one who seen result combining passive stretch with active stretch.

To summarize my pov : "create your passive rom, then build up strength along it", there is a certain level where the passive component will be greater compared to active, a point where they are balanced and a final component where the passive is less then the active.

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Let me reply to KeilaniG first. You wrote:

wonder if these feelings are what have held back my hip mobility this entire year.

Definitely. One's emotional self IS one's patterns of tension holding, and the positive emotions (like joy, love) are a letting go of these tensions. Everyone has a way of holding their body; everyone has a unique way of responding to stress. Everyone know what getting angry feels like. This feeling (and the immediate consequential experience of the emotion we describe as anger) is a unique way of holding the musculature and internal organs. A huge amount of recent research supports this, and (IMHO) the best of it is cited in my books.

Understanding this (I mean really understanding this) cannot be done by volitional mental processes alone. I feel this is reason enough to cultivate a deep relaxation habit (can be a lying practise, to begin with) and then other, deeper practises, and this is because this awareness only arises when the mind is completely still. Most people's minds are very busy places indeed, and the body reacts/reflects what's happening in the mind.

There is much more I can say on the subject but probably this is enough for now. Even just recognising that there is a connection between one's emotional state, different stressors, and the increase in tension around the body that experiencing one's life as stressful always (and without exception) causes can be enough to change the experience itself. Unlike mechanical systems, the system that we live in reflects on itself constantly and is aware of itself in a way that no machine is. Our understanding of these matters has in fact been confused and over-simplified immensely by even using these kinds of metaphors to think with. I wrote a reasonably long post on my blog on the subject only earlier this week and I will post the link below.

http://wp.me/p1QR8D-iz

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Allessandro, thank you so much for posting this amplification of your original remarks.

There is MUCH more to be said on this subject, but I only want to touch on a few things now.

The first is that we never use passive stretching by itself: we always use the Contract-Relax approach, and one of its advantages (over all other methods of stretching) is that it alone develops new strength at the end of the range of movement. When you combine this by active flexibility (again, active flexibility has been part of our work forever) you explicitly strengthen the contracted end of that same muscle's ROM—so we are deliberately targeting both ends of the ROM, the fully stretched end and the fully contracted end.

The second aspect (and I have written about this extensively) is that we use the RIR and the C-R reflexes together as often as we can AND we use a new reflex that I first named in the book Overcome neck & back pain, 4th edition, the Apprehension Reflex wherever possible. This term describes the increase in tension in the whole body and/or the part being worked when the organism experiences what's happening as threatening. Protective tension is the result. All our exercises are designed to reduce this experience; increased ROM is the immediate result. As an example, supported middle splits is what we start with, because just adding some support by itself improves the position immediately.

The best of our exercises use all three reflexes together (the bent-knee lunge hamstring stretch is a perfect example); I will post a link to a promo I made for a workshop in Canada I made last year; in it I describe how all these reflexes are being used.

And then there's all the facial release work (KeilaniG talks about some of this above); don't ignore that, either.

Finally for today (I must get on to other things and I am not a touch typist) practising the excellent GB exercises will incorporate any improvements you get in ROM using any or all of these techniques—never forget, the complex movement or hold is the goal of this work (and then there's the dimension of using stretching as a recovery aid, but that's a different beast again).

All of what I talk about here is our work.

It's worth watching the whole thing (I'm biased like that!).

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Let me reply to KeilaniG first. You wrote:

Definitely. One's emotional self IS one's patterns of tension holding, and the positive emotions (like joy, love) are a letting go of these tensions. Everyone has a way of holding their body; everyone has a unique way of responding to stress. Everyone know what getting angry feels like. This feeling (and the immediate consequential experience of the emotion we describe as anger) is a unique way of holding the musculature and internal organs. A huge amount of recent research supports this, and (IMHO) the best of it is cited in my books.

Understanding this (I mean really understanding this) cannot be done by volitional mental processes alone. I feel this is reason enough to cultivate a deep relaxation habit (can be a lying practise, to begin with) and then other, deeper practises, and this is because this awareness only arises when the mind is completely still. Most people's minds are very busy places indeed, and the body reacts/reflects what's happening in the mind.

There is much more I can say on the subject but probably this is enough for now. Even just recognising that there is a connection between one's emotional state, different stressors, and the increase in tension around the body that experiencing one's life as stressful always (and without exception) causes can be enough to change the experience itself. Unlike mechanical systems, the system that we live in reflects on itself constantly and is aware of itself in a way that no machine is. Our understanding of these matters has in fact been confused and over-simplified immensely by even using these kinds of metaphors to think with. I wrote a reasonably long post on my blog on the subject only earlier this week and I will post the link below.

http://wp.me/p1QR8D-iz

hmm...I do notice how when I get stressed, the first thing I notice giving me a "poke" for attention is the tension i feel in my glutes. I notice this the most if I'm driving, not necesarily out and about walking because i try to duplicate a reasonable posture.

this would probably explain a bottleneck in my meditation(buddhist and daoist breathing for Qigong) if I sit against the wall of my bathroom shower, i can hold a nice meditative state listening to the water for 8 minutes but freebalancing a cross legged position makes me too aware of the tension building either in my back or my thighs from either holding myself up or tilting over from losing my sense of balance while I'm focusing on my breath.

so could I take this down to a laying down meditation?

also, I'm going to make a statement to help me formulate my next question, I heard it once at a self improvement seminar, it was a lady taking about this organization that she represents and how their (our real work is not in taking these children, young children, out of the slums and the ventederos [this is a spanish word, it's kind of like a garbage dump but one where people live], the real work we do is throughout that childs life is to remove the slum and the ventedero from their hearts.)

my question: after I move on from this chapter in my life(it was long coming but i'm starting to see the light in the sky changing, so the sunrise is coming) physically, will the internal work(self improvement through questions, being honest with oneself, forgiveness, etc etc) be a supplement to the flexibility work and vice versa?

because ever since I noticed my upper body mobility improving, i read an interesting PDF on body line work and how the upper body has to do more with "reaching out, doing things, grabbing life, etc" and how the hips, legs, etc has to do with "standing on one's own feet, control, safety, etc" was something I could actually see in my Magnetic Resonance results. in my work with Kung Fu, I thankfully got to go through the basic introduction to chakra development and noticed how my external world improved, my organs and glands were becoming healthier. (the change in diet also did wonders, so i know there are multiple variables, yet the fact that I felt a certain way about a particular subject and i could cross-check it with an organ system, was fascinating. like how I started working on my anger/frustration/feelings of abuse and my liver and heart got better.

now i need to work on my spleen.... and whatever underbalance i have not observed.

thanks for the insight.

little bits of important information gives me hope that what I had read, experimented and contemplated has a place in science and could be used as a tool to set me free.

thanks again, Kit :)

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KeilaniG; I am happy you have a practise. Just a quick reply for now (other things have to be done).

I will also be making another program, not related to GST at all, and in the same time period (before mid year is over): it is called How to sit for meditation. The short story is you must use a support under your hips when you sit, or pain is a certainty, as you have found.

You wrote:

the real work we do is throughout that childs life is to remove the slum and the ventedero from their hearts.

my question: after I move on from this chapter in my life(it was long coming but i'm starting to see the light in the sky changing, so the sunrise is coming) physically, will the internal work(self improvement through questions, being honest with oneself, forgiveness, etc etc) be a supplement to the flexibility work and vice versa?

Yes, definitely. More later.

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Hi Kit of course i mentioned the passive approach since it was cited a lot.

I've always used the CR approach and also i met your concept on the 4th edition of your book.

By the way i admit that outside the mobility/flexibility work there is a little problem of "semantic". i prefer to use the term active if i suppose a contraction of a muscle to elongate the opposite. the real fact is that every type of stretch needs the body to use energy both contraction and relax. so why call it passive? is never a passive situation.

What is your point about that?

do you think is possible manage an isometric active split position only with CR technique?

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Alessandro, passive stretching does exist, but few athletes use it (dancers are the exception). Passive stretching usually just means getting into any stretch position, and then relaxing there and staying there doing nothing. In one sense, though, as you say, you are still "doing" something when you are relaxing, so let us just say that there is a continuum, and a theoretical one at that, from passive to active.

In my experience, passive is the least effective method ​for me but my fascia is very tight. I have seen people use that approach over time, and it works for them.

Most of us use a combination of active (in the way we have been discussing here, using agonists to stretch antagonists, and the C-R method together).

It is possible to achieve an isometric active splits position with only the C-R technique, but why use only one technique? Use them all, I say. Each of us has to find what works best for their unique body. And in gymnastics, the capacity to control the end positions of, say, straddle depends on your capacity to activate the opposing muscle group. This strength comes from working the basic elements that you are already doing (I mean, when you actively hold a straddle).

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I do not want to comment on the situation re. our relationship with Coach publicly, beyond say that we still recommend his work, and we still feel it's the best of its kind. Unfortunately, we have been banned from viewing, and hence posting, on the GB forums, and the vast majority of our posts were about helping someone with a problem. We can do that here.

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Thanks for the clarification.

I would ask to you a persona opinion about a modification of the CR stretch.

In order to combine both benefit of CR method and active flexibility do you think that could be useful insert at the end of a CR stretching pose a contraction of the antagonist muscles to train the strength at the maximal ROM? i thought about that yesterday and i noticed that it can be applied over the most exercises but not at all.

For example in split position where ideally i have to squeeze my abductors. very hard.

I think that for me and not only for me could be a very good thing if, at the GST flexibility session in Italy, you can provide (where possible) a combination of poses + active stretch to achieve the most popular gymnastic position as active front and side split etc.

Do you think will be possible?

Best regards

Alex

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Allesandro wrote:

In order to combine both benefit of CR method and active flexibility do you think that could be useful insert at the end of a CR stretching pose a contraction of the antagonist muscles to train the strength at the maximal ROM?

Definitely; I was talking to my 'main man' DW today, and this was exactly what we were talking about. It is the future, IMHO. It's what we both do, and I will write a post on this exact technique very soon. In the meantime, please play with it and let us know how it works for you. It works brilliantly for us.

And a full 100% yes to what you ask re. the Piacenza worksop, too.

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Hi Kit-

Like what seems to be many here, the straddle-up has brought me to this subject on your forum. I've been doing straddle-ups for 12 months straight now, with basically zero improvement in my ROM. Frustration doesn't begin to describe how I feel at this point. However reading your quote above "you feel you 'can't' lift the legs, or that you feel there is no strength there" was a huge releif for me, as that's EXACTLY what it feels like... like my muscles have been "turned off", and I guess is why doing the movement by itself for a year would have no effect on increasing my ROM. I've increased my ROM in the Jefferson Curls, but again that has had no effect on my straddle ROM. You seemed to have hit the nail on the head for me, a huge enlightenment. But now the question becomes what protocol of what specific exercises to increase my ROM in straddle-ups? I assume this is exactly what the "Master the Pancake" program will be?

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HamdC wrote:

I assume this is exactly what the "Master the Pancake" program will be?

Exactly! IMHO, for many people, practising the straddle-up is the least effective way of improving this movement pattern; there are many reasons, many of which I write about above. On the other hand, the work you are doing in the Jefferson curls (a great exercise, BTW, that I recommended in the very first edition of my book Overcome neck & back pain), will benefit you in many other ways, so persist with this.

Developing the capacity to feel how to activate the key muscles that lift the legs in this position is crucial. But, and this is a massive but, if the load in the activity is too high (as it is, by definition, for people who can't do the straddle-up), then alternative, easier, doable activations are needed, to develop that precise connection. This will be part of the Mastering series.

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The refining of the combination of contract-relax and active-flexibility work will be very interesting. As Kit mentioned, a lot of people who have been doing ST for a while and have embodied the system to some degree do this already innately in some stretches; as it just feels good/like the thing to be doing. The strength, length and what muscle groups are contracted in what postures and end-positions is going to be fun to explore. It makes total sense to do it, IMHO, too - to 'lock in' the end range post C-R's via active-flexibility and/or isometric contractions.

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