Before I’ll dive into this topic, I want to clear up some confusion that came out of a similar article called The 6 fundamental strength movements. One author of a well-known gymnastics book pointed out to me that fundamentals must always be called out in relation to a particular goal, not as general pursuits, and I accepted his comment. Let me be clear: these articles about “fundamentals” must be taken within the context of Kinema Project, which has a particular point of view about human movement. This point of view is an invitation, not an imposition, to other people who’d like to share it with me. Having or not having these fundamentals does not makes you a better person, it just means that you have found our point of view valuable to your own goals and pursuits.
Continuing on, our view says “Gymnastics and Weightlifting for Movement Conditioning”, which means using Gymnastics and Weightlifting to create a person who has more freedom for choosing any type of movement he’d like to explore. We do this through these practices, because we believe they make the best combination to achieve this goal.
Part of this virtue of developing a lot of movement qualities comes from the fact that Gymnastics and Weightlifting involve difficult and complex movements. Just think of how many things one must have covered in order to do a press handstand: is it a strength move? A flexibility move? A control movement? Or does it in fact involve all of the later qualities and many more?
The problem with this? You cannot focus on developing a movement until you have at least the capacity to train it. How many of us have tried to develop a handstand without first having the basic mobility to do it? Flexibility is, with joint health, some of the areas which limit the most adults who want to get into these type of practices. While lacking strength just means you need to keep working at some movement, a lack of flexibility means you cannot even train that movement.
The problem is then, how do we define clear stretching goals so we can focus on specific targets. The pursuit of “general flexibility” assumes there is such thing, and usually leads to a lack of progress and the frustration of feeling naturally stiff.
You get good at what you practice often and consistently, and flexibility is no different. Having clear stretching goals is a must in order to develop high levels of flexibility in those moves, so it’s wise to make sure that they are key movements. The good thing is that Gymnastics and Weightlifting are some of the practices that require the most flexibility out there, so having very specific goals on those two areas might bring you really close to having sufficient flexibility for almost any type of movement practice you choose. Still, the road to this general quality should be one of specificity.
So, what are the 7 stretching positions you should develop to have the sufficient flexibility for Gymnastics and Weightlifting? They are the Pike, Pancake, Bridge, Front split, Side split, Shoulder extension and Squat.
-Pike: The pike stretches our whole posterior chain, including the plantar fascia, calves, hamstrings, glutes and lower back (actually, it involves fascia that reaches from your toe to your eyebrow). It is very easy to recognize this range as lost in our society, with people trying to reach to the floor and having to compensate with rounded backs a lack of mobility in the posterior (back) chain. The good and bad news for the adult is that the pike is a fundamental gymnastics position, so you’ll have to work at it. The pike includes all folding forwards movements with legs straight and together, and it will help you in movements like the deadlift, pike press handstand and v-sit.
-Pancake: The pancake is like the pike but with straddled legs. This means the adductors are now involved, which is a problem for people who have caved-in knees and common postural disorders, like a hyper-lordotic spine. Just getting into the initial stage of the stretch might be a challenge at first, but one that is definitely worth it. The pancake includes all folding forwards movements with legs straight and straddled, and it will help you in movements like the sumo deadlift, straddle press handstand and many acrobatic feats.
-Bridge: This one and the squat are for me the most important stretches of this whole list. The bridge is the perfect antidote for the typical civilization’s posture: a c type shape where the front of the body is tight and the back of the body is weak. If you have been training only your frontal and most visible part of your body (biceps, chest and abs) this will be your greatest stretching investment. The bridge includes all back-bending motions, and it will help you in movements like the backhandspring, Mexican handstand and Scorpion headstand.
-Front split: Even though the splits are recognized as a clear sign of great levels of flexibility, they are the less useful of the stretches in this list. Still, a good front split stretches the usually tight hip flexors and quadriceps in one leg, while in the other one the glutes and hamstrings are being stretched. The front split includes all front and back legs apart motions, and it will help you in movements like jumping or standing splits, scales or handstands.
-Side split: I find that the most useful benefit of this position comes from the great adductor conditioning that improves knee stability. Like the Bridge, the Side split clearly blends flexibility with strength, and its pursuit can be a great lesson on the mental blockages new ranges of motion offer. The side split includes all side legs apart motions, and it will help you in movements like sumo deadlifts, aerials or splits handstands.
-Shoulder extension: This means the ability to put your arms behind of you, by going backwards and not upwards (which is shoulder flexion). In a society of manipulation, our hands are typically in front of us typing on a computer, helping us cook something or pushing a barbell in the gym. The action of moving our hands backwards may seem foreign but it’s still crucial in order to keep structural balance in the shoulders area, as it stretches the pectoral muscles, biceps and anterior (front) deltoid. Shoulder extension includes all arms backwards motions (not upwards, as the bridge already covers that), and it may help you in movements like the back lever, manna or muscle up.
-Squat: It is debatable whether focusing on the gymnastics stretches alone would “freely” give you a squat, but at least in my experience this hasn’t been the case. The squat adds the dimension of ankle and more glute flexibility, not to say the thoracic spine. A deep and relaxed squat (not necessarily the “straight back heavy barbell squats” position) is a must position for every walking human being. In a recent interview, Emmet Louis said that in his opinion three basic ranges of motion every person should have are folding forwards and touching their toes, raising their arms overhead without arching at the lower back and being able to relax in a deep squat position. I agree. If there is one mobility goal here that all humans should have irrespective of their activity, it’s a squat. It will include all bent leg knees to chest motions, and will help you in all type of squat movements.
What about yoga and dance?
Two other practices that require great flexibility are yoga and dance. With dance you can include most of its advanced movements like the standing splits or back-bending motions in the stretches shown before. When talking about any of this positions I am referring to an area more than an specific range, so for example the pike stretch would include both reaching forwards to pick something of the floor and a single leg pike head to toe.
Most stretches can be included in some of these areas. I say stretching positions for the reason that you do not want to close the goals, but talk about areas of development. In the case of yoga, focusing on the stretches above can indirectly give you the flexibility to achieve positions like this downward dog and pigeon pose shown below (which I rarely train).
If you think about it, even movements like Yoganidrasana can be included in the Squat category. Its just a matter of organization to categorize them within one of these movements, or as combinations of them. Examples of these would be the front split head to toe (a combination of the front split and single leg pike stretch), the King of the dancers pose (which standing is a combination of a front split with a backbend, and seated is a combination of the pigeon stretch, not covered in here directly but easily attainable with the front split and squat, and a backbend) or the Pu bu (which could be seen as a squat mixed with a single leg side split) .
There are many areas not covered extensively in this list, like hip internal rotation, oblique flexibility or many neck motions, but they are not as performance driven as these positions above. The purpose here was not creating categories that could cover each and every stretch in the world, but the ones you should focus on to be proficient at Gymnastics and Weightlifting. We also wanted to show some of their applicability to other areas, in order to convince you that these goals will be very replicable in other high flexibility sports, not to say anything below that level of demand.
If you want to train these practices and beyond, keep at the center of your flexibility practice the Pike, Pancake, Bridge, Front split, Side split, Shoulder extension and Squat, and include on the periphery everything else that you feel is necessary to work on. One year ago I was stiff as a board, so this is all coming from experience: narrow your flexibility efforts to worthy goals, and your body may very well surprise you.
Kinema Project products
–Pliable body (Get flexible fast!)
–The Dynamic Structure (Bulletproof your joints!)