We have recently posted several articles highlighting the training, maintenance, science, and importance of flexibility. Just a few weeks ago, for example, we shared how flexibility figures into fitness performance.
We have reference ranges for everything nowadays – blood glucose, growth charts, micronutrient intake, etc. Do any exist for flexibility? Just what are the standards of flexibility for general health and well-being?
Let me explain why you’ve never encountered such standards in the doctor’s office as well as offer some simple tests you can perform on yourself to determine whether flexibility is an area you should prioritize to perform and feel your best.
How to Know if You Need Some Work
There are a myriad of assessments you can perform that help identify maladapted length-tension relationships among muscles. Let’s explore 3 basic tests that you can do yourself and 3 advanced tests that can be performed with a fitness professional. These tests will illuminate where flexibility training needs to be a part of your program.
The Basics – Do These on Your Own
Touch Your Toes
Everyone (barring those with a major surgical intervention or anatomical malformation) should be able to bend at the waist and hips with stiff knees and touch their toes. Inability to do so is likely indicative of a tight lower back and tight hamstrings. Both can be remedied with techniques previously discussed in the Core 3 blog, with magnesium supplementation (for possible nutrient deficiencies) and with activation of the glute and core complexes.
Since these muscle groups are most commonly firing during repetitive cardiovascular exercise, it is extremely important to ensure that they are all firing functionally to prevent injury! Can’t touch your toes? Then get on that flexibility!
Static Posture Test
Do a quick posture check. Stand with your back against a wall. Your heels, calves, buttocks, upper back, and head should all rest touching the wall without straining.
The nice thing about this test is that it identifies the problem areas of your flexibility almost immediately. Additionally, it gives you a frame of reference for how you stand during the day. Are you standing with strain? Or do you naturally have good posture? Poor posture affects everything you do. Flexibility training can fix any issues you find here.
Behind the Back
How is your shoulder, chest, upper back, and arm mobility? Stand straight and attempt to touch your middle fingers behind your back. Right arm up and left arm down first. Then switch.
If you cannot touch your middle fingers behind your back, it’s time to start getting serious about increasing your shoulder stability and range of motion! It’s no coincidence that shoulder injuries are common during weight training.
Advanced Tests – Best Done with a Professional
Overhead Squat Assessment
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and hands directly overhead. Perform 5-15 squats (sitting back into that invisible chair) as deep as you are able while resisting your arms and chest falling forward.
Can you stay upright, or are your arms pulled down by overtight lats? Is your weight evenly distributed, or do your hips shift to compensate for inelastic adductors, obliques, gastrocs, or erector spinae? This is the bread and butter of the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s corrective exercise assessments, and any trainer at Life Time is able to perform this on you with accuracy as we are all required to maintain our NASM CPT certification.
No problem with two feet on the ground? Nice job, beast mode! Time to try a single leg squat assessment. With this information we can tell you exactly what needs to be rolled and stretched as well as what needs to be strengthened to keep you injury-free and strong! [i]
Stand in front of the Free Motion Cable Row Machine. Perform a row squeezing your shoulder blades behind you and keeping your chest elevated and core engaged.
Turn around and do the opposite motion (a push) while keeping the head and chest elevated with shoulders down. What happens? Does your neck pull your chin forward when you are pulling or pushing? Is your chest too tight to allow your shoulders to retract fully backward? Do your shoulders ride up into your ears when you are pushing? Can you fully extend your elbows both during the pull and push? A professional will be observing all of these and more details while you perform this set of movements. [ii]
The LESS Test
I saved my favorite for last. The Landing Error Scoring System is an assessment of muscle tension and relaxation before, during and after a jump! This one also requires a recording apparatus of some sort. (A smartphone should work just fine).
Mark half of your height’s distance away from a 12 inch box. Stand on the box, jump from the box, land on your mark, then jump as high as you are able. Your professional will record the side view and front view of the jumps.
Using a scoring system, he or she will score 22 items such as: Knees turned out on landing, yes or no? Feet landed symmetrically, yes or no? Pelvis tilted during unloading phase, yes or no? With this information we can add necessary exercises and stretches to your program to ensure proper biomechanics for increased power output and decreased risk of injury. [iii]
Why These Assessments Aren’t Part of Your Annual Exam
Each of these tests – whether basic or advanced – are very objective and definitive tests. So, why are you only now aware of their importance? Why are they not a part of your yearly medical checkup?
As it turns out, it’s extremely difficult to scientifically establish a quantifiable range of acceptance for any of these given standards that correlates with specific health outcomes. As definitive as a LESS Test is, [iv] there are no longitudinal studies to show, for instance, that if your knees collapse inward > 30ᵒ upon landing you will have a greater risk for, say, glucose imbalance in the next 3 years compared to someone whose knees did not collapse in.
This may sound absurd, yes. However, these kinds of correlative and causal effects are precisely the relationships between flexibility and health that the sports science community is searching for. Such causal measures may be found within the next 5 years with advancements in experimental methods.
When these measures are found and verified, fitness professional services will increasingly be accepted by the medical community as preventive treatment and thus warrant coverage by more insurance providers. How nice would it be if your insurance covered 3 months of personal training every year to help you with your fitness journey? Would you use it? I know I would!
In the meantime, it’s up to us early adopters to use tests like these to keep ourselves in amazing health. If you need a second pair of eyes or advice on how to proceed because of your field test results, ask a fitness professional in your Life Time club. As always, we are happy to help!
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Download the Core 3 Training Manual.
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[i] NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training [ii] NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training [iii] NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training [iv] Committee on Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Pate R, Oria M, Pillsbury L, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2012 Dec 10.
[i] NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training
[ii] NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training
[iii] NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training
[iv] Committee on Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Pate R, Oria M, Pillsbury L, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2012 Dec 10.