“It’s never too late to train your flexibility!” This is what someone who should know says: The 24-year-old Emir is a dance acrobat and appears in the current program of the Circus Knie. The afternoon performance begins in an hour. Now he’s warming up in front of a coat rack.
Colleague Victoriia, in perfect balancing act, agrees. She spontaneously recommends a daily exercise: the “cat,” standing on all fours and moving her spine impressively up and down.
A celebration of mobility
The circus performance is then a celebration of mobility. The audience is amazed – and questions themselves: “When I look at the circus people, I feel completely immobile,” was the reaction of a visitor during the break.
You are not born immobile!
Anyone who compares themselves with the professionals could lose heart. Or think that good mobility is innate, determined by body structure. But: “You are not born immobile,” says sports student Nadine Engeler, brushing off nice excuses.
Apparently it’s more the case that the initially good mobility simply disappears if you don’t use it. The limiting factor is usually that the muscles are not used enough. The good thing about it: muscle flexibility can be improved.
Mobility is needed in everyday life
While in some sports, such as ballet or the circus, maximum flexibility is a requirement, more modest goals are sufficient for everyday life.
Not everyone has to do the balancing act.
The Basel sports scientist Oliver Faude describes it like this: “It is desirable to feel good in your body and to remain suitable for everyday use, even as you get older. But not everyone has to do the balancing act.”
A sensible goal, however, is to be able to bend over in a way that protects your back, or to be able to put on your socks when you get older. Unfortunately, people often only pay attention to the topic of mobility when it is restricted. For example, through tension.
How agile should we be?
Some circus visitors want to know: They take an agility test. A sports science team of two has set up a lounger at the circus entrance. Ralf Roth and Nadine Engeler target the hamstring muscles.
She studies sports and physiotherapy, he is a lecturer in sports science at the University of Basel. An incorruptible protractor creates facts.
The 52-year-old Martin lies down on the lounger. The specialist team pushes their straight leg upwards. The pain threshold is reached at 74 degrees of flexion. The measured value is just below the green range of 80 to 90 degrees, i.e. a right angle.
Creating this bend is more difficult than you would think, the result is not bad. But an older visitor, 56-year-old Dora, shines with a 130 degree bend.
Flexibility training works at any age
Dora’s secret is regular, intensive yoga training, which she has been practicing for decades. The specialist team is not surprised by the very good measurement results; the 56-year-old is doing a lot of things right:
- She moves several times a week.
- Your training includes relaxing as well as strengthening exercises.
- She respects her pain threshold.
Sports scientist Ralf Roth explains: “It’s usually enough to stay 20 percent below your maximum mobility and you’ll still get better.” And he emphasizes that age does not have to be a limiting factor for mobility. What matters is what you do.
Tension – the opposite of good mobility
Too little mobility can lead to painful tension. They are often the result of too little exercise and are particularly common among people who work for hours at the computer. This is also the case with Aline Dünr.
“My neck is like a block, the muscles are hard, immobile, just tense.” – Aline Dünner is now devoting herself, for better or worse, to the consequences of her one-sided attitude to office work.
The tension patient is a typical case for Martina Nussbaumer. The sports physiotherapist at the Schulthess Clinic explains that our body reacts with tension when we handle it incorrectly.
There are many reasons for muscle stiffness:
- General lack of exercise
- Rigid postures
- One-sided loading
- Emotional stress
The consequences: Affected muscle areas have poorer blood flow, receive fewer nutrients and oxygen, and become tense and painful. Instead of moving more, which helps to relieve tension, those affected often adopt protective postures.
A weak muscle is a muscle that is prone to tension.
The physiotherapist emphasizes that this is unfavorable: “A weak muscle is a muscle that tends to become tense.” That’s why tension often sets in motion a vicious circle that only makes the problem worse.
Those affected often come to the physiotherapist with high expectations. They would like to have their complaints massaged away. But personal initiative and physical work are required.
It’s actually simple and doesn’t take that much time.
That sounds worse than it is, says patient Aline Dünr: “It’s actually simple and you don’t need that much time.” She now trains with dumbbells to strengthen the muscles in the back and neck region.
In order to avoid the next tension, you should deal with the causes. This can mean setting up the workplace differently, reducing psychological stress and building up strength.
This is also in the spirit of sports scientist Ralf Roth, because he notices: “Many people think they can solve the problem with stretching.” But the solution lies in posture building.
Stretching in sport: an eventful history
- Dynamic stretching: For decades, dynamic stretching was the standard. To warm up, you perform quick movements that are based on the respective sport.
- Stretching boom: Stretching emerged in the 1980s. The entire sports world stretched, in motionless positions. People thought it was healthier.
- Current practice: The stretching boom has now subsided. Today, different forms of stretching have their place in sports science, depending on the sport and training goal.
- Mistakes from yesterday: Stretching doesn’t help with sore muscles and it can do more harm than good if you overdo it. Today, for example when jogging, stretching doesn’t necessarily have to be done, neither before nor after running.
- Magic formula strength & stretching: Today, the same applies to flexibility training: Anyone who cleverly combines strength and stretching increases the training effect (see exercise video).
Magic formula: move & combine strength
The afternoon performance at the Knie circus is over. The many measurements and discussions have once again shown lecturer Ralf Roth and student Nadine Engeler what is fundamentally important if the body is to remain flexible: “In principle it is simple: movement makes you flexible.”
The 5 most important tips for more mobility
If you want to become more flexible:
- Make sure to move around a lot.
- trains in such a way that many muscles have to work.
- combines flexibility and strengthening exercises.
- utilizes the existing flexibility of the muscles as much as possible.
- respects pain limits.
Of course, other factors play a role: someone who moves one-sidedly, perhaps cycles a lot, may be in great shape – but their mobility still leaves a lot to be desired. Similar with stretching without muscle work: It feels good and makes you more flexible, but the muscle can lack strength.
Sports scientist Ralf Roth therefore recommends a final piece of advice to anyone who wants to become more flexible through physical activity: “Combine mobility with strengthening exercises – that’s our magic formula.” Because in today’s sports science, strength and flexibility belong together.
If you want to start your flexibility training right away: Ralf Roth and Nadine Engeler show a whole range of suitable exercises in the following video.