Stretching and Flexibility: Olympian Advice For Lazy Giz Readers

By Jacob Lewis on at

Oh, to be as stretchy as a gymnast; a carefree life full of surfing the internet with my legs behind my head, and opening doors with my feet when my hands are full. Elsa Garcia, Mexico's poster girl for London 2012, brags that she's flexible enough to do all that and more. I spoke to the Olympic gymnast between training sessions and got the lowdown for all the lazy Gizmodians out there.

Before meeting the stretchy Elsa, I spent a long time looking at the science behind why she can do the splits and I can't. Turns out it's all based on the myotatic reflex, a conditioned response that makes sure your muscle don't strain or tear. If your muscle lengthens beyond a certain point, the myotatic reflex will tighten it up to make it shorten. It works with your muscle fibres sending a signal to your central nervous system, and if your muscles increase their length more than usual, this contracts the muscles so you don't tear a limb off trying to stretch too far. Regular stretching just slowly reconditions this reflex, as well as lengthening the muscles themselves. Simple really -- so what's stopping us? Closing our laptop lids would be a start, I suppose.

Seeking intel on just how long it would take me to recondition my stiff and puny legs, I start telling Elsa that thanks to sitting at a computer all day, I'm so inflexible I can't even cross my legs properly. How long would it take for her to train me, so I could wrap my feet behind my head? Tantric-style, if you follow me.

"If you start stretching about 30 minutes a day, plus exercising for one hour, it would take about a year," she tells me. "Just moving your body also helps you regain flexibility and agility, so it's not all about stretching. A lot also depends on your age, because as we age our muscle fibres become less stretchy. If putting your legs behind your head is the aim, you not only have to stretch your legs -- everything is connected -- you have to stretch your back, your neck, your arms your thighs. Basically everything."

Elsa also tells me it's no good being too stretchy if you haven't got the strength to control it -- you'd only end up kicking yourself in the head. Something she's quite familiar with, telling me between laughs that she's kicked herself "more that once, but never a hard blow to the head -- you see it coming so you control your leg as it goes up towards your head. That's when the strength/flexibility combo comes in. You have the flexibility to hit yourself in the head, but you also have the strength to control the flexibility."

So being super-stretchy isn't always the best thing to aim for, I ask Elsa.

"Not in artistic gymnastics; we need a balance between strength and flexibility. Rhythmic gymnasts are completely, all-the-way stretchy, and never concentrate fully on strength because that would reduce their stretchiness."

But how important is stretching for you, the Giz UK reader, who's feeling inspired by the Olympics and fancies popping out for a run?

Elsa's advice for anyone reading this is that "even if you don't do an Olympic athlete's workout, you still need to prepare and let your body know that you'll start doing physical activity."

As it turns out, some people are not meant to be stretchy, but instead, springy. Someone with a lot of natural explosive muscle strength like Super Mario would be very inflexible. Mario probably can't even touch his knees, let alone toes.

"Stretchiness is proportional to explosive muscle strength," Elsa tells me, adding that "It's a fact that very stretchy people are not explosive, and that explosive people have a hard time being flexible."

Like most things in sports science, the theory behind stretching is one big mess of contradictions and confusing studies. Men's Health recently published an article in praise of the static stretch -- the kind we all got taught at school -- saying it helped improve strength without any other exercise. Then the New York Times published an article suggesting that static stretching for more than 30 seconds was bad for you and doesn't do a thing to help you limber up. The study they cited suggested you should get loose with more active movements, like running along the floor on your hands and knees doing 'the spider', before any intensive physical activity.

Repeating all of this to Elsa, she said both articles are correct, and that she dabbles in a bit of everything before she competes.

"We do a whole lot of different stretching. We start with the warmup stretching, then we do a bit of conditioning (strength exercises) to activate and tighten the body but without tiring it. Between each event, each gymnast knows what he or she needs, to perform at a high level of body functionality, so we stretch or warm up some more. At the end of the competition we stretch again to finally relax the muscles in order for them to cool down in a relaxed way, and not tighten up -- that tightness appears the next day in horrible muscle pain is not something we want."

Finally, I get to the question I've been dying to ask -- can she bite her toenails, or eat food with her feet? She laughs, cleverly side-stepping the odd toenail question, and replies that she doesn't have the coordination to eat with her feet. She can tell I'm disappointed: "There are a lots of other benefits," she throws at me, "like when I have a lot of things in my hands, I can reach the doorknob with my foot and open it. Or, if I forget to bring my house keys I can climb on my house's wall and use all that gymnastic strength and flexibility to get in my house through a window."

There'll always be contradictory reports around exercise -- after all, everyone's bodies are different, and what works for me won't necessarily work for you. But getting off your backside, having a little stretch first, and going for a run or workout is a good start. You'll be breaking into houses and surfing the net on someone else's trackpad with your dirty little toes in no time.

Photos credit: Laura Blancas