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Flexibility is Neuromuscular

I have a theory. It’s less of a theory, and more of a framework that I am going to experiment with in my movement and fitness practices. I don’t have the expertise to test it or even research it from the standpoint of medical science. I’m going to adopt it, conditionally, and see how I feel about the outcomes.

The theory is that flexibility is primarily neurological. Your muscles tense to avoid overextension. This is primary mechanism that limits our range of motion.

It is a protective reflex, but like most protective reflexes, it is triggered very early, long before a particular movement would actually cause damage.

It is a learned reflex. We learn it when we do overextend to the point of injury and trauma. But far more, we learn it through our day-to-day lives as we move our bodies. Whatever range of motion is normal for is clearly safe. It is familiar and comfortable. Any range of motion that is unusual or abnormal may not be safe, so our nervous system will prevent us from going there. This is how we lose range of motion by not exercising it.

The good news is that anything that is learned can be unlearned. The bad news is that this learning does not happen in our concious mind. If I show you a diagram of a ball and socket joint and use it to explain to you that your hips and shoulders actually have 230 degrees of freedom along all axes, that is not going to make you able to move that way.

The way to teach the subconscious nervous system is through gentle, playful repetition. If it is unpleasant your body will try to protect itself by limiting the range of motion. This is the stretch reflex. Instead, we must extend the range of motion while at all times moving in a way that is safe, comfortable, and familiar.

It will be a slow process but also a pleasant one. The time will pass anyway. This is a good way to pass with it.