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January 26, 2021

Strong is the New Stretch

Reimagining bendy poses for strengthening purposes.

What is it about stretchiness that is so intoxicating? I recently responded to a question on Instagram:

“Are side splits a worthy goal? Or is that kind of range [of motion] unnecessary?”

I’m a physical therapist. One of the foundations of physical therapy is functional movement,  movement practices that support our lives. 

From that point of view, I quickly answered “Unnecessary”. (The person was not a gymnast or performer).

But I’m also a yoga teacher of 20 years, so thinking about the splits, hanumanasana, is not new to me. I understand the confusion in the yoga and movement space about flexibility and goals.  I also see this new emphasis on strength within range for the the limitations that it has.

“Are there any negatives to achieving strength in that range, though?” the writer asked.

“Yes,” I wrote, “potential labral tears, FAI, and joint instability.” 

Side note: I don’t discourage all humans from any particular movement. Some of my clients are acrobats and circus performers whose profession includes side splits. But there are real consequences that can appear after repetitively pushing into or beyond joint end range positions, especially without guided, intentional trainingWhy risk it if you don’t need it?

He pushed back, “Even if you are strong in those ranges?”. 

“Yes, bone structure is bone structure”, I finished off, referring to the fact that our hip sockets typically allow for much less hip abduction (out to the side range of motion) than is required of a full side split. 

That is a skeletal fact.

This conversion stuck with me for a few reasons:

  • Why would we (yogis, movers, athletes) pursue side splits? What benefit do we think we will gain? Are we doing it for performance or aesthetics, and if so, for whom?
  • Are we being honest with ourselves about our “why”?
  • The movement world has matured. More than ever, people understand that strength across our total range of motion is more important than stretching into new “empty” (strengthless) ranges (a vital concept.) Even so, movers can easily forget the greater purpose (functional movement that supports our lives) for pretty shapes (side splits).  

Maybe it’s Instagram culture? 

Yoga asana lovers like myself can be extra guilty of this myopic view. We often don’t grasp the importance of centering strength with function, instead conflating flexibility or mobility with achievement and health.  

Many yoga styles pursue aesthetic or geometry-based alignment that doesn’t recognize the organic nature and biodiversity of the human body. 

In truth, aesthetics belongs more to the world of dance or gymnastics. 

Today I want to show you a third way – a path not focused on stretch without strength, not focused on aesthetics or extreme or geometric ranges of motion. Instead this path pursues a fusion of natural, functional movement with yoga asana. 

This path is more informed, more accessible, potentially more mindful and inwardly focused as we feel into the shapes more, and we focus less on whether a leg is straight or a knee is bent to 90 degrees. 

This following video offers up just a few of the creative ways to revise a couple of stretch-oriented poses into strength poses

Bridge:

  • Hamstrings variation toes up 
  • Hamstrings variation toes up on block / chair / ball 
  • One leg – single tiptoe
  • One leg – cross over knee 
  • One leg – lift body and lower

Warrior 3

  • Supine
  • Bent knee standing 
  • Keeping upper body at 45 degree angle
  • Add in locust variations
  • Hold a block in one or both hands or behind your knee 

What poses do you want to see reimagined as strength-based? 

What other poses might deserve re-examination from a movement science lens?

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