Understanding strength and flexibility
Strength and flexibility work together when it comes to balance. Without sufficient of either then you will not be able to walk about. Balance requires strength of the large leg as well as small pelvic muscles as well as a sufficient degree of flexibility in the hips and pelvis for adjustments to take place in order to keep your center of balance in the right place. (for more details see the post on shifting weight).
Ok, so we know it is important but how do we make sure we are strong enough as well as flexible enough at the same time. To answer this let us look at the body’story regarding both of these.
We all remember when we were in our teens and twenties running about with our bodies simply doing everything we wanted them to do without arguing back. Then all of a sudden the body starts to argue with you sometime in your early forties. You wake up with stiffness more often, it takes that little bit longer to get the body moving, it may even be more extreme like putting your back out.
My observation is that flexibility is the first of to go. The decline begins sometime in the late thirties. The main area of decline is in the hips and this is noticed often by overall stiffness in the movement of the body. What you often see is the smoothness or ease of the walking deteriorate.
When I talk about flexibility I am not expecting that you need to be able to do the box splits. Flexibility in this sense is the ability of the tendons, ligaments and muscles to be able to flex in order to adjust the levers of the body, i.e. joints, while either stationery or in movement in order to maintain your balance.
The main cause of the initial decline in flexibility is the lack of movement and dominance of linear based movement in most sports and exercise routines. Firstly, lack of movement in our daily lives results in the muscles of the hips and lower back weakening and becoming less flexible. The fibers in the muscles shorten due to lack of use. Also the structure of the body will tend towards the position you place it in most of the time. If you spend 8 hours a day in a seated position then the body will tend towards a structure to support this position. In a seated position there is little or no use for the muscles tendons and ligaments of the hips. Due to lack of movement the muscles of the hips and lower back end up sitting in their own waste product and this leads to clogging of the muscle which reduces the condition and flexibility of those muscles. (muscles need movement to move waste through the endocrine system as it has no hear to pump it like the blood circulation system)
Muscles that spend long period of time sitting in their own waste due to lack of use will weaken both in terms of flexibility and strength. The muscles ability to absorb nutrients diminishes and over time the muscles cells adapt to lower work loads and less nutrients by reducing their size, flex and strength.
Secondly, walking, running and cycling are what we called linear activities. That is the legs are moving on a single plane forwards and backwards or up and down. The hip joint is therefore only used in a single plane that only uses and flexes a subset of hip muscles. The body will tend to allocate resources to the part of the body that is being used the most. So that the tendons and ligaments and muscles used in these linear based activities will be more flexible and stronger than the ones that are not. This will lead to an imbalance in terms of some muscles and tendons and ligaments in the hips being stronger and more flexible than others.
There is also a subset of muscles that connect the hips to the spine and upper body and in most linear activities these are only selectivity used on a single plane to keep the upper body upright while the legs do the work.
It is the combination of extended periods in a seated position and/or imbalances from linear based activities that results in a subset of hip tendons and ligaments and muscles that are not used sufficiently in order to maintain their flexibility and overall muscle condition.
Reductions in strength tend only to become apparent later on, although they do start at the same time as the loss in flexibility, you tend to misdiagnose a loss of strength as a loss in flexibility. However, it gets to a point where it is obvious that your strength is lower. When this happens it tends to lead to a loss of confidence which in many cases leads to less movement and a negatively reinforcing spiral develops.
So what is to be done about this? The key is a weekly set of routines that address both flexibility and strength of the whole body. You need to move and exercise all muscles in all their relevant directions of movement every week. As you get older the frequency will tend towards a daily routine.
Qi-gong and Tai Chi are a unique set of exercises that offer the range of movement and intensity to achieve the bodies need to move all muscles in all their directions.