For many of our clients, improving flexibility is one of the primary goals in attending the Pilates classes. Yet this important concept is often not well understood.

What is flexibility?

We can define flexibility as the ability of a joint to move freely through its natural range of movement. That range of movement should be primarily determined by the shapes of the bones in the joint, and the length of the ligaments surrounding the joint.

Many people assume that achieving flexibility is a matter of stretching shortened, tight muscles. While muscle length and stretching is part of the picture, it isn’t the whole thing.

What limits flexibility?

In addition to short, tight muscles, flexibility can be limited by:

  1. Muscles around a  joint failing to work together as a coordinated system. This point is best understood by looking at an example. In the shoulder joint, in order for the arm to lift over the head, a group of muscles have to work to rotate the scapula (shoulder blade) up and out of the way. If these muscles don’t work properly, the uppermost part of the humerus (the upper arm bone) will bash into the part of the scapula that projects out over the shoulder joint, and the arm won’t be able to move through its full range of motion.
  2. Muscles have sensors, called muscle spindles, which pass information to the brain and central nervous system about how much stretch the muscle is under. In broad overview, if the brain thinks that a muscle is in danger of being overstretched and could potentially tear, the muscle will be signaled to contract to decrease the stretch. However, if this protective mechanism is not properly calibrated, muscles can be signaled to contract inappropriately, reducing flexibility.
  3. In order for a joint to function well, some muscles must work to stabilize the joint while others perform the intended movement.  However, if the stabilizer muscles are not working properly, then other muscles have to jump in to perform their role. The result may be a tight, compressed joint, with a loss of flexibility.

How can Pilates help improve flexibility?

In the Pilates studio, in addition to stretching, we work on training the muscles that stabilize joints. In many cases, stabilizing the joint effectively is the key to improving flexibility.

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