Active flexibility

Active flexibility is an important element of both pole and calisthenics. It’s not enough to just passively stretch, we need to work on our active flexibility. What’s the difference, I can hear you ask. Passive flexibility is what most people work on when they are stretching. It is when you use external forces to put you into a stretched position. It can be your weight, gravity, dumbbells, etc. Active flexibility is when you only use your muscles to hold you in a certain position. For example sitting in a front split on the floor and holding it in the air.

Ideally we should train both. If you have a big difference between your active and passive flexibility, the chances of getting injured increases as even tho you might be able to push yourself into positions, you’re not strong enough to hold them without assistance. For example you can lift your leg next to your head with the help of your hands or a band but when you let go, your leg drops significantly. This is the point where most injuries happen as your body is familiar with the position but without external help it doesn’t know (as it’s not strong enough) how to support you in it.

If you have hypermobility you are at an even bigger risk of getting injured if you don’t strengthen your end range mobility. Hypermobility is when your ligaments are generally looser around your joints. (If your knees or elbows bend backwards or you can touch your thumb to your forearm you are likely hypermobile.) To strengthen end range of motion there are different options available to you. For example you can passively lift the body part into end range and by loosening the support you try to keep it in the same position.

Active flexibility doesn’t just look good but makes certain moves a lot easier. Thinking about things like a handstand press, if you can keep your legs closer to your body it will be a lot easier to lift them in the air. As an overhead athlete probably the most important part of your mobility is overhead mobility. Tight shoulders increase the risk of injuries forcing the body to find the lacking range of motion elsewhere leaving other structures not designed for it to take up the slack.

Every training session should start with a thorough warm up followed by targeted soft tissue release. For example if I’m having a handbalancing session, I will target my lats, posterior delts and thoracic spine. At times I might feel tight elsewhere affecting my overhead mobility and roll my pec minor, upper traps or levator scapulae. If I’m working on presses, I give my hamstrings some extra TLC. After rolling/peanutting I’d strengthen the newly gained extra range of motion. Sticking with overhead mobility it would be some arm lifts in a childs position, pullovers, wall angels, overhead band lifts, etc. This step is probably the most important. This will strengthen the muscles at end range keeping you safe and confirming to your body that it can let you use this newly found extra range of motion. This won’t happen overnight, flexibility is the result of consistency. However if you keep to it, you’ll notice a huge difference. Due to time restrictions make sure that you’re prioritising. If you only do muscle ups and front levers, there’s no point focusing on your splits.

Active flexibility is an important part of training. It will make you stronger, bendier, and safer. You can unlock new moves and enhance the ones you can already do. It’ll make you a well rounded athlete. So don’t forget to dedicate a few minutes to it as often as you can – it’ll worth it.

Happy flexing!

How to structure a handbalancing session

Handbalancing has gained huge popularity recently. It’s the ultimate sign of strength and control. Long gone are the days when it was only performed by gymnasts or circus artists. It is a staple part of crossfit boxes, breakdancers, calisthenics athletes, pole dancers, yogis, and the list could go on…

Handbalancing is an umbrella term used for different types of balances that only require your hands. For example frogstands, elbow levers, handstands, etc.

Whether you want to learn a new skill, get stronger, improve your balance, have a party trick or just have fun, you will need to start with the basics. Everyone’s starting point will be different, however it’s very important that you don’t skip progressions as it will bite you later on.

The 3 main components of a handbalancing are balance, strength and mobility. When starting out focus on each of these elements and your progress will be a lot quicker.

Mobility. Start each session with a thorough warm up. Shoulder and wrist care is of utmost importance as you’ll be putting a lot of weight on them in positions that they are not used to. You can use a foam roller or peanut to mobilise your lats and thoracic spine and a corkscrew for your forearms. Move them in all different directions and once they start getting warmer, start putting more weight on them. Follow this with active flexibility exercises focusing on your wrists, lats and shoulder end range. The biggest restricting factor is normally your latissimus dorsi. This is the muscle that comes from your back and attaches to the front of your shoulder. If it’s tight it won’t let you put your arm straight overhead making you compensate elsewhere and this is how a banana back was born.

Balance. After this whilst your body and mind are still fresh I would work on some balance drills. This section completely depends on your level but things like a headstand to get used to basic balancing, frogstand for using your fingers, a kick up against a wall trying not to touch it for learning how far to kick or shifting shapes if you can already hold a freestanding handstand. This will have to be adjusted to your individual level. If you can’t even hold a headstand there is no point kicking into a freestanding handstand. The idea here is to make you master a progression before you move on. A good indicator would be if you can talk whilst holding a move. If you can that would mean that you don’t need 100% focus as your body (and brain) knows what it’s doing.

Strength. Handbalancing requires a great amount of upper body strength. It can be classed as a pushing session (if you’re doing splits). You need strong triceps, delts, rotator cuffs, upper traps and serratus anterior. You need strength in order to support your bodyweight by your arms and endurance to hold it for a period of time. Depending on your level you can start by doing banded rotator cuff exercises, wrist strengthening drill, holds, dynamic movements (wall walks, cartwheels, etc) or other exercises (L sit, compression drills, push ups, etc).

The great thing about handbalancing that it doesn’t require a great deal of space. To get better at it, you need to practice it regularly. However always listen to your body and have rest days when you need it. Especially when starting out you need extra time to strengthen your tendons which will take longer than strengthening your muscles. Overuse injuries are common however can be avoided.