Get straight out of bed no more than 5 minutes after waking up and try to touch your toes. Mark where your best effort was. Then later in the day, do a lower body session and finish with a bunch of stretches for the lower body, including the hamstrings………
How much better was it?
Huge? Enormous? Ridiculously so? Mind blown? Someone else’s legs on your body in the morning?
I’ve been there and it annoyed the shit out of me. I could Jefferson curl to the mid forearm (or slightly further) when warm and using a decent weight to pull me down, yet when I woke up I could barely touch the floor!
I thought it was just a case of getting deeper and deeper in my ‘warm range’; warm range meaning the range I can express after being fully warmed up and pre-stretched aka my ‘max range’.
But I found my Jefferson Curl range and weight went up and up but my cold/out of bed range didn’t!
And you can relate, right? You might not relate to the hamstring example exactly, you might resonate with the example of a deep squat and having to warm up to achieve depth, even in squat shoes. Yet if you don’t warm up and mobilise prior, you just fall backwards and/or struggle to get the hip crease below the knee?
This begs the question: can you claim you have the flexibility at all if you have to warm up for ages and use every stretch you know for the relevant area?!
As much as I wanted to say yes, the logical side of my brain (the left side) kept saying NO; if I can’t show you a front split whenever you ask me to, have I REALLY got a front split?
And the same goes for any other move really – even things like handstands or front/back levers. If you can’t demo them for at least 5-10 seconds repeatedly, you’re stretching it a bit to claim you have them ‘locked down’.
FINALLY getting there cold(er) & how long it takes (my experience)
Time tested readers may know 2019 was the year I wanted to upgrade my flexibility in the lower body once-and-for-all.
I knew the value of lower body flexibility for easier calisthenics skills so wanted to make the investment now, instead of getting stuck down the road. Plus it was a new venture and challenge; one quite different from chasing muscle ups and rings skills.
Amazingly, I managed to get a flat front split on my ‘good’ side (left leg forward, right back) the day before my 28th birthday that year. I still smile now when I look back at the pics and think back to the feeling it gave me……..
Once the celebrating was done the work was far from over and had actually only just started! I still had to get flat on the ‘bad’ side and there was the infamous SIDE/MIDDLE SPLITS still quite far out of sight. As a side note I had gotten a solid pike and pancake prior to the front split touchdown, but they were embarrassing in their raw, cold states.
Winding the clock forward to now I have achieved the last two outstanding goals – the front split ‘bad’ side came in May 2020 & the side split landed the day before my 29th birthday which was just super special!
And this is the interesting part: it’s only as recent as March/April 2021 that I’ve been able to touch down truly cold in either the pancake, pike or ‘good’ side front split……..
What d’ya know, all those pics and vids you’ve seen were in a warmed up state?
I’m guilty as charged. My hands are high.
But in the Instagram post below you see a genuine un-warmed up snap of my split and pancake, and by ‘un-warmed up’ I mean no pre stretching, no dynamic drills and no leg exercises. Just my usual daily activities that day.
That’s around 20 months after first hitting these positions for the first time ever! Yep, that ‘0’ on the end is supposed to be there 😉
How to speed up your own cold flexibility progress
Here are some lessons from my journey and factors I think are most important for boosting flexibility gains and making them stick:
1. Consistent training schedule despite individual session fluctuations
This isn’t some cliche pinterest motivation telling you consistency is all you need to get everything you want…….although it would be halfway right! This means fully committing to a flexibility training schedule that’s as similar as possible to general strength training.
I’ve mentioned it many times when I’ve touched on gaining range before but you really have to hit it hard and frequent – anywhere from once every 5-14 days. I’ve experimented with once every 5 days for all the main lower body moves (front splits, pike, pancake & side split) and I’ve done it bi-weekly; where every other week would be either side splits/pancake or front splits/pike.
Neither was particularly better although I did find once every 14 days felt like the progress was slower than it could have been/was on the once every 5-7 days frequency.
The biggest thing here is doing it irrespective of whether you feel tight or feel like you’ve not gained range in a few sessions. IT HAPPENS. IT’S NORMAL. WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE.
Just do your best on a given day and sometimes this means not pushing it super hard. Flexibility is a temperamental beast; it’s very non-linear without any real explanation. You can go from a crappy session to a personal best and from a personal best to a crappy session. You can feel great and perform terrible and you can feel terrible and perform great.
I’ve had all of the above but I kept plugging away and eventually when the body’s ready, it will start showcasing the gains you’re slowly making!
2. Actually lightening the load on your weighted/loaded flexibility work
I remember the summer of 2019 when I first started getting the pancake ‘flat’ aka my head to the floor but still with some notable upper back rounding. I could only really do it if I was pushed into it. I remember Ulrik (UlrikOnHands) pushing me gradually down to the floor at his and Tom Merrick’s summer workshop in London.
I also remember my friend sitting on my tailbone to get me down and another friend pulling me in to the pancake as she used me to pull her into the splits!
But getting there solo? That took ages and was pretty much a fantasy.
Gradually though, through a mixture of contract relax work, compression drills and loaded stretching (pancake good mornings), I could get down without the weight of an entire human pushing me down…….but it took ages and was a struggle.
It’s strange because I treated the pancake good morning like you would any strength exercise (going up in weight where I could) but past a point this becomes counter-productive, unless you’re /going for the world record pancake good morning 1RM! Or anytime you want to do/show a pancake, you’re happy to need 20-30kg to hand in order to do it.
Lightening the load makes range harder to come by as you’re now having to PULL into end range, as opposed to being PUSHED in by the weight(s).
3. Being as active as possible/using the ranges you’re building whenever you can
I wanted to stay away from cliche sayings and classic philosophies when writing this post, but sometimes age old sayings and beliefs are age old for a reason; THEY’RE TRUE.
And the ‘USE IT OR LOSE IT’ principle is a perfect example, that’s even more perfect when it comes to maintaining/developing new levels of flexibility.
Your general posture illustrates this brilliantly. The way you stand/sit/carry yourself is as a direct result of the positions you assume the most. In contrast to this, positions you find yourself in the least will be the hardest to access.
Dancers stay so flexible because their practice requires the use of their flexibility – and often! Even their warm up drills involve moving through various high level flexibility positions such as splits, pancakes etc – and many of them are dynamic, too.
A personal example of mine is one I’ve written about quite substantially lately: my journey with losing and regaining shoulder extension. In 2019 I got to a very high standard in this range of motion, to lose most of it some 15-18 months later. I only dipped to 90 degrees and never went below back lever level, so therefore my shoulder extension abandoned me.
The take home message here is to go into the ranges you’re looking to build more often while you’re trying to build them. Which sounds pathetically simple but more often than not, pathetically simple is the missing ingredient in a world of over-complication.
Kit Laughlin calls this ‘limbering’; where you aren’t trying to reach new ranges of motion but you are trying use your current ranges of motion.
4. Thinking of it all as ‘strength training’
This is yet another ‘stupidly simple when you get it but not so simple when you don’t’ scenario. But essentially, your current flexibility in any area of your body is simply a resemblance of your strength ratios at whatever joints you choose to assess.
Let me explain……
We’ll use the upper leg as an example. If the thigh (quadricep) muscle is strong, tense and taught but the back of the leg (hamstrings) aren’t anywhere near as strong, tense and taught, then this person is going to have a very hard time opening their hips and knees into any position requiring the lower portion of the anterior chain to be open.
Moves like the bridge, hero pose, advanced hip flexor stretches etc are all going to be hell on earth for this person. Whereas if they brought the strength up in the muscles opposing the thighs/hips (the glutes/hamstrings), they’ll find the tension/restriction through the thighs/hips goes down notably, and their flexibility is significantly better.
This is why some coaches will just get you working on glute and hamstring strength to open up your hips, or to work on your upper back strength to open up your chest. They won’t even have you stretch at all in some cases!
When you think of it as balancing strength ratios between sides of a joint, it makes the plan of attack a lot easier and the exercise selection becomes easier too. Until the looser/weaker side of the joint gets stronger you’ll always be spinning your wheels trying to get more flexible.
5. Don’t over-measure your cold ranges of motion
Constantly checking your cold range after you get breakthroughs in warm range will drive you mad and is a fruitless endeavour. If warm range varies wildly then cold range is even more ‘schizo’.
Cold range of motion depends on how fresh you are, how long you’ve been hitting good range when warm, the climate you’re in, your mental state and probably so many more things we don’t even realise.
I understand it though, it’s disheartening when you consistently show off and hit new ranges when warm and someone asks you to show them in day to day life – aka a non-training environment – and you can’t get near it………
Are you a liar or do you just use sophisticated editing software?!
The key is to let it be and carry on anyway. Turning warm range into cold range takes even longer because the cold range is when it’s finally stuck. And yet again we can use an age-old mantra to sum this up: if it takes you 5 years to get tight, surely it should take you close to 5 years to get loose?
Some may well see their cold flexibility improve faster alongside their warm range than I did……..some may be slower, such is the beauty of individual response variation here.
But when you test it much more sporadically you will be pleasantly surprised as I was. It’s like the skinny kid who keeps measuring his biceps after each set of curls and crying every night because he ‘isn’t growing’.
Raw flexibility gains are probably the slowest thing you can see progress within the fitness world. Keep pushing, keep working and think long term – or even longer term than you thought initially, and make peace with it.
But once you get them they’ll never leave you unless you stop using the ranges or have a very long lay off…..and even then they won’t take too long to reclaim.
If you enjoyed this article I have a video version on my YouTube channel, where I have made a detailed video full of clips from throughout my journey, where I talk you through these points! The video is below……..
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