As a professional athlete, my job was essentially to follow orders without question. The results were great at the time. I was bigger, stronger, and faster than at any other time in my life. But the realities of chasing a max bench and squat started setting in only after my playing days were done.

I had aches and pains that prevented me from doing the activities that I loved. The only solution? Do what I always did: Train. Hard. This had been the philosophy drilled into my psyche for many years. Hurt? Work through it. Pain? Walk it off. Only the strong survive. **pound chest and grunt**

Well, no. Only the smart survive.

When I finally summed up the courage and ignored the machismo voice in my head, I hesitantly stepped into my first yoga class. It was a Yoga Tune Up® class in Santa Monica. Humbled would be the most politically correct way of describing how I felt after the class finished. Flexibility was a word that obviously never found its way into my vocabulary. It was time to learn.

Importance of Flexibility

While many people focus on strength and cardiovascular exercise when they enter the gym, it is actually flexibility that should be the primary focus as it is the foundation of physical health. With an injured shoulder or hip you can imagine not being able to reach above your head or taking a full stride when walking. The body will protect itself and prevent you from moving into ranges of motion that cause pain. This is a normal and natural protective mechanism since the body is not in perfect health. This is also why health can often times be gauged by how wide your sphere of movement stretches from your body’s center. Your sphere of potential movement starts with flexibility, since tight muscles can inhibit potential movement in much of the same way as an injury.

Improving flexibility will have an instant and drastic impact on athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury. Needless to say, I don’t talk about bench pressing or squatting anymore. Those are just numbers on a piece of paper that once served to inflate ego. Now, when I wake up in the morning, I move. I feel for tight spots and stretch. My Downward Dog looks more like a pointed arrow than a rainbow. I can comfortably reach down and palm the floor with locked legs. I’m a couple of blind spots away from doing a hand stand without the use of a wall. Oh yeah, and I don’t hurt.

Try this YTU pose called Asymmetrical Uttanasana (and for more like it check out the Quick Fix for Hips videos) to access the flexibility you need to forward bend successfully!

Watch our free Quickfix for hips video.

Discover solutions for hip pain.

Find a Yoga Tune Up® Class or Workshop near you.

Luke Sniewski

Luke Sniewski (www.lukesniewski.com) is one of the emerging leaders in the Sustainability Movement, since optimal personal health ultimately stems from optimal environmental health. A former Pro-Football player and CPA, this suit-and-tie left cubicle world to change the world one person and idea at a time. He is a micro-greens gardener which puts his Masters in Sustainable Food Systems and professional culinary expertise to practical use. His motto “Healthy Living. Smart Business. Endless Fun.” has provided a personal mission statement that guides his coaching, training, speaking, writing, and living. Follow him on Twitter. (@LukeSniewski)

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Barbara

Interesting to read about the strength vs. flexibility conundrum from someone whose main focus was strength training. I usually tell my classes that building muscle and strength is the key to their health, and is more important to their life and longevity than flexibility — but then again, the demographic I work with is not particularly strong, and few people I come into contact with have genuine restrictions due to their muscle mass. My reasoning is that functional strength enhances flexibility — if you don’t have adequate strength in your legs, say, you won’t be able to get a decent… Read more »

Tim

Thanks Luke,
Living in the United States in the 21st century, very few of us need to have brute force strength. However, to maintain good health throughout our life we all need functional strength. As you pointed out; flexibility, mobility, and body awareness are key.

Lauren Reese

Great blog! As a yoga teacher who primarily works with athletes and CrossFitters fundamentals in flexibility are key and critical for success! Within mobility and proper range of motion loading the tissues is a recipe for disaster! Thanks for sharing your experience, I know it will inspire others!

Rachel T.

I am going to send the link to this blog to every athlete, coach, and trainer i know. Maybe hearing come from a pro will finally help sink in that mobility is NOT the last step in their training but the first! It breaks my heart to see middle and high school athletes injured like I was at 18 just because they forgot how to move in their own body. Covered in blind spots and compensation for their dysfunction, they hurt and ache and complain. I hope that coaches and trainers get the memo that they can help prevent these… Read more »

Martine Kerr

“Only the smart survive.” Love it. I’ve never thought about it as the sphere of movement around my midline as a baseline for assessing movement capacity but I really like that concept. I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty bendy person…touching toes has never been a problem. Going backwards however, I know I’ve got issues that would probably need a counsellor to help with…my sympathetic nervous system kicks in with just thinking about it! But since most of my athletic and training pursuits pretty much only needs flexibility in the frontal plane, I’m set…or so I thought. In fact,… Read more »

Kerstin

The combination of strength and stability and flexibility that we can achieve through Yoga Tune Up is really remarkable. It’s amazing how these techniques can take someone from a place of too much strength, and bring him to a place where stability and flexibility are in balance with strength. Hats off to you for recognizing that there was another option to the “pound chest and grunt” mentality and finding your way to where you are now! As someone who’s primary focus is yoga, the opposite is true – too much flexibility is the danger, and not enough strength and stability.… Read more »

Mary Eileen

Enjoyed reading the male point of view. Never too old, or modest, to know there are many ways to take care of ourselves and stay healthy.

Angelika

Today we speak a lot about muscles, fascia, and stretching. To stretch or not to stretch that is the question! I am not a scientist and I do not work in labolatory to decide if stretching of muscles, ligaments, tendosn or fascia is helpful or not. However there is one thing that we shoul remember about during our exercises or even regular life. BALANC. The most important is to find balance in between. In the case of our body that would be in between strength and flexibility.

Heather

Most of us have felt the way Luke has after life as an athlete I think the interesting thing is that no one ever talked to me about flexibility or mobility during my athletic career. Looking back now I wonder if those things had been addressed would I have been able to avoid the knee and shoulder surgeries that are common place is sports.

martina sturm

Having had 2 different competitive/semi-professional sports careers in my lifetime, I can only emphasis the benefits in recover, sports performance and injury prevention from a regular stretch routine. I only wish I had known about ball rolling back then!

Emilie Goldstein Mikulla

I played a lot of sports when I was a teenager and never really gave much thought to stretching. Then I went to college and never gave much thought to training! A few years later, my body started to hurt, I was getting older and couldn’t get away with what I could when I was a few years younger. I found that with stretching, it needs to be a daily routine. Stretching requires patience and I think also that you have to accept that there is only so far you will be able to stretch with tearing into ligaments and… Read more »

Melinda

Great article Luke! I love reading the male point of view and wish more heavy lifters would make the connection between strength and flexibility! Thanks for sharing.

Dustin Brown

Awesome! I had a similar experience, training too hard and too often without stretching properly. My first yoga class was very humbling !! I could feel the good it did for my body and now Yoga is the Yin to the Yang in my life. Thank you for sharing!

Marsha Marsha Marsha L.

Hi Luke! That’s one of my visions is to help people continue to do the things they love until they die. i recently was certified 200hr yoga teacher, but I am currently expanding my training with Yoga Tune Up® in Santa Monica because I have been injured 3 times in the past three years doing my favorite activities: exercising, obstacle course races, even yoga! I’m so excited to continue my practice. I’ll just have to commute from San Diego to take a real Yoga Tune Up® class! Thanks for re-iterating the importance of flexibility in your athletic endeavors, and mentioning… Read more »

Jen Ferruggia

Thank you for this post. I couldn’t agree more. As an athlete, I find when I concentrate on my flexibility and agility I am also stronger and faster. If I neglect my flexibility, my muscles are tight, I lose some range of motion and speed as well. When teaching or coaching my student athletes, I am sure to incorporate a dynamic warmup with stretching and foam rolling before each practice or training session.

Lisa Hebert

You’re so right when you talk about training smarter. That’s the whole point of this Yoga Tune Up journey- for me at least. We all have body blind spots and we all have our path. As a professional dancer and yoga teacher, I am learning to stretch less (or at least no longer glorify the ability to hyper-stretch) and to find ways of building strength to support my movement patterns. It doesn’t mean though, that I’m completely taking stretch out of my teaching. I work with a lot of very tight, over-trained bodies, and now (after my level 1 training)… Read more »

Michelle Clemens

Yes, I agree, flexibility is the root of strength. I tell my massage patients constantly that if we are not balanced, we are going to injure ourselves. People don’t understand the opposite of tightness is weakness. What happens to a weak muscle or joint? OUCH! We are out of commission for a while. One reason I love YTU is because it really makes you target muscles, not poses.

Sandy Ahlensdorf

What an awesome article explaining the importance of flexibility (not hyper-flexibility!) in athletes, and anyone with a body. Sharing with my gym rat friends – thanks 🙂

Bruce Peterson

I just finished the Embodied Anatomy workshop with Trina Altman and she had some great demonstrations and lecture points about the need for strength and flexibility. The gist was, like most things, too much of anything is not a good thing, The hyper flexible need to build strength to prevent injury just as the hyper strong are likely to need to build flexibility to prevent injury.

Bruce Peterson

I’ve never been a gym rat by any means but without question I have added more muscle in the 3 years I’ve been practicing yoga than at any other time in my life.

Alex Booth

Luke I really enjoyed your article as I had a similar experience to yourself. There seems to be an aversion especially in certain circles to “taking care of your business” as Dr. Kelly Starrett would say. I followed a similar path as you did when feeling pain as I was advised by my peers “just work through it” or “man up” etc. I’m glad I found mobility work and YTU as it’s gradually undoing some of the harm I caused myself by not including that as part of my life-style and training. It’s allowed my to continue training and improved… Read more »

Natalie

I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years, athletic as a kid and adult and most recently crossfit for the last 5 years. Since i started training, i have watched how lack of flexibility among my fellow athletes has not only led to injury, but has also limited athletic performance. I have long stressed the importance of stretching and mobility and i’m happy to see tune up as a response to this need.

David Bateman

Is it improving flexibility, or improving the body’s ability when challenged to achieve a great range of motion without risk of tissue damage? Just like strength and everything else fitness related, flexibility has its’ place, but in my opinion you shouldn’t overlook the other aspects and focus solely on one thing.

Bridget Hughes

Great post! Thank you for your openness, three cheers to you for being a convert to stretching.

JEM

Thank you for your post. This is something I am trying to get my brother to do, stretch/yoga. I am going to fwd this post to him. It’s true that stretching and flexibility increases and improves a workout tremendously. Even if a person can’t get their ‘typical’ cardio or weight lifting routine in that day, the benefits of an at home stretch or yoga sequence will be just as beneficial.

Christine Colonna

Thanks for this post…stretching is so important for athletes and so underestimated. I always tell clients that flexible trees don’t break… So to be strong you have to flexible as well.

Ilene

This is so true about the need for flexibility when you are more athletic. Before I started practicing yoga, I used to lift weights and my shoulders got super tight. That made my access to certain yoga poses harder. Thank goodness I have increased my flexibility through yoga. I like this pose a lot as it’s a great stretch for the muscles in the side of the leg, the lats, the QL, the hamstrings, and lumbar extensors.

Katy K.

The last sentence of your post says it all! Who knew so much pain and discomfort was avoidable. Whether a first-class athlete or a rookie in the world of exercise and coordinated movement, there is so much to learn. Certainly hindsight is 20/20, but I can’t imagine the kind of career longevity all kinds of serious (and not-so-serious) athletes could have had in their careers if they had incorporated yoga and fully informed stretching as part of their conditioning, no different than windsprints or lifting.

Maya Gil-Cantu

Thank you for this honest reflection Luke! I work with a ton of athletes (predominantly men) and they should all read your post. You are totally right, improving flexibility will impact on athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury. For that reason alone I truly believe that all athletes should have a separate coach that offers some sort of stretching/yoga/YTU program to augment traditional strength and conditioning programs. They way I like to connect it all is to say that power comes from speed and speed comes from flexibility.

Rachelle Gura

Love this! So great to see a convert to flexibility. What makes this so good is he is coming from strength. When you’ve gone one it’s great to add the other since the body needs BOTH. I’m on the flexibility side and realize I need more strength. So I stay with Yoga Tune Up® because it does both.

Ilana

This was really interesting to read. I played tennis competitively throughout middle school and more significantly in high school. I had many coaches through my tennis club and at school. Reflecting back on that time, with the knowledge I have now, I am shocked at the little emphasis that was placed on proper stretching. Tennis left me with chronic shin splints and extremely tight hamstrings. I learned today that my hamstrings are tight because the fascia around my hamstring is tight. I am glad that I am growing more mindful of my areas of tightness. I appreciate that this article… Read more »

Megan Kelley

I participated in organized sports in high school, but never became a serious athlete or even paid attention to what type of physical activities worked to keep my body feeling healthy and fit. At that point my goal was to be thin, so I was doing over two hours of cardio a day with minimal strength training and barely any stretching. I achieved what I refer to as skinny fat. Yes i was slim, but I had no tone and no flexibility. As I got older, I started yoga classes, but still was lacking any real type of strength training… Read more »

Carley Beck

I was a junior olympian and college athlete in the same boat, and it wasn’t until a marathon (or rather not taking a break from training the two days afterward) that I realized I was more than just a high impact, grit your teeth and perform kind of athlete. I had an overuse injury in my knee that put me out of action for over six months. I couldnt do anything, even walking was ill advised. I had to relearn how to be an athlete and respect my body. Wow thats news lol. I found that stretching (or lazy stretching)… Read more »