by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
Athletes with exceptional muscle mass gave rise to the belief that weight training could make one muscle bound. There are many sophisticated ways to measure flexibility, and I’ve known trainers whose flexibility assessments take more than an hour to complete and require special equipment such as a goniometer to determine the precise angles of each extremity.
One reason these practitioners perform so many tests is that flexibility is joint specific, such that a person may be able to perform Cirque du Soleil acts with their upper body but cannot touch their toes. Also, the tester must consider both age and gender.
Whereas most young women can perform the splits after a bit of training, it would take a young man a considerable amount of work to perform this movement – and some may never be able to do it. As for the influence of age, as a child grows in height the proportionate length of their legs increases in relation to their trunk. As such, whereas a 10-year-old boy might be able to easily touch his toes in a sit-and-reach test, two years later he may not be able to do it.
Another factor to consider when interpreting the data on flexibility assessments is individual anatomy. Sergio Oliva was a two-time winner of the Mr. Olympia (1967-69), and although he failed to defeat Arnold in future Mr. Olympias, there was no doubt that he packed more muscle on his frame than any man, or mutant, on the planet. In fact, when Arthur Jones measured their arms, Sergio Oliva’s stretched the tape, “cold,” at 20 1/8 inches, whereas Arnold’s were 19 7/8, slightly pumped. “Sergio’s arms are so big that they literally must be seen to be appreciated – and some people, upon first seeing them, are almost unable to believe their eyes; in a recent full-length picture of Sergio, the width of the flexed upper arms exceeded the height of Sergio’s head – his arms were literally larger than his head, a size ratio never before approached by anybody else,” wrote Jones in Bulletin #2. I mention Sergio because he could be associated with the term “muscle-bound” because he could not completely flex his biceps – at least, not to the degree Arnold could.
Jones said that the normal range of movement around the axis of the elbow for the average man is 160 degrees, but that Sergio’s was only about 120. Jones, however, said this probably was not a result of his muscle mass – instead it was a result of the length of his biceps. Jones also noted that “the greatest thickness of Sergio’s forearms occurs near the middle of his forearms… it happens that this also serves to restrict his movement – instead of fitting into the normal hollow of the biceps just above the elbow, the mass of his forearms meets the middle of his biceps.” The result of this combination of anatomical restrictions resulted in Sergio having arms, as Jones described it, “larger than they measured”; in fact, Jones speculated that Sergio’s arms might have measured larger if they had been slightly smaller. Further, not being able to completely bend his arms during a biceps pose prevented Sergio from displaying the “peaked” looked envied by bodybuilders.
Just as Sergio’s anatomy prevented him from completely flexing his arms, the same condition could affect a trainee’s ability to properly perform certain exercises. For example, having long biceps (or even long forearms) could affect performance in the front squat. The restriction places considerable stress on the wrists, making the exercise extremely uncomfortable to perform. Individuals with long biceps may be better off using specially designed barbells that shift the weight plates forward, or using lifting straps so that their arms do not have to flex as much.
Let’s look at another example. One test commonly used in schools, police and military organizations to measure flexibility of the hamstrings and lower back is the “sit-and-reach.” The test was introduced to the physical education community in an article published in a 1952 issue of Research Quarterly. To perform the test, the individual sits on the floor with their legs together and reaches forward, holding for several seconds before a measurement is taken. Standards vary, but one organization that specializes in youth fitness says that for those of high school age, an excellent score for a male would be to reach six inches past their toes, and for a female, eight inches.
Muscles: Testing and Function by Kendall, McCreary and Provance (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 5th ed., 2005) is a textbook that discusses in detail how to interpret the results of sit-and-reach tests. By taking into account not just how far the individual reaches but also how they perform, the test can reveal the following:
Hamstrings and back, both normal
Hamstrings and back, both excessively flexible
Hamstrings and back, both tight
Hamstrings excessive in length, back tight
Hamstrings tight, lower back excessively flexible
Hamstrings tight, upper back excessively flexible
Hamstrings and back, normal flexibility; but legs long in relation to trunk
This is extremely practical information for people who perform poorly on the test – they will know the specific areas they could work on rather than being told they should simply practice touching their toes. Also, consider that it’s possible that having tight calves can also affect the results of a sit-and-reach test, as the toes are pulled towards the body (foot dorsiflexed). One way to determine if calf flexibility is an issue is by having the individual perform the test twice: with the toes pulled toward the body and with the toes pointed away from the body (plantar flexed). If this reveals that they can reach further with their toes pointed away, their performance in the sit-and-reach test is being limited by tightness in their calves.
One of the basic concepts of what I call structural balance is that unnatural movements are often associated with tightness or weakness in one or more muscle groups. As such, our PICP students are taught to observe how the body positions itself during movement. One test used for this purpose is the overhead squat.
The overhead squat test is a squat performed with a stick or light barbell held overhead with a wide grip. Regarding grip width, one guideline is to lift your arms directly out to your sides and move the arms up half the distance to your head – those with long arms will be more comfortable with a slightly wider grip. If during the movement the knees buckle inward, this may suggest that the adductors are tight or the gluteus medius is weak. If the bar moves forward during the descent, this may suggest that the latissimus dorsi is tight or the rhomboids are weak. Following this assessment would be a program of corrective exercises to stretch those muscles that are tight and to strengthen those muscles are that weak.
In working with multiple Premiership teams, I have come to the same conclusion as a Swiss study (involving over 40,000 subjects!) on this exercise, which is that the overhead squat can accurately predict injury potential in soccer. Using a scale of 1 to 10, I have found that the worse an athlete performs on this test, the more likely they are to become injured.
Flexibility testing has value, but it doesn’t have to be a long ordeal involving special instruments and countless tests – a few simple movements such as the overhead squat will give you a lot of practical feedback on what needs to be worked on and how well a strength and conditioning program is working.