Functional Flexibility Exercises

Functional Flexibility Exercises

What it is
Functional Flexibility is the ability of the pieces of the skeleton to freely, easily, and fluidly float through the ranges of motion the joints and hinges were designed for. 

What it isn't

There is something else which looks a lot like Functional Flexibility. but isn't. I call this something else, which most yoga modalities produce, contortion-ability. Contortion-ability comes from over-stretching tendons across joints or hyper-loosening specific joints. 

Yoga practitioners (includes teachers) I've worked with, on first glance, appear extremely flexible, especially compared to the normal bloke off the street. Working with them though, I became aware of a common shared trait among them all. They could bend themselves in the most amazing ways but when I addressed them skeletally I found incredible rigidity; lacking the free, easy, fluid ranges of motion through all the joints and hinges I've come to recognize as "true, functional flexibility".
Sure they could cross their feet behind their head and do back walk-overs (standing, leaning back, placing hands on floor and kicking up and over, to place feet on floor again), but one is accomplished by over-stretching tendons and cartilage through joints, and the other by hyper-loosening a single vertebral joint in the spine. I've found stiff hip joints, tight backs, and locked up pelvises on yogis who could cross their feet behind their head and tight rigid spines (except in one lumbar joint) on those who can perform a back walk-over. Looks like flexibility, but is really only contortion-ability, and ultimately has detrimental effects on the structure.

Conventional stretching
I believe conventional stretching, as we know it, is rarely and half-heartedly practiced, with negligible results, because it doesn't contribute in any holistic, meaningful way to the structure.
Stretching doesn't lead to functional flexibility anymore than weight-lifting leads to functional strength.

Conventional stretching is linear and isolated in nature. Linear and isolated because individual muscles are addressed on a single plane. The problem with inflexibility is that the joints and hinges of the skeleton are asymmetrically compromised / compressed. As many muscles cross any given joint, stretching one or two of said muscles contributes negligibly to the problem at hand; better than nothing but still missing the mark.

The foundation of functional flexibility lies in the ability of the pieces of the skeleton to interact inter-dependently with each other; the spaces between the bones decompressed sufficiently, and symmetrically capable of free and easy, geometrically accurate fluid movement. For this to occur the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and most importantly, the cartilage, must be decompressed, fluffed-up, separated, and organized; this does not happen by indiscriminately stretching muscles. 

For one thing it's impossible to stretch dense, dehydrated, disorganized tissue; it needs to be worked by a 3-dimensional movement of the bones it connects, of the joints and hinges it crosses.
Comprehensive, and systematic, skeletal range of motion movements are called for, being infinitely more effective and appropriate than stretching, in the quest for flexibility.

As we abuse the body through one-sided repetitive exercise, or isolated weight training, mobility through the joints and hinges is diminished. As we ignore available movement through the joints and hinges, this neglect (like rusty hinges on a seldom-used gate) diminishes mobility as well.
The cartilage in and around the joints has no fluid flow through it and is flushed out and fluffed up by movement of the bones only. As movement through the area diminishes (or ceases!), the cartilage, which should be like a water-saturated sponge, begins to dehydrate, becoming dried out and dense, rather like beef jerky. Over time it loses it's ability to cushion or allow movement of the bones. It's not hard to notice when this has happened to someone and perhaps you know someone like this personally? It hurts to move and so movement is restricted even further and the process snowballs…
Over-stretching tendons and hyper-loosening joints through extreme contortion isn't necessary for achievingFunctional Flexibility, and is to be avoided, as it is injurious to the structure.

Ballet / Dance / Gymnastics
These movement modalities can also give the illusion of grace, fluid movement, and flexibility. Granted, dancers and gymnasts have greater ranges of mobility than the average person, but I'm suggesting that it can be refined and taken to another, deeper level.
Watching (most) dancers and gymnasts with a trained eye, it can be observed that the movements are not as free as they are controlled, and it is accomplished with great muscular efforting as opposed to a skeleton easily floating through the ranges of motion.

A new way of experiencing the body / helpful images
When the muscles are firing and engaged during movement, there is a noticeable tension through the structure. What is possible, and is of an entirely different quality, to move as though the movement is initiated by the skeleton itself and not moved around by the muscles. The muscles remain loose on the bones during movement, allowing there to be space between the bones (in the joints and hinges). As though the skeleton is wearing the "muscle-suit" like loose-fitting garments. This image allows that the muscles are not responsible for creating movement but simply hold the bones together and protect them.

After all, if I put a skeleton and a muscle chart in front of you and told you to focus on one or the other as you move, imagining you are using either muscles or bones to move, which would be infinitely easier? There are way too many muscles to consciously, or unconsciously, focus on to initiate movement. It's extremely easy to imagine initiating movement with the bones of the skeleton. And it doesn't matter what the scientific reality is; accepting this conceptual image will change the quality of your movement and take you one step closer to achieving Functional Flexibility.

You also don't need to master the hundreds of yoga postures to achieve Functional Flexibility. I really don't believe most people have a need to cross their feet behind their head or otherwise tie themselves into knots. I've discovered most folks just want to have a pain-free body which won't hold them back by limiting what they want to do; whether it's playing week-end sports, skiing, hiking, or simply picking their kids (or grandkids) up off the floor without injuring themselves. Ultimately, that's what Functional Flexibility is all about.

Functional Strength is achieved by holistic movement; utilizing the entire body in an integrated way, not by repetitive, isolated movement exercises that will pull your skeleton out of alignment. Your time will be better spent outside engaging in well-rounded activities than it would be in a stuffy gym, under fluorescent lighting, struggling with machines having nothing to do with functional strength.