Lying on my back, completely relaxed, and trying to starfish myself. It’s been a personal test of mine for years. Back in my powerlifting days I did some serious injuries to myself, and mobility suffers. Tearing my pec meant lifting my left arm over my head was a tricky thing. At one point I could bench 300lbs, but only military press 25lbs. If I laid on my back, with my arms at my side and tried to slide my straight arms all the way along the floor until they were over my head? I couldn’t get past shoulder level. So handstands and cartwheels have been serious challenges for me.

Now that I’ve been working on the gymnastics skills for long enough, I can move my arms all the way to my ears with only a little “pop” happening near shoulder level. So last night I tried to move my legs out to the side as well, seeing how far I stretch my legs open without gravity to assist. I was never able to do the splits, but I was able to get within a few inches of the floor, and I still feel like a flexible guy. I can still kick head height without a warm-up…even if I do pay for it after. So I thought I’d be able to get some good range of motion. Alas…no. Best I could do was a few degrees of motion. I tried pretty hard…hard enough that the muscles on the outside of my thighs are pretty sore this morning. I just couldn’t pull my legs higher, though.

I just wasn’t strong enough. Real flexibility, effective range of motion, has more to do with strength than the stretch of muscles….especially for martial artists. I can stretch my limbs out using walls, the floor, my other limbs or other props…but how much range of motion can I get simply by contracting the opposing muscles? I used to stretch out my pecs by grabbing a post and twisting myself to really stretch the muscle out. I’m not sure what benefit I got from that, but it was what we were told to do so I did it. Here’s an experiment for you: Stretch your arms out to the side, as wide as they will go. Now try to stretch them farther, but do so by contracting your upper back muscles as much as possible. Start by trying to compress your shoulder blades together, and then start getting more crunch by rolling and adding in the nice big muscles above the shoulder blades. Yank those arms back with strong steady pull, and try to pull them back farther with as much muscle contraction as possible. It helps to visualize the muscles across the front of your chest stretching at the same time.

When you relax out of that, you should feel like you just got a pretty good stretch in your chest. Try stretching out your back the same way, by contracting the chest muscles. It’s a great way to learn about your body, and really see what muscles are imbalanced. You aren’t going to get the same range of motion as you would in other stretches, but you will increase the effective range of motion…the range within which you can still be applying power to movements.

And power is always the name of the game for martial artists. Strength, as Aikido Sensei Terry Dobson said, has more to do with intention that the size of your biceps. I love that saying, and it applies in a purely physical way as well as a mental way. We need to be able to move fast, and that requires strong and rapid contraction of muscle fibers…which requires superior strength training.