Which is More Vital: Strength or Flexibility?

Posted: March 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

What exactly is full range of motion? We hear the term all the time as one of the key foundational components of CrossFit training and conditioning, but what is it? Who, or what, sets the standard of what full range of motion is? And more importantly, why is it so important? Every joint of the body is biomechanically designed to move in certain directions, and the range of motion is distance and direction of the movement of that joint. The mobility of a joint is limited by a number of factors including, but not limited to: the ends of bones, amount of fat around the joint, and most importantly for our discussion and the CrossFit community, is the elasticity and/or flexibility of the connective tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) associated with the joint.  My definition of Mobility has to deal with a combination of flexibility, strength, and proper technique in performing an exercise. A weakness in any one of these components may negatively affect mobility and performance. That then, is my answer to the question posed in the first paragraph. The appropriate range of motion is determined by what is required to perform the exercise correctly and safely.  We all know that strength is the most common limiting factor in beginning CrossFitters. It is also the factor that most CrossFitters care the most about. However, my contention is that the other two limiting factors, flexibility and technique, while not as exciting, play a more important role in the longevity and progression of every individuals CrossFit experience.  Let’s use the “thruster” to discuss this idea. When a CrossFitter is unable to perform a prescribed thruster, the exercise is modified by decreasing the weight. It’s commonly accepted that the modification is due to a lack of strength. It is usually not that simple. That same person might be able to perform different, isolated exercises at the same or even greater weight than the thruster, displaying that they have sufficient strength. So what gives? If the lack of strength is not the culprit, what is? The thruster is a technical exercise to perform. Essentially it combines a front squat and push press. Each exercise requires technique in itself and the transition between the two can pose problems as well. Some technique points include: keeping the weight in the heels, hips back and lower than the knee at the bottom of the movement, holding the bar racked against the chest and keeping the elbows forward throughout the front squat portion of the movement, pulling under the bar and locking out overhead, etc.  As we break down each technique point individually, we find that flexibility, or lack thereof, is the single greatest determining factor of efficiency of the movement. For example, those with tight calves and hamstrings find it difficult to keep the weight in the heels. When they come up on the balls of the feet, there is a loss of stability as the calf muscles are required to support the weight. Those that spend a lot of time sitting usually have tight hip flexors and IT bands. Tight IT bands decrease the knees’ ability to track straight and force them progressively inward as the knees bend. Tight hip flexors cause the pelvis to rotate forward putting added stress on the lumbar vertebrae and pull the trunk forward pulling the weight in front of where the center of gravity should be.  One of the most common technique issues is not being able to point the elbows forward and being able to hold them forward during the squat. This inability is usually caused by overactive or tight Latissimus Dorsi muscles on the back and when coupled with tight hip flexors makes it very difficult to perform without undue risk of injury to the Crossfitter. I know that we are eager to PR our workouts, and because of that we focus on time and weight. But if we refocus, and systematically approach increasing flexibility through a combination of dynamically warming up, and stretching using a combination of static, ballistic, PNF, and myo-fascial release with a foam roller, we will ultimately improve faster and more safely.

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