There’s a general binary thinking on how flexibility is measured, either you can or you cannot. While this is useful in terms of goal orientated thinking it can be a detriment to both the persistence of the trainee as well as the correct tracking of range of motion development. In our experience, range of motion tends to increase in large jumps and then some time at maintenance more so than in a strict linear manner, so having more than one method to track can be fruitful in terms of not losing hope.
Generally, we want to track our training sessions as they happen, but we have to allow for variance in how we perform in them. Just as we have stronger and less strong days in strength training, even when other factors such as sleep, diet etc seem consistent, we will see the same in flexibility training. This expresses by having days where we feel more or less restricted in our range of motion. So assessing training only day to day is not the full answer. As a rule of thumb, we want to take full assessment of our flexibility development training every 4-6 weeks to see how it is actually progressing.
Not tracking can be a cause of changing plans too soon while there is still progress to be made or on the other side it can lead to sticking to an ineffective plan when changes could be made to help increase progress at a faster rate.
When assessing results of our programming, we look at more than one variable to assess if the program is working for a trainee.
1: Has the Range of Motion increased in the position or movement?
This is simple, did you go deeper into the position you are trying to achieve? Are your legs further apart in splits, is a new part of the body in contact with the floor that wasn’t before? Can you lift your leg higher? This is an objective measure of progress and keeping track of closing in on the desired goal, but it is not the whole picture.
2: How does the position feel?
After tracking our objective progress, getting into the subjective realms is very important. Maybe the position has not gotten deeper from week to week but the feeling of comfort and ease in the position has increased. This is the next most important variable to keep track of.
There is a range of sensations to be felt in a position or movement, and being able to bring clarity to them, and distinguishing between different sensations is a great measure of progress. So for example, can we feel that we have gone from feeling pain or strong discomfort in the given flexibility position to one of strong physical sensation or even comfort.
One of the first experiences when entering a new depth is the reaction of wanting to get out of it very quickly. This either manifests as a quick exit to an easier range or small movements and adjustments to avoid it if you stick out in the range. Being able to tolerate the depth to a greater degree is a key measure of progress. In static positions, this would express by being able to stay truly static in the position and not doing micro movements within the range.
3: How fast can you achieve your full depth?
We tend to use multiple sets in our programming and one of the key things you will see is that, generally, depth builds up over the sets. Usually, we would expect a trainee to reach the deepest range at around set three or four. Sometimes the range of motion increases can stagnate in that they do not increase week to week or session to session, but what tends to happen is that you begin reaching your deepest range in set two or even your first set. When a trainee reaches their deepest ROM in set one, then soon after the range of motion will increase in a large jump in set four or five. The depth achieved in the end sets of the program are usually at the maximum capacity of what is possible for the trainees body at this time.
4: How much of a mental psyche up do you need to get into the desired position?
Tracking how much of a mental barrier you need to overcome to enter your next set of stretching is useful in determining the more vague measures of progress in flexibility training.
This is a key one as we want our range of motion to be unrestricted in terms of how we approach it mentally. I often use the idea of bending and extending the elbow. I don’t have to psyche myself up to do it. I just do it multiple times per day without any large degree of mental involvement. Whereas if I was stretching my bridge and I needed to have the right mat and spend some time contemplating what I’m going to do to get mentally ready, then this is a limitation that can also be overcome with confidence and skill in the position or movement we are working on.
5: How smooth can you get to full depth?
Let’s say for instance you have a full split and your legs can rest nicely on the floor, but it takes you 30-40 seconds to get there with multiple mini stops along the way to get settled. When you are at this stage, measuring how smooth and how few stops you can get into your full depth is important to consider. The goal would be to be able to smoothly enter into the split with no pauses or adjustments along the way. Considering this as a measure of progress can be useful, as it does not rely on objectively getting deeper into the position, but we are still progressing in making the full range more smoothly available.
6: How much of your ROM can you display with none to minimal warm up?
Our goal is to be flexible, not train flexibility. One of the key things to track is how available your flexibility is throughout the day and not when specifically training it or after a comprehensive warm up. How much of your flexibility is available on demand is what we would term “operating range”, and this is where we want to place most of our training of skills that demand higher amounts of our flexibility expression. So while we might not be pushing our maximum depth, we may still be progressing by being able to use our sub-max ranges throughout the day.
Understanding these other methods of tracking will greatly aid you in deciding if the program you are following is working for you, particularly if the direct increases in the range have slowed down or seem to have stopped. Sometimes we go through periods of seeing direct increase of the range of motion session to session, and then periods where the range seems to not be increasing and the temptation would be to switch our training program or change up what you are doing. But if you are making progress in 2 or more of the above measures then it would indicate that the program is still working and further benefits can be reaped from it.