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Your ‘sit and reach’ test results have nothing to do with your functional flexibility

Heres why:

In gyms across the world right now someone is sitting in a small room with a measuring device between their heels – straining, grunting and reaching with both hands for an ethereal point just beyond their toes.

The participant will try to hold that point for 2-3 seconds then exhale and lean back, looking up hopefully at the personal trainer conducting their initial fitness assessment.

The trainer will jot down the number, look back at the hopeful face of the client and smile awkwardly, saying “not bad… something to work on for later”.

You will then likely be given a ‘ranking’ to let you know how poor/well you did.

But what was the test supposed to measure?

Was the test supposed to measure how well you can bend over to pick something up? So why did they test you from a sitting position and not standing?

Do I think a sitting flexibility test is a good measure of functional flexibility? Not in a million years.

Real World Hamstring Flexibility in Action

We use our hamstrings standing up, not sitting down.

If a test is designed to help measure increases in function, the test should be based in function.

Muscles react to control the tilting of the body as you bend over

When we lean our bodies forward to smell a flower/tie our shoes/pick up laundry, the muscles in the lower back and legs (in fact most of the muscles on the back half of our body) receive a signal.

The signal that is sent through the body as you lean forward goes something like this:

“Hey all you back-half-muscles!!! Something just happened and this body is tilting forward at an accelerating pace! If we don’t switch on and all work together to pull, we are going to end up landing our pretty face right into that rose bush/concrete/pile of smelly undies!”

WHEN LENGTHENING THE HAMSTRINGS, WHICH VERSION DO YOU USE MORE OFTEN – SITTING OR STANDING?

Sitting:

  1. At gym, doing non-functional movement because trainer tells you to
  2. in bed, reach forward to pull off socks

Standing:

  1. reach over to pick up kids/toys/diapers/kids in diapers holding toys
  2. pick up keys off of coffee table
  3. field ground ball
  4. completing a volleyball dig
  5. bend over to tie shoes
  6. swing club in golf
  7. lean forward for a backhand shot in tennis
  8. tilt our body forward FOR ANY REASON from a vertical position.

Does it make sense to you that a more FUNCTIONAL test would be to measure your flexibility from a standing position?

So print this off and give it to your trainer/local gym rat and say “what do you think of that? That guys crazy, right?” then give them a second to look it over, then a few more seconds to watch their wheels start to turn as they realize that they have been testing for something completely different than they thought they were.

Let me know what they say…

Just don’t tell them where I live – I am still catching heat for my ‘never run on a treadmill again‘ post a couple of months ago that upset more than a few tread-lovers out there.

Bottom line: Don’t blame the trainer. Don’t blame the fitness club. They are only doing what has been passed down to them from the previous generation of sports scientists.

Know that this test is a great measure of your ability to do this test – not necessarily of the flexibility you need in the real world.

Just wanted you to know that :)

Jamie Atlas

http://jamieatlas.wordpress.com

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  • Alan Strang Aug 4, 2008 Reply

    Jamie,

    You shock me with your lack of deeper knowlege relating to not already knowing that the sit and reach test is non a functional flexibility test. The main reason the sit and reach flexibility test is non functional is to limit and isolate the use of stabiliser muscles to encourage a limited use of muscles within the pelvic region.
    The test exposes among other weaknesses the condition of the deep muscle group which is a perfect indicator for unbalanced developement in this region.
    If you fire up the stabilisers and superficial muscles by touching your toes while standing you will not be able to encourage the isolation in this region and will be unable to assess the deep muscles as the superficial muscles tend to dominate.

    The amount of research spent on this subject outweighs any superficial theory you may have dreamt up.

    For one thing I believe that most Personal Trainers have spent only a few minutes discussing the sit and reach with their lecturers who themselves are Personal Trainers.

    Cheers
    Alan

  • jamieatlas Aug 5, 2008 Reply

    Hi Alan – thanks so much for your comment! I am always appreciative of a strong opinion and you raise an often-discussed issue of isolation vs integrated movement.

    I am truly humbled on a regular basis by the amazing capabilities of this amazing muscle group and am always keen to learn more.

    I wish I could claim credit for the theory I laid out in the above article, it is actually a result of the learning I have taken in as part of an innovative and cutting edge physical therapy/movement science group I have been working with the past 3 years.

    I would never be so smart to figure the above out by myself. I also know that things change quickly, so if I am wrong then I would certainly be ready to admit it, but would also like to understand your perspective a bit better.

    To agree with your comment, I do think this sit and reach test is a non-functional one, and I also think that it is a grossly misunderstood test – as you said in your comment (perhaps my article missed the mark and you misunderstood my intention).

    As I read your article talking about isolating the deep muscles, I keep coming back to this part of my article:

    “Does it make sense to you that a more FUNCTIONAL test would be to measure your flexibility from a standing position?”

    If I isolate the muscles, I step away from function, since in function I use these muscles together to achieve my movement… do I not?

    Yours in health,

    Jamie

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