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The body elastic: why can these girls bend like rubber bands? It's a real stretch ... but we'll tell you.

Try a handstand. Great, stay there ... now, lower your legs slowly into an extreme back bend so your feet touch your chin! Excellent!"

Sound like anything that would come out of your coach's mouth? It would if you were 12-year-old Nomin Tseveendorj or Ulziibayar Chimed! They're contortionists -- performers who can bend their bodies into seemingly impossible positions.

Maybe someone you know saw the pliable pair in 1994 or 1995, when they toured North America with Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian circus. Spectators are amazed when they see Nomin back bend effortlessly to form a triangle as Ulziibayar (Ulzii for short) balances on top of her body in a one-handed split. But the real squeals come when Ulzii folds her spine nearly in half while Nomin slips one leg completely behind her own head. The girls' snakelike bodies morph from one twisting position to the next.

Originally from Mongolia (a country near China), Nomin and Ulzii are now headed to Europe as Cirque du Soleil's Alegria show kicks off its third major tour in March.

Nomin and Ulzii do have bones. And no, they're not "double-jointed" (there's no such thing). So what's the secret to their suppleness? The girls simply have an incredible range of motion -- their bones, muscles, and other body tissues work together to help them bend farther, arch higher, and stretch more (much more) than most of us can.

DOWN TO THE BONE

Believe it or not, you could twist into any position Ulzii and Nomin hold -- if you were just a skeleton. All skeletons move at joints -- the places where bones connect. And those joints give you the same basic range of motion as the next person. For example, everyone's shoulder joints can rotate a fun 360[degrees]; elbows can open and close to just under a 180[degrees] arc.

So what keeps most of us from raising our legs to our ears? It's the pull of ligaments, ropelike connective tissues that anchor one bone to the next around a joint. "Without ligaments strapping your joints together, your skeleton would clatter to the floor!" says Dr. Lisa Callahan, a sports-medicine specialist. Ligaments lengthen a bit to allow a joint to move, but keep it from going so far that you'd injure yourself.

Many contortionists have extrastretchy ligaments, courtesy of a springy protein called collagen. Collagen is the main ingredient of ligaments and tendons -- the cordshaped tissues that connect bone to muscle. The more elastic your collagen, the more elastic your ligaments and tendons.

To get an idea of how collagen makes Nomin and Ulzii ultraflexible, check out the structure of Ulzii's backbone on the miniposter, page 12. Each vertebra, or individual bone of the spine, is lashed to the next with ligaments. Some of us have ligaments flexible enough to arch our spines into back bends. But Nomin and Ulzii's stretchy collagen lets their spines bend even farther -- as if they were folded in half.

"That's not being 'double-jointed,'" explains Dr. Callahan. "It just means there's more laxity (looseness) in their ligaments and joints." (Try our hands-on activity, right, to find out how flexible your joints are!)

TRAIN, DON'T STRAIN

Loose ligaments and tendons alone didn't make Nomin and Ulzii contortionists, though. It took years of hard work. "We train a lot like gymnasts," says Nomin. Much of our preparation includes stretching exercises."

Daily stretching can definitely improve your range of motion. That's because it lengthens your muscles, which can otherwise limit your joints' range of motion.

Muscle cells consist of long protein filaments lined up side by side. When you bend over to touch your toes, the filaments that make up your hamstrings and calf muscles slide past and away from each other. So, your leg muscles actually get longer.

Bend too far and -- Ouch! The nerves in the muscles shoot a pain signal to your brain. Your brain then directs the muscles to contract slightly to ease the tension. That's your stretch reflex kicking in to prevent a muscle or ligament tear, Callahan says.

However, if you stretch gently and often, the nerves get used to the new, longer length. So, the stretch reflex chills out -- leaving you pain-free and able to stretch farther.

Nomin and Ulzii tram 1 1/2 hours a day and warm up for 45 minutes before each show. Their workout includes splits, back bends, sit-ups, and handstand/push-up combinations, Nomin adds. Contortionists need muscle strength to lift and hold their bodies in position.

IN THE GENES

But even if you stretched like mad and did 1,000 sit-ups every day, you probably could never become a contortionist. That's because genes -- the bits of body-programming info you inherit from your parents -- help determine if you'll have extra-stretchy collagen or super-supple muscles.

"I think Ulzii was born with a flexible body," says Shirnen Otgonjargal, the pair's coach. Contortionists with inherited flexibility usually find it a cinch to do both frontbenders and backbenders -- the two moves on which most contortion tricks are based. Nomin, however, needs more practice than Ulzii to maintain her flexibility. So, she may not be as naturally limber.

Even if you aren't built to contort, it pays to stretch to improve your flexibility -- so you don't "pull" a muscle when you lunge for the remote control (see "Stretching Tips," below). So the next time your teacher catches you with your legs stretched up on a desk, just tell her you're in training!

STRETCHING TIPS

BACK/ABS:

1. Lie flat on your stomach with legs together flat on the floor.

2. bend your arms like you are about to do a push-up.

3. Push up with your arms and slowly arch your back.

4. Gently push yourself up farther and hold for 10 seconds.

5. Repeat Step 4 until you need a break, and come down slowly.

WERE YOU

BORN TO BEND?

For a good idea of a person's all-over range of motion, doctors test the looseness of several joints. You can do these tests yourself.

WHAT TO DO:

Follow the instructions below and score points as indicated.

1. Pull up a pinky finger. Does it go post 90[degrees] (a right angle)? Give yourself one point for each pinky that can.

2. Turn your palm so it faces up. Use your other hand to push your thumb down toward your inner arm. Can it touch your arm? Give yourself one point for each thumb that can.

3. Can you hyperextend your elbows (bend them noticeably backward)? Give yourself one point for each elbow that can.

4. Can you hyperextend your knees? Give yourself one point for each knee that can.

5. Bend over to touch your palms to the floor, keeping your legs straight. Give ourself one point if you can.

DON'T STOP NOW!

If you score a perfect 9, don't get excited just yet. That's simply a tip-off on your capacity to be limber. So start stretching! After two weeks, repeat the tests. Has your flexibility improved?

RELATED ARTICLE: LEGS:

1 . Kneel, keeping thighs and back straight.

2. Move right leg straight out in front of you (only the heel touches the floor). Turn leg out slightly, so that the inner knee faces up.

3. Lean forward, keeping your back straight. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds.

4. Now bend your right leg so the ball of the foot touches the floor. Straighten your left leg behind you. (Place your hands on the floor for balance.)

5. Now, press your hips down toward the floor. Keep your rear leg as straight as possible.

6. Switch legs and repeat Steps 1-5.

HINTS:

* The best time to stretch is immediately after a workout, when your muscles are warm.

* Relax and breathe normally.

* Assume a position you can hold -- you should feel mild discomfort (but not sharp pain).

* Relax until the stretch gets easier.

* When you feel the tension ease, increase the stretch until you feel the original intensity again.

* Keep repeating the cycle of relaxing and stretching until the position does not become more comfortable. Hold the stretch here for at least 30 seconds.

For more information about human anatomy, check out this Web site: http://net-doctor.com/gateway7.html
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related information on bones and muscles, and on stretching recommendations
Author:Allen, Laura
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 7, 1997
Words:1360
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