Jon Call, better known as Jujimufu, first gained wide national exposure on America’s Got Talent when he did something few ever thought they’d see: an extraordinarily bulky, muscular man pulling of a full side split — while lifting a loaded barbell overhead.
That image kind of encapsulates the man: stereotype-defying acts of fitness that you wouldn’t expect from a guy who looks like a bodybuilder. His Instagram is replete with anti gravity acrobatics, heavy deadlifts followed by backflips, doing the splits over an open flame, benching hundreds of pound while suspended by resistance bands, and more.
When I asked him how he manages to get himself into so many weird positions without getting hurt, he said of his flexibility:
It’s like a superpower I have. I do some really stupid feats of strength on Instagram and I’ve been able to escape a lot of them without hurting myself thanks to flexibility. I just feel it in everything I do in a positive way that protects me. It’s like a little guardian angel I have on my shoulder.
So what’s a guy got to do to get flexible? I talked to Jon to learn how you should structure your training if extraordinary flexibility and the injury resistance it might confer is what you’re interested in.
Training Flexibility vs Training Strength
You might be interested to learn that training flexibility is a lot like training strength: there’s sets, reps, and accessories.
“If you’re interested in increasing flexibility, I’d figure out what that flexibility looks like and reverse engineer it,” says Call. “But you don’t need a book of 150 stretches. You need one or two good stretches and to do them correctly and you’re good.”
When I got on the phone with Call, my first question was whether or not having such large muscles got in the way of being so flexible, but his answer was that if you have a good amount of muscle and know how to use it, you’re in a better position to lean how to get into the splits. That’s because in a way, flexibility is strength based: you’re reaching your nervous system’s limits and teaching it that it’s OK to push a little bit past them.
[Learn how to eat for muscle with our guide to Jujimufu’s diet!]
Step 1: Isometric Stretching
“When your body’s stretching and it reaches a point where it doesn’t go any further, that’s the nervous system throwing out a stretch reflex (because) it doesn’t know the territory,” says Call. “So it flexes really hard, that’s what’s keeping you from stretching further. It’s your body’s nervous system having a reflexive response.”
In order to train the nervous system to “know” that it’s okay to go through that range of motion, you use isometric stretching: you stretch into the limit of your range of motion and you flex your muscles hard once you’re there. Basically, it’s intended to show your body you’re strong enough to go to that position.
“It’s all nervous system patterning,” adds Call. “And your body has to go through those patterns, and you have to take the time to teach it in that way.”
Isometric stretching is the biggest component of getting to, say, the splits, and you want to periodize it just like big compound lifts. Beginners only need to train it a couple of times a week, and you should do it in sets and reps.
“Since maximum splits and the isometric method is very taxing on the body, you need to program it correctly without overloading the body as well,” says Call, noting,
You work up to your maximum and minimum range of motion and then do maybe three or five sets where you go down all the way and do some stretch and relax contractions where you flex your muscles as hard as you can in the stretched position. (We’re talking about the splits in this case.) Then you release, and immediately after you relax you increase your range of motion. You just shot up the stretch reflex your body was sending to those muscles, and then you can trick it into going further. Then you repeat that process a few times.
Then rest a few minutes, just like if you’d done a set of heavy squats. It’s taxing on your nervous system to stretch this much and you need a few minutes and a few sets.
Once you’re done with the big tough exercises — in this case isometric stretching — it’s time to work on your accessories.
If we’re talking about the splits, you’ll be supplementing with work on your weak points, and they’ll be individual to you. If your groin is tight (especially prevalent with side splits) unilateral groin stretches like Cossack stretches and Cossack squats are a good bet. Tight hamstrings, do hamstring stretches.
“Or let’s say your hips are the bottleneck,” says Call. “You’d do perhaps a warrior lunge, a prerequisite position for front splits since that’s the position your hips will be in before you extend your leg. So you might work on that position holding some weight, or just doing some twists in it, and building up volume.”
“That’s where I’m a fan of the relaxed stretching method, because you can’t just do really intense stretches all the time,” says Call. “You have to throw in some extra volume. After you do your intense isometric stretches, you can do some relaxed stretches afterward.”
Now, relaxed stretches are pretty controversial in the fitness community. There’s been a real backlash from folks who consider them inferior to stuff like dynamic warmups: deliberately moving your body and flexing your muscles throughout a range of motion, as opposed to your classic hamstring stretch on a park bench that you’d see joggers doing in the ’80s.
Jujimufu doesn’t agree, though. He likes relaxed stretching as an accessory to help build volume: isometric stretching is indispensable , but relaxed stretching has its place.
“It’s gotten a bad rap in the last few years. But if you hang out with circus athletes they’re sitting around on their laptops stretching for hours every day, and they’re the most flexible people I know,” he says. “You can definitely do a higher volume of the relaxed stretches because they’re not as intensive on the body, but you reach a point of diminishing returns where you can be sitting in a position for eight hours. I think, in general, half an hour of relaxed stretching work as an auxiliary modality for increasing your flexibility.”
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That’s the summary:
- Isometric stretching
- Appropriate accessories, and
- Relaxed stretching, and
- Make sure not to overdo any of it.
A stretch might not feel like a 1-rep max deadlift, but it’s nonetheless taxing on the body.
“People don’t realize how easy it is to build flexibility,” adds Call. “Once you build it, it’s one of the most permanent biomotor characteristics you can build. I believe stamina is the one that goes away the fastest, but flexibility is the easiest one to maintain. I think it’s encouraging to know that if you spend a dedicated block of time building your flexibility or the splits, you’re going to be able to keep them.”
On a final note: it’s not a bad idea to make an appointment with a physical therapist to assess your range of motion and work out what accessories you should work on, as some find it tough to self assess in this manner. Happy stretching!
Jon Call wrote a book all about his training called Legendary Flexibility — check it out here.