The importance of flexibility is often overlooked when it comes to good body function and overall good health. Unfortunately, when most people think about the “flexibility” they envision Cirque du Soleil, Swan Lake and a Bikram yoga class. Flexibility training is more than just stretching and yoga. It lays the groundwork for optimal functioning of the body and good quality of movement.
Flexibility, by definition, is the range of motion possible around a specific joint or series of articulations (i.e. the spine). Joints are locations in the body where two or more bones make contact. They allow for any and all movement and also provide mechanical support.
The adult human body is made up of 206 bones (babies are born with 350) and approximately 650 muscles. Unless you are knocked unconscious or paralyzed, your joints are in motion all day … every day. The ability to move a joint through an adequate range of motion is important for the activities of daily living as well as physical activities and sports.
A person’s flexibility is a combination of genetics, gender, age and level of physical activity. Flexibility tends to decrease as we age, due to both the aging process and decreased level of physical activity.
If we are not active we are more likely to be less flexible. Much like all other types of training (i.e. weight training, cardiovascular training), flexibility will improve with regular training.
Flexibility Training & Injury Prevention
People who are physically active (exercising regularly or playing sports) and choose not to include flexibility training into their exercise routine are like bicycle couriers navigating the streets of New York. They bob and weave through traffic and dodge unsuspecting vehicles but even the most experienced ones can get hurt when they are not paying attention to what’s coming at them.
Like many other things in life that we take for granted, flexibility is an after thought until it is taken away. This is often the case when someone gets injured or suffers from an overuse injury due to a lack of flexibility.
Take physical therapy as a prime example. After someone gets injured or undergoes orthopaedic surgery, they are referred to a Physical Therapist for treatment. Most, if not all, treatment programs with a Physical Therapist involves stretching … lots of it! Lack of flexibility in the injured joint is most likely a factor in the injury itself. Flexibility training could be considered the “holy grail” of injury prevention.
Benefits of Flexibility Training
Most people don’t train flexibility simply because they don’t understand how it benefits them or their workout. Aside from the people doing yoga in the group fitness studio, trying to find the one person stretching on the workout floor or cardio area is like playing “Where’s Waldo?”.
Flexibility training can be very valuable to any exercise program because it can:
- Improve exercise/sports performance
- Decrease post-exercise muscle soreness
- Decrease muscle tension
- Decrease risk of injury
- Increase physical and mental relaxation
Types of Stretching
Flexibility training involves stretching exercises to improve range of motion in the joint. There are different types of stretching exercises, each with a very specific application:
- Static: Is the most common type of stretching and involves putting a muscle in a stretched position for 30 to 60 seconds. The stretch increases gradually throughout the movement (no bouncing or quick movements).
- Passive: Is similar to static stretching except the stretch is provided by an outside force (i.e. gravity, an accessory or a partner). The person stretching is completely relaxed.
- Dynamic: Consists of controlled arm and leg swings that gradually increase the range of motion with each swing (similar to a pendulum side-to-side action).
- Ballistic: Consists of trying to force a part of the body past its normal range of motion by bouncing into a stretched position. This type of stretching can lead to injury and should only be used by highly trained professionals.
- PNF: (aka. proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is a technique that combines passive stretching and isometric stretching to achieve improved flexibility. PNF consists of a muscle being stretched passively, then contracted isometrically against a resistance, and then passively stretched again with an increased range of motion.
- Self Myofascial Release: (aka. foam rolling) Consists of rolling the body at various angles across a foam roller until you find a tender spot, where you then place an even amount of pressure directly onto the tender spot for 30 to 60 seconds until the pain subsides and the muscle lengthens and releases.
The stretching exercises you incorporate into your routine should suit the type of physical activity you intend on doing. Static/passive stretching is better suited for physical activities that are slow, methodical and do not involve vigorous movement. Dynamic/ballistic/PNF stretching is better suited for physical activities that involve explosive movements and various movements in many directions.
- Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes before stretching (warm muscles, tendons and ligaments are more flexible and stretch more easily).
- Stretches should be done gradually and only to the point of mild discomfort (if a stretch becomes painful, you are going too far).
- Don’t rush through a stretching routine (muscles require at least 30 seconds to begin to release and reap the benefits of the movement).
- Stretch before and after your workout session (see “Benefits of Flexibility Training).