We understand the benefits of cardiovascular conditioning and resistance training, but how exactly does flexibility fit into the greater fitness picture? Whether you're becoming active again after many years of sedentary living or are working toward performance related goals, enhancing flexibility can support your fitness vision. Many of us have memories of gym class stretching, but exercise science has come a long way since then! Read on for more information about the benefits of flexibility and the variety of safe stretching techniques you can use in your workout routine.
Causes of Stiffness
Lack of Stability
It’s important to first understand some basics around joint range of motion (ROM). There are many factors at any given time that can reduce ROM - either chronic or acute. An important and less understood point is that whenever you increase ROM at a particular joint, you want to ensure that ROM is stable. With improved stability of a joint comes increased mobility of a joint. If a joint is unstable, the body will protect the joint by tightening up muscles that surround the joint.
Lack of Movement
Whether you’re sedentary at work or you’re just waking up from a quality eight hours of rest, your joints have become comfortable in their lack of movement - so much so, in fact, that they become stiff. This is normal. In keeping with this fact, the best thing you can do upon waking is MOVE! Watch your pets as they get up from a nap. As soon as they wake up, they stretch out their joints before they’re ready to play. Your body is no different, and the same principle holds for your wakeful day. If you’re sedentary each hour of the day, your body becomes comfortable in that position. The longer you sit, the harder it is for your muscles to loosen up and respond to movement. Incorporating at least 10 minutes of movement each hour is essential to increase and maintain flexibility.
Benefits of Improving Flexibility
Decreased risk of injury
Joint injuries typically occur when a joint is unstable and taken into a ROM that is unfamiliar. With more stable ROM, your body will be much more prepared for varied activities - whether it’s a pick-up game of basketball, a new workout routine or even a seasonal household project.
Increased muscular performance
Whether your goal is to improve strength or increase endurance, flexibility can be a limiting factor if it’s not included in your training plan. As it pertains to strength training, the more ROM you can accomplish with stability, the more the muscles are able to develop and grow. Additionally, without effective ROM in endurance activity like running or swimming, your actual effort will be doubled, maybe tripled. By increasing your stability and flexibility, your body will perform much more efficiently in your endurance event.
With lack of activity over time, we begin to lose the battle with gravity. Our bodies become more and more familiar with poor posture. Pain may also accompany poor posture. Incorporating flexibility work in your movement routine can pay significant dividends for improving your posture and reducing or eliminating joint pain.
Techniques to Improve Flexibility
So, you’re sold on the concept of flexibility and are ready to add some components to your movement routine. It’s important to acknowledge that every body responds uniquely to different flexibility techniques. Remember, the best type of ROM is one that is stable. Here are some examples of various techniques that may be used to increase stable range of motion and, thereby, improve safe flexibility.
There are two types of static stretching: active and passive. Active stretching means that you are adding force to the stretch to its maximal position and holding it for 30 seconds or more. Passive is a similar concept but uses a partner or machine to increase intensity. It’s important to note that if you chose to stretch statically, it should primarily be implemented at the end of your movement/exercise routine. Many experts question this technique and its perceived benefits, and some even suggest that static stretching may cause irritation or injury. In keeping with these concerns, proceed with caution.
This type of stretching is often targeted toward a specific sport or movement within a sport. Sometimes it requires movement continuously through ROM that mimics the specific movement within a sport. An example may be a golfer continuously swinging a golf club with repetition, gradually increasing the ROM until he/she has worked up to a full golf swing. For more on general dynamic stretching and warm-up activities, check out this previous Flourish article.
AIS: Active Isolated Stretching
This is a type of dynamic stretching technique that can be accomplished alone or with a professional’s assistance. The method has a very strategic approach of targeting muscles that can show significant benefit to increasing ROM while minimizing risk of trauma. You can find more information about AIS here.
SMR: Self Myofascial Release (a.k.a. Foam Rolling)
For this technique, you can use your own body weight to determine the amount of pressure applied to “massage away” any restrictions in your soft tissues (e.g. muscle, tendon, ligaments, or fascia). If you’re going to use a foam roller, I would recommend starting with a soft roller to avoid causing trauma to the tissue.
Manual Joint Therapy
There are many other manual joint therapy modalities that may require a professional to manipulate the body to allow for greater ROM. Some of these include Muscle Activation Techniques, PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation), or even massage.
Improving your flexibility can offer significant benefits to your health and fitness and even your overall quality of life. If you’re still unsure about how to start, seek out advice from a health and fitness professional, who can offer his/her educated guidance on which technique is best for you. It’s never too late to gain the benefits of stretching. Start today!
Do you incorporate flexibility work in your exercise routine? Which techniques have you tried? Share your feedback and questions, and thanks for reading.
Written by Mitchell Keyes – Life Time Training, NASM-CES, NASM-PES, RTS-123, MAT Graduate
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.