Flexibility, the ability of a joint to move freely through a full range of motion, is a key contributor in injury prevention and should be an important part of any fitness program. When performed regularly and correctly, flexibility can decrease the likelihood of injury and increase overall performance. Stretching is the best way to increase flexibility and should be performed daily to increase the range of motion of joints, decrease the probability of delayed-onset muscle soreness (soreness that appears 1-2 days after an intense workout), and enhance quality of life and graceful movement. Furthermore stretching can also assist in the development of motor skills, improve body positioning and strength for sports, and relieve aches and pains from stress or being in a stagnant position for a long period of time. Stretching is also a very important component of general fitness and wellness as we age.
Factors Affecting Flexibility
Flexibility varies from person to person. Everyone has a specific predetermined range of motion and degree of flexibility. From this range, gains can either be made if stretching is performed correctly or lost if it is not maintained. Flexibility is joint specific. This means that a person can be flexible in one joint and at the same time lack flexibility in another. This makes determining or scoring an individual’s overall range of motion very difficult. Some joints allow motion in only one plane such as flexion and extension, as the hinge joints perform in the fingers. On the other hand, ball and socket joints located in the shoulder and hip allow movement in many different directions, such as flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. The following factors can also affect flexibility:
Heredity; Some people are born with joints, muscles, and tissues that are looser or tighter than the average individual
Level of physical activity; Usually with activity and training flexibility can be improved
Joint structure; The type of joint, and position of bones and tissues to one another, can affect the pull of muscles and your ability to stretch and gain flexibility
Tendons, cartilage, and ligaments; A torn or stretched ligament or tendon can make a joint more flexible and even unstable
Lifestyle; A sedentary lifestyle or jobs that require long periods of sitting can decrease flexibility and lead to tightness over time
Skin; Skin thickness and scars can impede stretching
Previous or current tissue or joint injury; Scar tissue, swelling, and previous surgeries can reduce the extensibility and movement of tissues and joints
Amount of adipose tissue (fat); Extra body fat will limit flexibility
Body temperature; Warmer bodies and muscles tend to be more flexible
Age; Children are usually more flexible than adults
Gender; Women are often more flexible than men
When designing a flexibility program you must take all these factors as well as the type of joint, the individual’s goals, and lifestyle into account. Attempting to over stretch or increase range of motion in muscles or a joint that has an obstruction or barrier will only result in injury or damage to the individual. Additionally, stretching a joint that is damaged or has a large degree of laxity already will only harm the individual and predispose them to further injury. Hyperflexibility is the term given to flexibility beyond a joint’s normal range of motion, and may predispose these individuals to subluxation and dislocation injuries.
Approaches to Stretching
There are six main approaches to stretching: static, active, ballistic, dynamic, passive, and PNF stretching. All six are great contributors to increasing flexibility and can be effective when implemented in the correct situation and workout program. A solid routine will use an effective combination of stretching techniques to ensure appropriate maintenance and gains in lifelong flexibility.
Static stretching involves a technique in which a muscle is stretched while the body is at rest. This stretch involves the individual slowly and gently taking the muscle to a point of resistance and discomfort and holding that position. For the best results static stretches should consist of 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 20 second holds. This method is probably the most popular and effective stretching method for increasing flexibility.
Active stretching is a method in which you put yourself in a stretched position and hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist (opposite) muscles. This method is based on the fact that when a muscle contracts the opposite muscle relaxes. An example would be contracting your toes and foot upward toward your head, allowing the muscles in the back of your leg and calf to relax and stretch.
Ballistic stretching is a technique in which muscles are stretched by an extreme force generated as the body part is repeatedly bounced, swung, or jerked. This type of stretching can be effective, but also dangerous as it can create injury. Because of the injury risk involved with ballistic stretching most fitness individuals do not recommend its use in a workout routine.
Dynamic stretching is similar to ballistic stretching, except it is more controlled, gentle, and rhythmic. In dynamic stretching the body is warmed up gradually and flexibility is slowly gained and increased using a series of controlled reaches, bends, and swings through a full range of motion. A lunge is a good example of a dynamic stretch that when performed correctly can stretch multiple muscles in your legs and hips in one motion.
Passive stretching is a technique in which muscles are stretched using an outside source or person. Having your body stretched by an outside force may occur during rehabilitative therapy when someone helps you stretch, when using devices designed to help athletes stretch, or by using your opposite hand to hold the body part in a stretched position.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching involves muscles being stretched by the use of combinations of alternating contractions and stretches. This method is more complex and usually involves guidance and training from fitness professionals prior to performing. One of the most common PNF stretching techniques is the contract-relax-stretch method. This routine consists of stretching a muscle passively, then performing an isometric contraction of the same muscle while in a stretched position, relaxing the muscle, and then finally passively stretching the muscle again to a new length.
- Muscle tissue is the key to developing flexibility since it can be lengthened with regular stretching
- A warm muscle may be as much as 20% more flexible than a cold one. Think of your muscle as a noodle. It is hard to stretch and bend an uncooked (cold) noodle, but once cooked (warmed up) it is able to bend and move more freely.
- During athletic participation it is best to stretch after a light warm-up, and then again following an after workout cool down
- Avoid severe painful stretching and breath holding during stretches
- Stretching multiple times per day is the best method to maintain and gain flexibility
- In the United States, approximately 80% of all low back problems stem from improper alignment of the vertebral column and pelvic girdle due to poor flexibility
By: Douglas R. Curnes MS, CPT and Bryan S. Bentz MS, ATC
Douglas R. Curnes MS, CPT is a National Endurance Sports Trainers Association (NESTA) Certified Personal Trainer, and is a contributor of articles to the www.Hat-Trick-Sports.com website. He routinely designs individualized workout programs and provides sports specific training advice to top caliber athletes.