Did you know that flexibility is one of the components of physical fitness?
Yes, being able to touch your toes (or not) is an indicator of how fit you are or are able to become.
That might not seem fair, but being flexible isn’t just being able to bend your body in half. Flexibility is about having an optimal range of motion to complete activities, both mundane and sport specific, without getting hurt.
As one of my favorite exercise science professors used to say, you have to be able to move well, before you can move often.
Why is Flexibility Training Important?
I used to have this false notion that stretching and being flexible was just something dancers and gymnasts needed to worry about.
Me? I was a runner and enjoyed lifting weights. I didn’t need to be flexible.
Or so I thought.
I probably would have spared myself all those horrible shin splints and hamstrings so tight they might burst if I just would have taken the time to stretch.
Flexibility is important for almost any sport from baseball to Olympic lifting.
Heck, Olympic lifters have their own website dedicated to making sure they have the range of motion and flexibility in order to perform their complicated lifts!
Athletes need to be able to move their body in very specific ways and an athlete’s flexibility may be what allows them to progress or keeps them behind.
Additionally, flexibility can prevent injuries that come from not having a sufficient range of motion.
If our joint can’t move through its full range of motion, you may develop altered and incorrect movement patterns and poor posture. This ends up putting extra strain on joints and muscles, eventually leading to injury.
Even if you sit at a desk all day and your idea of exercise is nothing more that a walk after work, you still need to stretch.
Sitting all day produces tight hamstrings and tight hamstrings account for most cases of chronic lower back pain. So if you do nothing else, take some time to stretch!
There are 4 traditional methods of stretching and although each has its own purpose, all of them are important.
- Dynamic: Dynamic stretching uses movement and momentum to stretch the muscles and prepare them for exercise. Examples would be high knees, leg swings, and walking lunges.
- Static: Static stretching is the traditional, old school, reach for your toes and hold it for 30 seconds. When you hold a stretch, you trigger something in you muscles called a Golgi Tendon organ. (No, I’m not making that up.) The Golgi tendon organ, or GTO helps your muscle to relax and lengthen, allowing for a deeper stretch. Examples: sitting hamstring stretch.
- Self-myofascial release: Ever heard of foam rolling? Myofascial release is just the fancy word for massaging out the muscle tissue using a foam roller. Foam rolling increases flexibility by reducing “knots” and relaxing tight muscles.
- Active Isolated Stretching: In an active isolated stretch your basically performing a static stretch but only holding it for 2 seconds, and repeating that quick stretch 5-10 times. This type of stretching helps you prepare for high intensity or competitive exercise.
Does It Matter When You Stretch?
I think the question of the decade must be, “Should I stretch before or after a workout?”
And with all the conflicting research about the topic, it’s really no surprise that people are confused.
In one word, yes. You should stretch before and after your workout. But the kind of stretching is critical.
Before Your Workout:
- Never start a warm up with static stretching. Stretching cold muscles can lead to injury, so make sure you walk, jog or do some jumping jacks to increase blood flow to the muscles first.
- After you are warmed up, do some dynamic stretches specific to the movements you will be doing during your actual workout.
- If you’re feeling extra tight, do 5-10 minutes of foam rolling to release tension in the muscles.
- If you will be performing any high-intensity exercise, include some active-isolated stretching.
- According to NASM, 30 seconds or less of static stretching before a workout doesn’t decrease power, speed, or strength, but you’re better off with dynamic or active-isolated stretching.
After Your Workout:
Now that your muscles are warm and probably fatigued, it’s the perfect time to work on your flexibility!
- Hold some static stretches for 30 seconds to 1 min, making sure you hit all your muscle groups.
- Finish off with 10-15 minutes self-myofascial release, rolling out some of your tight spots.
How Often Should You Stretch?
Really want to see gains in flexibility? Stretch every day!
If every day seems excessive, make it a goal to stretch 2-4 times each week. You should start seeing some improvement within a few weeks.
Including stretching as part of your warm up and cool down can be very beneficial or you may want to try a quick stretching routine before you go to bed or in the morning when you wake up.
What Are The Benefits of Flexibility Training?
I’m sure you’re starting to why flexibility training is so important, but here are just a few more reasons why you should take the time to stretch:
- Increased range of motion
Again, range of motion is important for sport specific moves and even for reaching for that dish on a high shelf.
- Better sports performance
Squat deeper, run faster and throw better when you include flexibility training to your routine!
- Reduce muscle imbalances
You’ll have better posture and you’ll move correctly, thus preventing injury that comes with tight and overactive muscles.
- Relaxed muscles
You know that tightness you often feel in your hamstrings? Your shoulders? Your neck? You can feel more relaxed and looser when you take the time to stretch those tight muscles!
- Less injury
Tight muscles that don’t move correctly cause injury. Prevention starts with flexibility and range of motion!
Activities That Increase Flexibility:
So maybe you don’t have the patience for traditional stretching or maybe you want even more ways to improve? Try some of these activities that naturally build flexibility!
Rock climbing not only challenges your strength and endurance, it helps you build your flexibility.
Avid rock climbers know that pulling yourself up rocks and cliffs demands range of motion. Climbers reach for hand and foot holds and maneuver around tight spots.
Rock climbing inside and outside is a stellar (not to mention fun) way to improve your range of motion.
Get a great workout in plus work on your balance, stability, and of course flexibility with yoga!
Yoga has a long list of benefits, ranging from mental health to physical, but one of it’s biggest benefits is increased flexibility and range of motion.
Try incorporating yoga once or a few times each week and you’ll see some exciting improvements.
Going to the spa will improve your flexibility? Sure will!
Getting a massage helps rid your muscles of tightness and knots, leaving you not only feeling relaxed but also more flexible and nimble.
So go ahead and go get that massage, you deserve it and will only help you!
Everyone could benefit from an increased range of motion and more flexible muscles.
Whether you are a competitive athlete or just enjoy a casual workout now and then, flexibility training is going to keep you moving well so you can move often. And moving often is what we were made for!