How to stretch and increase flexibility

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The Importance of Flexibility and Stretching

  • Flexibility describes the range of motion for a particular joint and is a huge part of functional movement and of improved performance.
  • Inflexibility will increase your risk for joint and muscle injury and will affect performance and musculoskeletal health so it is important to be physically active and stretch every day.
  • Age, gender, and level of activity are critical variables in functional flexibility. You can check your level of beginning flexibility through tests at topendsports.com.
  • Stretching increases circulation to the heart and improves blood flow to the muscles, promotes waste byproduct removal, decreases pain caused by stressed muscles, and reduces daily stress.

Flexibility is a huge part of functional movement and of improved performance.  Technically speaking, flexibility is defined as the range of motion possible surrounding a particular joint. So in order to understand the potential for this type of movement, we first need to understand joints.

A joint connects bones with cartilage and ligaments. The synovial joints, also referred to as diarthroses joints, contain fluid and are freely movable. They include the hinge joints and the ball and socket joints. We will focus our attention on these two joint types since they are the primary joints that allow motion to occur in the body.

Hinge joints can perform flexion and extension, like the knee does when we lift or lower the body or the elbow does as we bend the arm to pick up a weight.

The ball and socket joints have increased potential for movement because of the design of the joint and the number of muscle attachments. They can move in circular motion like when a softball pitcher throws a pitch. Or they can rotate up and down, in and out, with the wrist rotating in many directions, just like when you play ping pong. The ball and socket joint can also create abduction and adduction by moving away from or toward the midline of the body. An example of this would be when you do standing side lunges.

It is extremely important to maintain good flexibility in your various joints. Not only will inflexibility increase the risk for injury for the joint and the muscle, but limitations of movement in sport affects both performance and musculoskeletal health.

These movement limitations, generally, can be caused by ligament tension, poor muscle flexibility and touching of soft tissue such as the calf against the hamstring or soft tissue of the torso touching the thigh when stretching the hamstrings.

There are additional factors that impact your functional flexibility. For example, age and inactivity are critical variables. Obviously, you cannot do anything about your age but you can do a lot about how active you are. Not only do you need to work out on most days of the week, you need to be physically active throughout the day. If you work at a desk job, it will be very important that you get up and move around about every 30 minutes. If you have a physically demanding job like running a gym or you work in retail and are on your feet all day, make sure you stretch the major joints periodically throughout the work day.

Gender can also play a role in flexibility due to men having more muscle mass than women. Generally speaking men are less flexible than women, for this reason. Body types like endomorphs and ectomorphs will vary in flexibility based on muscle mass and size.  Research supports the fact that overdeveloped muscles may encourage less flexibility if stretching is not included but discounts the myth that muscular size alone restricts flexibility.

If you are unsure of the level of your individual joint flexibility, we suggest you test yourselves. You can measure the potential of movement of these joints using different planes including the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes. There are flexibility tests for most joints in the body. Fortunately, there are many sites on the Internet that will help you measure your various joint’s flexibility levels. One good site that helps you walk through the various flexibility tests is http://www.topendsports.com.

The most common test is trunk flexion which is measured using a “sit and reach” test. Trunk extension evaluates the backward bend of the spine in the lumbar area. Hip flexion tests the range of motion of the hip and hamstrings. Shoulder flexibility measures the multi-rotation of the ball and socket joint in the shoulder and is very helpful in swimming, racquet sports and throwing sports.

It is important to point out the benefits of flexibility and stretching. Our body instinctively stretches. Think about when you first get out of bed in the morning or after taking a long walk or after sitting for a long period of time. We all feel the need to elongate the joint and increase circulation. The act of stretching alone increases circulation and improves blood flow to the muscles. We know when there is more blood flow, more nourishment is given to the muscles and waste byproducts are removed.

Another benefit of stretching is to eliminate pain. A common area of pain in 80% of people is the lower back. Muscles that are tight in the hip and leg area including the quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors can cause back pain. A nice gentle stretch can often eliminate the pain all together.

Stretching is also good for the heart. Recent studies support the fact that stretching lowers blood pressure and improves the function of the arteries in the body.

Finally, flexibility stretching helps reduce the day to day stress we all experience.

Now that we understand the importance of flexibility and the need for stretching, the question becomes when and how do we stretch to best improve flexibility and range of motion.

How to stretch and increase flexibility

  • Rules for stretching:
    • Stretching after working out is best. Never stretch a muscle that hasn’t been sufficiently warmed up with exercise or vigorous activity. 
    • Never push the stretch to the point of pain. Stretch to a good point where you feel it for 10-30 seconds and then you can take the stretch a bit further.
    • The stretch should be performed in a gently, fluid and slow progressive way.
    • Make sure to breathe when stretching. The muscles need oxygen and this will increase blood circulation.

Years ago, it was thought that stretching prior to exercise was a great deterrent to injuries, however, as the result of a great deal of scientific research, we now know that you should never stretch a muscle that hasn’t been sufficiently warmed up with exercise or vigorous activity. For most everyone, that means that stretching before a workout is a very bad idea.  In fact, today, studies support the fact that stretching is most beneficial following a workout. We now know, for certain, that it is important to elongate a muscle (stretch) only after it has been placed under contraction from vigorous use. Another benefit to stretching post exercise is to aid relaxation and to promote recovery after a workout.

Understand the physiology of stretching as it relates to joints and muscle connection and the benefits of flexibility stretching is only part of the equation. Now it is time to take action and incorporate stretching into daily life. Here are the points to remember in order to best accomplish this important change:

1. Most studies find that you need to stretch most every joint in your body three or more times per week to maximize optimal range of motion.

2. We recommend that you stretch the muscle and supporting tissue only when the muscles are warm.  Therefore, the best time to stretch and increase your range of motion is right after you exercise or have been physically active for a period of time.  Avoid stretching a cold muscle as this will increases your risk for injury.

3. When you are stretching it is very important to stay in proper alignment all through the motion ending with a mildly elongated point and holding there.  Never push the stretch to the point of pain.  Allow neurological messaging to occur between the muscle and brain for about 10-30 seconds and then you can reach a little more and take the stretch a bit further.  The stretch should be performed in a gently, fluid and slow progressive way.  Avoid ballistic/bounce stretching of a muscle or muscle group as this can increase the risk of muscle strains or tears.

4. Finally, make sure you are breathing through the stretch.  The muscles need the oxygen and this helps the circulation process as well.

Keep in mind you can stretch almost anywhere and at any time. You don’t need specific equipment, a personal trainer or a gym and the benefits of stretching are immediate and long-lasting. So let’s all stand up and reach for the stars! Hold it….breath….relax!

We want to encourage you to incorporate different stretches throughout your day…keep the circulation moving and the joints limber.