What is flexibility training?
A guide to starting flexibility training
If you've previously omitted flexibility training or stretching from your workouts, or you just want to know how to stretch safely, then the following stretching guide will answer any flexibility questions you might have.
Flexibility training is probably the most neglected of all the components of a fitness program – not because it is difficult, but because many people perceive that unless they're getting hot and sweaty, they're not actually making any fitness gains. Yet flexibility exercises can mean the difference between success and failure, and also the difference between safety and injury.
This stretching guide includes information on:
- Different types of stretching exercises
- Flexibility training benefits
- How to stretch
Flexibility training and exercise workouts
Including flexibility training in your workouts is extremely important to counteract the three primary factors that are responsible for tight, inflexible muscles. These are:
1. The aging process. As we age, our bodies tend to dehydrate – plus the structures of our tissues will change, making our muscles less supple or less 'stretchy'.
2. The very act of training itself. When a muscle is exercised and develops, over time it will become tighter – and therefore its flexibility will decrease.
3. Lifestyle postural problems. Sedentary lifestyles – including long hours spent seated while working at computers, watching TV and/or driving – contribute to the development of poor posture, whereby some muscles become overstretched or less flexible.
The purpose of regular stretching is to maintain or improve your flexibility so that you get full mobility and a complete range of movement for each muscle.
There are three types of flexibility exercise:
1. Static stretching. This technique is mainly used to maintain flexibility, and involves moving into the stretch position and holding it without any movement. It is important to avoid ‘bouncing’ when stretching because it could overstretch the muscle and lead to a pull or tear. Instead, gently lean into the stretch until you feel a slight tightness in the muscle or muscle group. Maintain a relaxed breathing pattern, which will help you get the most out of your stretch, and then ease a fraction further into the specific stretch position after about 15 seconds. This ‘extra’ movement is possible because after 15 seconds your body’s natural 'protective stretch inhibiter' will have switched off, enabling you to get a little more from your stretch.
2. Dynamic stretching. This involves gradually increasing the range of movement of the muscle which is under control – for example, swinging your leg backwards and forwards, and moving it increasingly higher and further back to extend its range of movement. Dynamic stretching is often used as a warming-up technique to increase mobility.
3. Developmental stretching. With a developmental stretch, you are looking to improve the flexibility of a tight muscle or muscle group. Developmental stretching is a specialist flexibility technique and usually needs to be executed with the assistance of an exercise partner or trainer. The other person can hold your affected limb in position and carefully extend the range of movement under control, while getting feedback about any feelings of tightness or discomfort.
Flexibility training benefits
The advantages of regularly stretching are not always immediately obvious in terms of improved fitness, but flexibility training should be the cornerstone of any balanced exercise program because it will provide a whole range of long-term fitness benefits. These include:
- Improved performance. When you have loose, supple muscles, then you will be more efficient in your movements. For example, a soccer player will be able to stretch more for a loose ball, or a runner will have a longer stride. A marathon runner who can increase their stride length by only an inch will be able to knock several minutes off their marathon time – without doing any extra running training!
- Reduced risk of injury. If a rugby player is inflexible when trying to reach a loose ball, he or she is likely to overstretch and damage a muscle. Flexibility training is important for any sport because it conditions your muscles and connective tissues to move into positions that will occur during a match or event. Your body will be effectively prepared for the demands that will be placed upon it – and so you’ll be less likely to be unpleasantly surprised with an injury!
- Improved mobility. When your muscles are flexible, you will be able to easily move your body into position without any restrictions on your movement. This means there will be fewer limitations on your mobility.
- Relaxed movements. If your muscles are tight and inflexible, there will be considerable tension in your body because your natural range of movement will be compromised. By maintaining good flexibility, your movements will be more fluid and easier to achieve – and you will also be more relaxed.
- Reduced post-exercise discomfort. By stretching at the end of your workout, you can release tension that has built up in the muscles that have been exercised, and also lengthen and align the muscle fibers – which will result in less soreness the following day.
When should I stretch?
The best time to stretch is at the end of your workout. If you try to stretch before your session, you will risk injury from trying to stretch cold muscles. After your workout, your muscles will be completely warmed up, and so you will be able to stretch further. If you are carrying out a more challenging training session such as interval training or a time trial, then a prolonged warm-up followed by some stretching is best.
How often should I stretch?
Ideally, you should look to do some flexibility training every time you exercise. Stretching the major muscle groups that have been worked during your session need take only five to 10 minutes at the end of your workout and can form part of your cool-down. Alternatively, try to devote a single session solely to flexibility training – in which you should thoroughly warm up and then carry out a range of flexibility exercises at a relaxed pace.
How to stretch
Stretching is a very safe process but there are a few ‘rules’ that you need to follow to get the most out of your flexibility training:
1. Always ensure that your muscles are thoroughly warmed up before stretching.
2. Avoid holding your breath during a stretch, as it will just create whole-body tension. Instead, maintain a relaxed breathing pattern throughout the exercise.
3. Avoid bouncing up and down in an effort to stretch further, as this could cause overstretching and injury.
4. Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds.
5. Ensure that your body is kept in balance by stretching opposite muscle groups equally. For example, if you stretch the quadriceps muscles (at the fronts of the thighs), then you should also stretch the hamstrings (the muscles at the backs of the thighs).
Your flexibility training workout
For the amount of time it takes to stay loose and supple, flexibility training has to offer the greatest rewards of all the various fitness disciplines. Just doing a few minutes of stretching at the end of each exercise session will help you to stay mobile and injury free, reduce any post exercise soreness, and improve your performance. Flexibility training provides very big rewards for a very small time commitment – especially in comparison to other fitness disciplines such as cardiovascular and resistance training. Factor in good posture and reduced tension and for a few minutes a day, stretching offers a formidable package of health and fitness benefits.