Flexibility training and stretching is one component of exercise that is often overlooked. Many injuries occur due to muscles being tight and stiff. Flexibility training allows athletes to achieve optimal performance, seniors to increase range of motion of joints and minds and muscles to rest and relax.
According to the American Council on Exercise, flexibility is defined as, “the range of motion within a joint along the various planes of motion.” Numerous factors can affect a joint’s range of motion including genetics, tendon, muscle or joint elasticity, neuromuscular coordination and strength of the opposing muscle group. Two common forms of stretching include static and dynamic stretching.
Static stretching is the actual “hold” of a stretch which also includes static poses in yoga, or stretches held longer than several seconds. Dynamic flexibility “involves movement through a range of motion with an emphasis on maintaining both speed and force.” Pilates, water classes and gymnastics utilize dynamic stretches that incorporates coordination, force and range of motion of the joint.
The mechanics of stretching is complex, but flexibility is increased when utilizing various methods of passive or active stretching. As flexibility enhances so does the blood and nutrient supply to the joints. In addition, synovial fluid flows through the joint which slows the joint degenerative process. Synovial fluid is defined as, “transparent, viscous lubricating fluid found in joint cavities, bursae and tendon sheaths.”
Stretching elongates the musculotendinuous unit, muscle fibers and connective tissue which consists of tendons, ligaments and fascia. If you have ever taken a yoga class, the instructor may announce that, “flexibility comes with time, and to never overstretch past a mild discomfort level. This is true in the fact that when one stretches it is either affected in the elastic (temporary) or plastic (permanent) zone. When stretching in the elastic or temporary zone the tissues are stretched than removed to quickly return to its’ resting length. Dynamic or shortly held stretches affects the elastic region. Permanent elongation requires a low-force, long duration, static stretch. Generally the elongation is non-recoverable; therefore, producing greater flexibility.
The neuromuscular connection to the muscle takes approximately six to ten seconds for response. Stretching is most effective when body temperature increases at a minimum of one to three degrees. Warm muscles aid in relaxation as well as reduce the risk of injury or strain while stretching.
Athletes are recommended to perform dynamic stretching prior to training or competition. This would include shoulder, neck, wrist and ankle rolls, hip rotations, spinal rotations and knee lifts. Static stretching should be completed at the completion of training or competition.
People should complete flexibility training at a minimum of two or three days per week to a position of mild discomfort. If incorporating static stretching, 10 to 30 seconds in the stretch can achieve results. It is important to stretch all major muscle groups, and can be repeated at least four times. All fitness levels and ages can incorporate stretching into a fitness program.
Where to go next? Contact your local yoga, pilates or personal training studio to discuss program options that will enhance range of motion and flexibility.