What is Flexibility?
Flexibility describes the ability of soft tissue (muscles, tendons, etc.) to allow for movement in pain-free, full ranges of motion. Flexibility, or stretching, is key to removing movement restrictions that impair performance and lead to injury.
There are several types of ways to stretch, including:
1.) Passive Stretching: involves an external force that provides the stretch (via a partner or gravity using your own body weight)
2.) Active Stretching: requires you to generate the force to provide the stretch, often through the concept of reciprocal inhibition where you activate one muscle to relax/turn off another muscle thus allowing for a deeper stretch
3.) Static Stretching: involves holding a stretch at the end range of motion for time and is by far the most common form of stretching
4.) Dynamic Stretching: uses movement to go back and forth between the end range of motion with only a brief pause at the end range of motion
There is also a bit of a gray zone between flexibility and mobility. The best way I can describe the difference between the two is that flexibility is a lower intensity version of mobility that does NOT require mobility (or you can say that mobility is a higher intensity version of flexibility that involves stability).
For example, a split kneeling hip flexor stretch focuses on getting enough motion at the hip to allow for a full, pain-free range of motion split squat/sagittal lunge variation. Where the split squat/sagittal lunge variation requires strength, stability, and neuromuscular control, the hip flexor stretch does not.
Some recent studies have been quite misleading in suggesting that stretching before exercise can negatively impact performance. There was an immediate knee-jerk reaction in the fitness industry where many trainers and coaches jumped on the band wagon and stopped stretching altogether.
While it has been shown that performing static stretching immediately before explosive movements results in a reduction in power output, the drop in performance was so insignificant that it’s not even worth noting when you consider that:
a.) If you follow static stretching with proper mobility/activation drills, it’s been shown that the reduction in performance no longer exists. This is why all stretching should be followed by mobility/activation work
b.) Corrective stretching is absolutely essential to long-term injury prevention
c.) The general population could care less about one-time maximum power output compared to feeling and looking better
As I mentioned last week when discussing tissue quality, it’s not about PAIN SITE... it’s about PAIN SOURCE!
Knee pain is often caused by restrictions in your quads and calves.
Back pain is often caused by tightness in your hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings.
Shoulder pain is often caused by tightness in your neck, chest and lats.
In addition, self-massage before stretching allows for a better, more complete stretch by smoothing out the knots and allowing for a complete lengthening of the tissue. If a muscle is restricted and you stretch it, the only part of the muscle that will stretch is the part that’s already loose. Thus, you should always precede flexibility work with tissue quality for best results.
In my personal experience, I have found the following 5 flexibility exercises to be of the highest priority for the general population:
1.) Quad/Rectus Femoris: Tightness in the middle of the front thigh is a primary cause of anterior knee pain, often referred to as jumper’s knee, or general patella-femoral issues like chondromalacia. By extending your back arm overhead you can also release the psoas and if you add a slight rotation of the upper back you can get at your thoracic spine too. Also, focus on squeezing the glute of your back leg to get more of a hip flexor stretch as well.
2.) Calves: Restriction in the calves also leads to anterior knee pain and usually leads to people squatting on their toes. This is most often seen in women who wear heels during the day as they are on their toes all day in excessive plantar flexion. Since I’ve given up on convincing women to forgo fashion for less knee pain, we stretch the calves each session to do our best to counteract this trend. A straight leg will stretch more of your upper calves (gastrocs) and the bent knee will stretch more of your lower calves (Achilles tendon and soleus). Also, focus on squeezing your shins when stretching your calves to get a better stretch.
3.) Glutes/Hip Rotators: If you sit on your butt all day at work, not only do your butt muscles shut down, but they tighten up and this can lead to lower back issues like spasms, sciatica, etc. One of the quickest ways to know if your glutes are tight is to look at your feet. If they are pointed out more than 15-degrees in your natural standing position, then you need to stretch your butt more.
4.) Hamstrings: Restricted hamstrings mean that anytime you bend over to touch the floor or pick something up, your lower back will compensate by flexing to allow for a false range of motion. This high-frequency flexion of the lumbar spine literally puts you on the fast track to bulging or, heaven forbid, ruptured discs. More and more experts are suggesting that the most important part of the hamstring to stretch is the lateral/outer aspect and this can be accomplished by pushing your hips outward and rolling your toes inward during a hamstring stretch. Lastly, focus on squeezing your quad while stretching your hamstring to relax it and allow for a deeper stretch.
5.) Chest: When the chest is restricted, it leads to poor posture and a host of issues including shoulder and back pain. Plus, being in a hunched position at a desk all day makes this exercise an absolute must to best counteract kyphosis (excessive rounding) of the upper back. Focus on pulling your shoulders down and back when stretching the chest to get a deeper stretch.
I’m a big fan of a relative muscle tightness scale when it comes to flexibility, for example:
- Using a relative muscle tightness scale of 1-10, “1” being no tightness and “10” being extremely tight, make a note of the flexibility exercises that cause pain/restriction that is greater than a 5 out of 10
- Your fitness homework is to religiously perform all flexibility exercises that are a 5 or greater. Prior to performing the flexibility exercises, be sure to self-massage all tight/related muscle groups to eliminate any tissue restrictions and provide a better, more complete stretch
- For best results and injury prevention, flexibility should be addressed on a daily basis or at least before and after workouts
How Long Should I Stretch Each Area?
Studies show that 90 percent of the benefit from stretching comes in the first 30 seconds. So, while longer 1-5 minute stretches are great for really tight muscle groups if time allows, we get the biggest bang for our buck in the first 30 seconds.
Any fitness program that does not address flexibility with its clients is doing them a great disservice and is most likely using out-of-date methodologies.
Nathan Trenteseaux, YFS1, USC1, YNS is the owner and instructor for a local Alachua group personal training fitness facility that features high-intensity bootcamp-style workouts. Underground Fitness Revolution specializes in 30-minute EXPRESS metabolic workouts for busy men and women. To book Nathan to speak at your local Alachua company, club, or organization, please contact him by email at nate@UndergroundFitnessRevolution.com or by phone at 352.682.3310. For more information, please visit www.UndergroundFitnessRevolution.com.
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Underground Fitness Revolution specializes in 30-minute EXPRESS metabolic workouts for busy men and women designed to get you in the best shape of your life regardless of your current fitness level.