Oh, flexibility. How we enjoy being flexible, but how we often neglect to improve.
When I spent my days teaching freshmen wellness and junior athletic trainers, my mantra was often, longer muscles are stronger muscles. Flexible muscles are torn less. My husband will give me a huff, eye roll and sarcastic laugh when my answer for his back pain, sore knee or stiff neck is “Honey, just stretch.”
Well, it’s all true.
Here’s what I know about flexibility:
- Flexibility is the ability to move a joint or a series of joints through a full range of motion easily, smoothly and appropriately.
- Flexibility keeps muscles long, limiting inflammation of joints and tendons. When muscles are immobile or limited, they produce lactic acid and inflammation. This causes soreness and pain over time.
- Long muscles are stronger. Think in terms of lever arms, the longer the lever arm, the more force produced. Same with muscles. We can’t change where they originate or attach, but we can increase their fiber length. Secondly, the further you stretch a muscle, the more kinetic energy (think elastic or rubber bands when stretched) is stored and is unloaded as the muscle shortens. I want to generate as much power as I can, so flexibility training should coexist with power lifting for maximum power output.
- Flexibility prevents injury. The more flexibility we have, the further we can use our range of motion to exercise. Limited range of motion will likely cause a strain if we reach beyond. The further we can go, the less likely damage will occur. Poor flexibility will in turn cause the individual to use other muscles or poor form to lift the weight possibly causing further overuse issues or pain in the bicep, shoulder, back or neck.
- Flexibility lessens or prevents low back pain. The muscles of the thigh and hips attach or originate along the pelvis which joins with the spine. When the muscles are tight, they pull on the pelvis, therefore stressing the ligaments that work to hold the pelvis and spine stable and together. When we have adequate flexibility in our hamstrings, quads and all those little hip muscles, we do not overwork our ligaments and limit inflammation and pain.
- Flexibility improves posture. I often see athletes who shuffle in the athletic training room and sit with shoulders slumped over. Usually it’s not laziness, but heavy lifting for the chest, abs, hamstrings and quads. They don’t stretch and are front loaded. They neglect their backs and flexibility. The overworked muscles pull the spine forward and the shortened hamstrings cause the shuffle. Flexibility is necessary to aid balanced strength training in proper body balance and mechanics.
You will find research that both supports and debunks these theories, but in my experience with the athletes I have trained and rehabilitated over the years, increasing flexibility is a crucial step in healing and limiting or erasing pain. Do give it a try.
So how do you stretch?
Passive stretching: placing a muscle in a stretch position. When you encounter resistance, hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times. Stretching should not cause pain.
Dynamic stretching: Controlled stretches that alternate contractions and stretches between muscle groups. Mimics the activities performed in exercise.
Myofascial stretching: stretching of the sheath that surrounds muscle structures. Fascia is often damaged during injury or with inflammation. Rolling your muscle over a foam roll or another therapeutic myofascial device helps to stretch this type of tissue.
For your use, I have linked several stretching databases with pictures and video of how to perform various stretches.
Also, yoga and Pilates are a great way to combine strength training and flexibility training in one workout. Usually you can find yoga and Pilates studios in your area as private studios or sometimes a class is offered at your local gym.
Good luck beginning a flexibility workout and you should see noticeable differences in how you feel.
Stay healthy my friends!
For Jessica’s previous posts about fitness, use the blog’s search box, above on the right, and type in Jessica Poole.
To learn more about Gwinnett Medical Center’s complete sports medicine program, including our Running Clinic, visit gwinnettmedicalcenter.org.
Opinions are my own, from many years of hard knocks J
One source I used: Prentice, W., & Arnheim, D. (2011). Principles of athletic training. Mcgraw-Hill Education.