Stretching and Flexibility

Sunday, April 10, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Stephanie S. Saunders

Stretching is one of the most important aspects of any exercise program, and usually one of the most ignored and/or misunderstood. Because it doesn't burn a massive amount of calories or give you a six-pack, many people choose to skip the stretch, hurrying off to Starbucks for a skinny vanilla latte instead. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who push their cold limbs into pretzel-like positions, ultimately harming their connective tissue. Like most things that are good for us in life, if you ignore it or overdo it, stretching can create imbalances and eventually cause you harm. So how do you get stretching right? It's easy enough, but first let's learn about why it's important.

What is flexibility?

In technical terms, flexibility is defined as "the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion." This means that when a particular joint, like your shoulder, is in a fixed position, the shoulder's range of motion is measured as the arm is moved. Stretching is the practice of elongating the surrounding soft tissue, or the muscles, around that joint. Over time, regular stretching can increase flexibility, but tight muscles aren't the only factor limiting a joint's range of motion.

Why don't I have flexibility?

So if it's not those tight hamstrings, what is it that limits flexibility? Joint structure, for any given joint, has a lot to do with range of motion. Ball and socket joints, like your hips and shoulders, are capable of the greatest amount of movement, while ellipsoidal joints, such as your wrist, are among the least flexible joints in the human body. As we age, our muscles undergo a process called fibrosis, in which muscle degenerates and is replaced by fibrous tissue, which limits movement. Connective tissue, like tendons and ligaments, can limit range of motion, as they don't share the elastic properties of muscles. Athletic training programs that focus on a limited range of motion, including many sports, can cause specific areas to tighten up, creating bulk and decreasing range of motion. Also, the frequency and duration of the stretching program you undertake, along with your general activity level, can make a huge difference in the degree of flexibility you achieve.

What does stretching do?

Regular stretching helps to increase flexibility, warms up muscle tissues and joint fluids, prepares the brain for movement, increases heart and respiratory rates, gets our bodies ready for accelerated energy production, and prepares us psychologically for work. For many people, stretching is also very relaxing and a way to de-stress and refocus. And lastly, stretching can decrease the risk of muscle imbalances, joint dysfunctions, and overuse injuries.

What if you have either too little or too much flexibility?

This brings us to what happens when we have poor flexibility. Your skeletal system, nervous system, and muscular system all work together as a balanced chain. If one part of the chain is misaligned, dysfunction can develop, which means your body can take the path of least resistance during movement, causing muscle imbalance. When muscle imbalances occur because of poor flexibility, some muscles may be shortened or tightened, while others will lengthen and become weak. This can lead to a muscle's overriding its opposing or assisting muscles, and can create abnormal pressure on a joint, causing the joint to wear down, which can eventually cause a serious injury.

Which brings us to the genetic anomaly, the hypermobile or really, really flexible person. Think gymnast, wrestler, or ballet dancer. The same problem occurs with them as with their super-stiff counterparts. In order for one muscle to be really loose, its antagonist, or opposite muscle, is often very tight. So if a dancer has really loose hamstrings, allowing him to kick extra-high, he'll often have pretty tight quadriceps to compensate for it. Eventually, this can put stress on the joints, and can cause serious hip, knee, or ankle injuries. This is why traditional yoga preaches the balance of strength and flexibility. Just being a rubber band is not what you're aiming for. What you want is to work within your personal range of motion, which as we have discovered depends on many factors, and slowly increase from there.

What types of flexibility training are there?

So now that you have an idea of the benefits you get by stretching, what does it mean? Do you have to lie on a mat and slowly hold painful positions for hours at a time? No, but you do need to understand that there are different kinds of stretching protocols out there, all of which fall into either the active or passive categories. Active stretches, which means you're in control, may be static, ballistic, or dynamic. Passive stretches, which give the control to someone else or a device, are usually static or dynamic. In active stretches, a static stretch is a constant stretch where the end position is held for 10 to 30 seconds. A seated toe touch is a good example of this. A ballistic stretch is one where a bouncing movement is involved and the end position is not held. Imagine the same toe touch, but quickly reach for your toes, and then return to your seated position immediately, at least 10 times. Dynamic stretching is sport-specific stretching that involves movement. A walking lunge is a good example of this.

In passive stretching, where someone (another person) or something (a machine or device) is in control, you may be lying on your back while someone else, or a device like a strap, is stretching your hamstring. One type of passive stretching is known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and is done by alternating the contraction and relaxation of both the antagonist, or opposite, and agonist, or primary working muscle. There are three different forms of PNF, but all follow the same basic premise. In the case of the hamstring stretch, the person being stretched would push into the hand of the stretcher for 4 to 10 seconds, contracting the quadriceps. The stretcher will then give a cue to relax, and as the person being stretched relaxes, will stretch the hamstring for another 10 seconds. This will be repeated for 2 to 5 repetitions. The hamstring will have increased range of motion, as the result of nerve responses that hinder the contraction of the hamstring. PNF is extremely effective, but should only be performed with a trained practitioner, as it can cause overstretching injuries.

Whether you choose to hold a static stretch or use a dynamic one has much to do with what you're training for. After all, a gymnast and a tennis player both need to be pliable, but not in the same way. And often functional flexibility is best achieved with movement, which is why Tony keeps you moving at the beginning of every P90X® DVD.

How, when, and how much do I stretch?

If you don't have the luxury of being led through a series of warmup stretches by a trainer, what's the best way to warm up for, say, a run? It's really common to bend over at the waist, grab your ankles for a quad stretch, and run 5 miles that end in the shower. And although this is better than nothing, you're ignoring at least 70 percent of your body, and a vital part of your cooldown. Every workout should begin with a light warmup and at least a few minutes of active stretching. You should at least address all major muscle groups that you'll be using during your workout. As a runner, that would include quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and calves. You could hold them statically, or move through space dynamically. At the conclusion of your calorie-burning party, you should hit every major muscle group for a bit longer. That also includes your upper body, which has just been jarred with every footfall. Most professionals agree that the longer stretch should take place at the end of a workout, as the body is more receptive to elasticity work when it's warm. And, yes, this should happen every time you work out, which for many serious workout devotees can equate to 5 or 6 days a week. A well-designed post-workout stretch program could take just 10 minutes. It can also be the workout, as in the Yoga X workout. Whatever the case, we know that consistency is what makes the difference.

Sports, fitness programs, and even daily life can create imbalances in your body. The more you run, jump, lift, push, pull, and twist, the tighter your body can become, And yes, you do want your glutes to look tight in those skinny jeans, but you don't want them to be so tight they're pulling your body out of alignment. Based on the demands of the sport or exercise regimen you're involved in, you should adopt healthy stretching habits that will help you avoid the injuries that come from imbalance. This will do a lot more for you in the long run than all the chemicals in that skinny vanilla latte.