When I was a young ignorant whipper-snapper, I used to think that stretching out in gym class before workouts were for silly people and a waste of my time. I used to quietly laugh to myself, "When I get outta this joint, I'm never stretching again." This silliness did continue as I escaped the establishment called high school and became an adult. As I got older, I realized my flexibility was a little more limited. But I just thought that I was less flexible than others, and it wouldn't negatively impact me. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.
First off, what is flexibility and why should you care? Flexibility has to do with how limber you are, and this directly affects your range of motion, which is also known as ROM in personal trainer nerd verbiage. It's how well you can move your limbs around your joints. Our bodies are made of a framework called our skeletal structure. All of our bones are held together by ligaments. Our joints are held together by ligaments and the tendons of muscles, which help to articulate and move our joints. Just remember ligaments attach bone to bone and tendon connects muscle to bone.
Still asking yourself, "Why do I care?" Here's why.
Your ROM directly affects your ability to perform daily activities with ease and without injuring yourself. If we have tight muscles, it can pull our limbs out of its natural range of motion that it is supposed to move in. It also hugely impacts your ability to use the full capacity of your muscles that you are attempting to engage in a resistance training program, without injury. This is why I consider a stretching program a foundational key to creating a healthy lifestyle. If you aren’t flexible, there is more of a chance to harm yourself and not having the quality of life you were hoping for.
So, I just listed a couple of key components as to why a stretching program is so important, but there are more reasons if you are not entirely convinced yet.
Helps lengthen your tissues (tendons and ligaments)
Helps to set your muscles up for success in strength training
Improves your mood and promotes stress relief
Can reduce post-exercise pain
Facilitate better posture
Increase muscle balance and function
Improve athletic performance
Although flexibility is the foundational component to prevent injury, have a good quality of life, and frankly, should be one of the main elements in our plan for creating a healthier happier life for ourselves, the reality is the majority of us neglect it. Horribly.
Having good flexibility not only improves your ROM. It improves your quality of life.
Now the reason I state that it's a foundational element is for the fact that if we aren't flexible and have a good ROM, we aren't going to get an optimal workout in. Whether it's going for a run, lifting heavy things and setting them back down, your Jazzercise class or carrying your groceries into your house, among other daily activities, you are more susceptible to injury. Having good flexibility not only improves your ROM. It improves your quality of life.
Why are some of us more flexible than others? You might think, as I once thought, that you might not be as flexible as others and that’s just the way it is. While that is partly true, there are other factors that our flexibility is dependent on such as gender, age, and our genetic predisposition. Other reasons that are noteworthy are the body's response to having weak muscles, and so the muscles that encapsulate a joint can tighten in an attempt to protect it.
So, you have tight muscles, or you want to stay flexible throughout your life, but where do you start? There are several different kinds of stretching techniques. I am going to briefly elaborate on the most common and beneficial.
Dynamic Stretching: Research recommends doing these controlled movements and warm-ups before your workout. Essentially, you are mimicking movements you are getting ready to do in your following workout, without added weight. This helps to get the blood pumping to the muscles that you are getting ready to use, stretch them out and help prevent injury. Examples are unweighted shoulder shrugs before putting weights in your hands. Or butt kicks and knee raises before going out and running a mile.
Static Stretching: This is when you are stretching a muscle to the point of tension (not pain) and holding it there for 15-60 seconds. Rinse. Repeat three more times. Research is pointing to this stretch being safe to utilize after your workout since you’ve preheated your muscles and gotten the blood flowing during your muscle pump session.
Realistically we want to incorporate stretching into our daily lives and at a minimum of three days a week. You might be thinking “I don’t have time for adding stretching into my day.” Understandable. We all are so busy with work, family events, and taking care of others, we have to become ninjas at our own time management. We also become accidental masters of not taking care of ourselves. Creating time for stretching can be implemented in a yoga class you take with a friend, a Tia Chi class with your kid, or do 10-20 minutes of some stretches at home while you are listening to an audiobook or watching your favorite show with your spouse. You and your health are worth the time. If we don’t keep our flexibility in check, it will catch up with us sooner rather than later.
We have to become ninjas at our own time management.
As for my own personal learning lesson, I had started doing Crossfit a few years ago. Crossfit involves high-velocity, high-weighted moves. There's nothing wrong with that. Don't get me wrong. It's one of the most effective workouts I've ever done for myself. However, you have to make sure that you have an excellent range of motion to perform perfect form in the exercise moves. Or you increase your chances substantially for hurting yourself. The "injured" is the category that I had fallen into. Alas, it finally happened, I thought to myself. I was finally feeling my age.
I have started going to physical therapy sessions to correct some mechanical issues I've had. It's time to get serious. None of us want to feel our age sneaking up on us. Taking care of our flexibility is just as important as excellent aerobic training and resistance training plan. The good news is that all of us, no matter how naturally flexible we are or where we are at on the flexibility spectrum, can achieve the agile, flexible bodies we want with practice, time, and patience.
Blahnik, Jay. “Stretching Basics.” Full-Body Flexibility. 2nd ed. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication. 2011. Print.
Ratamess, Nicholas A. “Warm up and Flexibility.” ACSM’s Foundations of Strength Training and Conditioning. Michigan: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012. Print.
Reynolds, Gretchen. "Reasons Not to Stretch." The New York Times. N.p., 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
Thacker, S.B. et al. (2004). The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic review of the literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36, 3, 371–378.
Yamamoto, K., Kawano, H., & Gando, Y. (2009). Poor trunk flexibility is associated with arterial stiffening. American Journal of Physiology, 297(4). doi:10.1152/ajpheart.00061.2009. Epub 2009 Aug 7.