Erin Pereira, PT, DPT, is a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy.
As a key component for optimal athletic performance, flexibility is the ability of a joint or group of joints to move through an unrestricted, and preferably pain-free, range of motion. Stretching and flexibility exercises keep muscles functioning properly and improve range of motion. What's more, training your body to be more flexible boasts many potential benefits, including but not limited to reduced risk of injury, increased strength, better posture, and improved balance.
There are four different types of flexibility training—static stretching, dynamic stretching, active isolated stretching, and myofascial release. These flexibility training options can be performed either in isolation, or at the end of your current workout sessions. Just as with other training regimens, consistent stretching will reap the best results and enhance the rest of your fitness endeavors, too.
Here we provide information on how to become more flexible as well as how to incorporate stretching into your fitness regimen. Whether you want to improve your range of motion, reduce stiffness, or simply improve your flexibility, you will find it here.
As with any physical goal, becoming more flexible requires a commitment to stretching. While dynamic stretches—active movements that stretch muscles through a full range of motion—might be best suited prior to other physical activities, static stretches can be performed as part of a cool-down or on their own.
Static stretches are held for a period of time, placing emphasis on muscle elongation. Active isolated stretching is similar to static stretching, but is performed for shorter periods of time—2 seconds repeated 10 to 12 times as opposed to static stretches, which are held for 15 to 30 seconds—and myofascial release is the application of a sustained pressure to a muscle as opposed to massage, which involves active rubbing and kneading.
While some stretching is better than none, incorporating all four modalities into an exercise regimen will reap the greatest benefits and increase flexibility. The efficacy of a flexibility regimen is generally measured by increased range of motion.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching 2 to 3 times per week, working your way up to daily stretching. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat it 2 to 4 times.
While stretching may be somewhat uncomfortable (but not painful) it can feel good for a couple of different reasons. First, stretching activates the branch of the nervous system responsible for relaxation and rest known as the parasympathetic system. Additionally, stretching by nature induces stress relief, as feelings of tension are often held in our muscles. In fact, some research indicates that a stretching protocol can reduce anxiety levels.
Recommendations for holding static stretches vary. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that most adults hold stretches for 15 to 30 seconds, but that older adults may benefit from stretches held for 30 to 60 seconds. Focus on stretching major muscle groups such as the hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, back, and chest.
Stretching for flexibility should focus on major muscle groups such as the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, back, and chest. Dynamic stretches can be tailored to enhance an accompanying training session, while static and active isolated stretching may include stretches for the whole body, regardless of whether or not a workout was completed.
Range of motion is the maximum amount of movement available at a joint in one of the three planes of motion—or the capability of a joint to go through a complete spectrum of movement. Increased range of motion can be used as a measure of increased flexibility.
Some increased range of motion can be measured on your own, like increased squat depth or ability to stretch arms farther in child’s pose. A physical therapist can use a device called a goniometer to measure range of motion in other joints.
Mobility is the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion. Increased flexibility may result in increased mobility due to increased extensibility of stretched muscles. Some research suggests that regular stretching has a lasting effect on mobility.
Your joints are the mobile areas where two or more bones meet. Working on range of motion through flexibility training, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight can help maintain joint health.
Your muscles are the bands and bundles of fibrous tissue that contract to produce movement in the body. Skeletal—or striated muscle—is the particular type of muscle connected to bones that produces bodily movement. When muscles are tight, they can decrease range of motion. During stretching, muscles are lengthened, and tension is decreased.
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