With flexibility we are looking at the bodies ability to get through a full range of motion at the joints. Flexibility is directly affected by both coordination and strength. When a person has concerns about their flexibility, the first thing to do is check your coordination. Two questions to ask are
- Is my alignment correct?
- Are my movements in the correct sequence?
A body that is out of alignment can not get through a full range of motion. Often what people think is a flexibility problem is actually an alignment problem. The body can not get through a full range of movement because the body is blocking itself.
Proper sequencing of movement also affects flexibility. For running, all movement must start with a push off the ground with the foot. If you start the movement by lifting the knee of the leg not on the ground, you start the movement wrong and the joints can not get through their full range of motion.
Strength can adversely affect flexibility when strength exercises are not done through a full range of motion. Muscles, tendons and ligaments strengthen in the exact range of motion they are worked in. If all you strengthening exercises are done in a small range of motion, they will lose their flexibility through the rest of the range of motion. There is also a microscopic tearing of the muscles through strength training. These heal up as scar tissue and cause tightness. Flexibility training must be included in with strength training.
Once your alignment and movements are correct, then you can go about improving your flexibility.
There are a few different ways that are recognized to increase flexibility. Each has its proper time and place.
Probably the most recognized form of stretching. You simple move a muscle to the point you feel it stretch and then hold anywhere from 1 sec. – 3 minutes depending on the muscle group and what you are trying to accomplish. Most hold from 10-30 seconds.
Basic rules for static stretching.
- Do it after your warm up, not as your warm up.
- Long holds can compromise strength training.
- Best done after a workout. Can be done immediately after a low intensity workout. Should be done 2-4 hours after a high intensity workout.
Prioprioceptive muscular facilitation is a method of stretching that is designed to use the bodies natural contraction and relaxation to increase flexibility. When a muscle contracts and then relaxes, it will naturally lengthen. Also when one muscle contracts, its opposing muscle lengthens. So this can be done three ways.
- Do a strong isometric contraction for up to 10 seconds and then let the muscle relax.
- Strongly contract the opposing muscle while stretching the muscle you want to lengthen.
- Follow the isometric contraction with a contraction of the opposing muscle group.
Let’s use the laying hamstring stretch as an example. You can use a partner you trust or do it yourself. Lay on your back. The leg you want to stretch is straight up; the other is on the floor. If you are flexible enough, grab your leg by the calf. If not flexible enough, use a towel. Now contract your hamstring, but don’t allow your leg to move downward. This is a strong isometric contraction. After the contraction, let the leg rest a few seconds. Now pull your leg toward you. It should want to naturally move as it lengthens. Do this up to three times. Instead of an isometric contraction, you can also do the same stretch, but contract your quad as you pull. The contraction of the quad should cause the hamstring to lengthen. Finally you can combine the two. Start with the isometric contraction of the hamstring. After resting for a few seconds, contract the quad as you pull.
If you are doing this for the first time, start with just a second or two of isometric contraction and build up. The longer the hold, the more intense the stretching. I do this for specific flexibility improvement. Never do after an intense workout or as a follow up to a warm up before your workout.
Dynamic flexibility is just simply doing an athletic movement through its full range of motion. Runners often do high knee and skips to do sport specific full range of motion. These make great warm up drills. Basic things to remember.
- Progress from low intensity to high intensity: walk, skip, run
- Progress from single joint to multiple joint drills
- Start every movement with a push off the ground.
- The stronger the push, the greater the range of motion
- Keep proper alignment through the whole movement. If the alignment breaks you are applying more force than you can handle.
The number one mistake made with dynamic flexibility drills is breaking alignment to make it look like you are more flexible than you are. Often athletes will learn forward while lifting their knee. This makes it look like the knee is close to the chest, but the chest has come forward when we want the knee to come up. Other lean backwards to make the knee is coming up high, but you straighten the back and the knee drops.
Push strong through the ground. Stay strong in the trunk. Move the extremities correctly through their full range of motion. Dynamic flexibility drills only work if done right!