The new science of flexibility
By Judy Torel
The fitness industry is evolving at a rate similar to that of computer technology. Because information changes so rapidly, oftentimes it appears as conflicting. In reality, the science is evolving and what was thought to be safe and effective is outdated by new and more subtle insights. This is exactly what is occurring in the science of flexibility and stretching.
Most of us who are old enough can remember when ballistic or (bouncing in a stretch position) was thought to be a safe and effective method for increasing flexibility. But, research has shown that this type of stretching can actually lead to increased rates of injury and except under very specific instances, ballistic stretching has gone the way of the dinosaur.
What determines flexibility? Are there different types of stretches? When is the best time to stretch during a workout? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!
Flexibility is defined as the range of motion (ROM) around a joint. A joint is where bone, ligaments and tendons come together and allow movement. Flexibility in the human body is desirable and having a full range of motion in all joints leads to unrestricted mobility and is correlated with higher levels of physical performance and lower rates of injury.
There are a number of factors that influence ROM in joints. Age and gender are two factors that affect flexibility. ROM generally decreases with age. This is partly due to muscle fibers evolving into fibrous connective tissue which has less elasticity. Females are generally more flexible then males. That said, being a senior male does not mean that you are destined to be rigid. Flexibility can be increased at any age and in both genders with appropriate training.
Deep connective tissue such as ligaments, fascia and tendons can limit ROM. Ligaments and fascia are more limited then tendons in their elasticity so their job is to stabilize joints. Tendons and muscle fibers are more elastic in nature and it is their job to create the movement around the joint. A healthy joint must have a base level of stability and elasticity. Stretching will help prevent unnecessary tightening of the connective tissues within a joint
Previous injuries or chronic muscle tension can lead to a thickening or fibrosing within a muscle. This fibrous tissue is less elastic and can lead to fibrous nodules called trigger points. Trigger points are the knots we often feel in muscles. These knots lead to improper muscle lengthening during movement because they are not as elastic as healthy muscle fiber and often are the cause of strains, tears, muscle pain and joint injury.
Types of stretching
Stretching both before and after physical activity, whether it be a workout or daily activities such as shoveling snow, is important in avoiding injury. Stretching is also instrumental in facilitating muscle recovery, optimizing muscle strength gains and increasing ROM. Current science has identified two types of stretching.
Dynamic stretching uses movement and active muscular effort to create a stretch. The end position of dynamic stretching is not held. Dynamic stretching is useful before a workout, athletic event or any activity that is physically strenuous. When performed before a higher intensity activity, dynamic stretching has been shown to reduce muscle tightness which is a major factor that causes musculotendinous tears. The most recent science indicates that dynamic stretching is the type of stretching that should be performed at the beginning of a workout or more strenuous activity.
Examples of dynamic stretches are arm circles, walking lunges, high knee walking and standing squats. The movements should be performed repeatedly for 30 seconds to several minutes. These movement patterns involve progressively increasing ROM and increasing blood and heat into the joints and muscles that will be called to perform in the subsequent activity or exercise.
The second type of stretching is static stretching, which most people are familiar with. This type of stretching is slow and constant and involves holding a stretch position for 10-30 seconds. Static passive stretching involves some external force to facilitate the stretch. For instance, when you lie on your back and use your hands to pull your leg towards your chest in a hamstring stretch position, you are performing a passive static stretch.
Doing the same stretch, but using the muscles of your leg to bring it towards your chest without your hands is an active static stretch. In this type of stretch, your own muscles are involved in creating the stretch. This is also known as functional stretching and there is thought that functional ROM is best for athletic performance. Passive static stretching may cause a reactionary tightening of the muscles and a decrease in muscle strength, neither of which are desirable in athletics nor human performance in general.
Static stretching, both passive and active, has been shown to be most effective in increasing ROM over time. The best time to perform static stretching is after a workout or activity when muscles and joints are very warm and lubricated. If performed before a workout, there is evidence that indicates that muscles will have a reactionary loss of strength and ROM due to the stretch reflex response, therefore dynamic stretching is better before a workout.
When performing static stretching you should always already be warmed up. You should take the stretch to just before the point of discomfort. As you hold the stretch you should notice a decrease in tightness. You should breathe out while performing the static stretch. It is desirable to hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds and you should shake out the stretched muscles in between stretches. Each stretch should be done 2-3 times before moving to the next one.
Examples of static stretches are: sitting on the floor and leaning forward to touch your toes, placing your hands behind your back and moving your arms away from your back to stretch your chest and letting your heel hang over a step to stretch the calf.
Increasing flexibility is desirable for maximum mobility and helps decrease chances of injury. Dynamic stretches are best performed before an activity and static stretches should be executed after a workout or activity. No matter what your circumstances, proper flexibility training can improve your ROM and help avoid pain and injury. A comprehensive flexibility program is just as important as strength training and cardiovascular workouts. l
Judy Torel is a therapist/personal trainer with a Master’s degree in psychology. She is certified through the American College of Sports Medicine as a fitness trainer and works out of Planet Fitness and Deb's Sweat Shop Extension. She can be reached at JTOREL2263@yahoo.com