Loosen Up! The Importance of Flexibility Training

By Dave DiFabio

My last newsletter explained how to build a superstructure. What good is that structure if it doesnt move fluidly? Which brings me to my next topic, Flexibility Training.

Flexibility Training is by far the most neglected aspect of fitness. Why is that the case? Perhaps because the benefits of flexibility training are not always obvious and appealing. However, dont be fooled, flexibility training can elicit at least three very important benefits:

1. Flexibility training can improve stability, which is the ability to maintain ideal body alignment at all times.
2. It can also improve mobility, which is the ability to use a full, normal range of motion.
3. It can help restore, maintain, and/or improve muscle balance thus improving muscular strength and power. Read my article "Dont Get Mad, Get Even" for more on that.
Through these mechanisms, Flexibility Training can improve athletic performance and make activities of daily living a little easier. It may help prevent and treat injury. The key word being MAY. Not all of the research literature proposes injury prevention as benefit of flexibility training. There are so many other factors that affect injury rates making it difficult to control all of them in a research study. However, I can tell you this: Ignoring flexibility is not going to help you prevent injuries either.

So, now we know why flexibility is important. Lets talk about some things you'll want to consider when incorporating flexibility training into your routine. First off, you need to warm-up otherwise you risk injury. Walking, biking, or using a cross trainer at a brisk pace for 10 minutes are just a few simple methods for doing this. At the end of your warm-up you should feel warm or have broken a bead of sweat.

Second, improving flexibility takes serious training just like weight loss does, just like building muscle does, and just like gaining strength does. You will not get much benefit from an occasional stretch. However, a yoga class 3 days/week, for example, can go a long way.

Furthermore, just like any exercise routine, flexibility training is not a "one size fits all baseball cap". Generic stretches may not be beneficial for everyone. So consider your specific needs. First, consider the activities you engage in on a regular basis. Do you lift weights? Are you a runner? A golfer? A snowboarder? Do your daily home or work responsibilities include bending, lifting, twisting, or sitting for long periods? Second, pay particular attention to tight muscles. They are most likely tight due to the activities you engage in often. The shoulders, chest, hamstrings, hip flexors and other muscles around the pelvis are most commonly tight. However, there could be other problem areas, depending on past injuries and any current muscle imbalances . Thus, unless your flexibility training routine is specific and functional you could stretch already overstretched muscles and ignore the muscles that need flexibility training.

Once you start stretching, pay attention to your body and don't push to the point of pain. Avoid ballistic stretching, which uses bouncing or jerking movements to gain momentum. Without getting deep into a dissertation on Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs, ballistic stretching can be at worst, dangerous, and at the very least, counterproductive. Ballistic stretching should not be confused with dynamic stretching. Dynamic Stretching can be fun and very effective especially when it comes to warming up before a strength/power based sport or activity.

PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) Stretching is by far the best method for increasing ROM (range of motion). It is generally done after a workout as part of a cool-down (recovery) period. One negative aspect of PNF is this: It's very difficult to do PNF on yourself and it's best administered by a trained professional. Standard stretching is the easiest and safest method at our disposal. Slowly stretch your muscles to the end ROM and hold for about 10 to 30 seconds. Older adults, pregnant women, athletes, and people with injuries may need special considerations.

As with other exercise modalities, dont be afraid to mix it up and use different methods of flexibility training. You can use towels, resistance bands, stability balls, foam rollers, and other accessories to add variety and effectiveness to your stretching. Earlier I mentioned yoga. You could also find a flexibility based class at the gym. Beyond yoga there is Pilates and Will Power & Grace TM, which also incorporate cardiovascular and strength components. The cool thing about these classes is they incorporate music, visualization, and breathing techniques that can also affect your mood and emotions which can also affect your flexibility. If you are in a relaxed state, your muscles will be more responsive to flexibility training.

I can design a functional flexibility routine with your specific needs in mind. Only ask and I shall deliver.

If you've missed any of my past articles/newsletters, read them here: teamspeedfitness.com


Dave DiFabio MA, CSCS, USAW

Owner/Strength & Conditioning Coach - Team Speed Fitness LLC