Flexibility is normal extensibility of soft tissues that allow the complete range of motion of a joint. The human movement system will always seek the path of least resistance, which is known as relative flexibility, or flexibility can often lead to the development of altered movement patterns. Many people will engage in repetitive tasks at work, home, or even in their fitness and leisure activities that can lead to poor flexibility and injury.
Two of the most prominent potential factors are pattern overload and cumulative injury cycle. Pattern overload is consistently repeating the same pattern of motion. Think of a baseball pitcher. The force of that repetitive motion places abnormal stress on the body over time.
Poor posture and repetitive overuse movements can create dysfunction within the connective tissue of the human body. These dysfunctions can eventually lead to an injury and a repair response by the body termed the cumulative injury cycle. Inactivity can be just as bad. Current theory supports the idea that long periods of poor posture or the repetition of poor posture leads to the same cycle of tissue trauma and inflammation.
Inflammation, in turn, activates the body’s pain response. That initiates a protective mechanism, increasing muscle tension and causing micro muscle spasms. As a result of these microspasms, areas of dense tissue, which may be knots or adhesions, may begin to form within the myofascia. These areas of dense tissue form a weak inelastic matrix, which can result in decreased soft tissue mobility.
Flexibility training can help correct muscle imbalances, increase joint range of motion, improve the extensibility of the muscles, and improve neuromuscular efficiency. Flexibility training requires an integrated approach using various techniques to achieve optimal soft tissue extensibility in all planes of motion. Traditionally, there are four types of flexibility training that can be used together or interchangeably, depending on an individual’s needs. They are few types of stretching : Self-Myofascial Techniques, or SMTs for short, static stretching, active stretching, and dynamic stretching. Let’s take a closer look at each.
The most popular technique is self-myofascial rolling with a foam roller, handheld roller, or massage ball. With this technique, a mechanical and neurophysiological response influences tissue relaxation and decreases pain in the local and surrounding tissues. This happens by activating sensory pathways of the central nervous system. Remember that we mentioned microspasms might lead to a knot, adhesion, or area of dense tissue, so a client might describe the feeling as a knot or an adhesion in the muscle.
When we apply gentle force to the area, we soften the bundle of tissue. Then when we use one of the other stretching techniques, it can help to realign the fibers so they’re in the same direction as the muscle or fascia. In other words, gentle pressure, similar to a massage, helps to improve the ability of muscles and fascia to move as they should.
This may also have a side effect of reducing unwanted muscular tension. Self-myofascial techniques are suggested before stretching, because it may improve the effectiveness of other flexibility training techniques. In addition, SMT can be used during the cool-down process to improve recovery from intense bouts of training.
Next, we have static stretching. This is the process of slowly taking a muscle to the point of tension and holding the stretch for a specified time, usually between 30 to 45 seconds. This is a very traditional form of stretching. It combines low force with longer duration stretch times.
Holding the muscle in a stretched position for a prolonged period induces a relaxation response. This allows the muscle to relax and provides for a better lengthening reaction. There has been some debate about the effects of static stretching on strength and athletic performance. It’s true that static stretching performed acutely and in isolation can temporarily impair muscle power due to its relaxation response.
However, you should only perform static stretching on short and overactive muscles. These muscles demonstrate impaired performance anyway, because they are not at their ideal length. Also, when static stretches are held for about 30 seconds and followed by dynamic activities as part of a comprehensive warm-up protocol, research has shown it does not impair athletic performance.
Now let’s take a look at active stretching. Active stretching is the process of using agonists, which are the prime movers, and synergists, which are the helper muscles, to dynamically move a joint into a range of motion. This form of stretching increases motor neuron excitability, creating reciprocal inhibition of the muscle being stretched. Active isolated stretches are suggested for pre-activity warm-up prior to sports competition or high-intensity exercise.
Again, if you’re familiar with NASM’s OPT model, active stretching is ideal to use during a warm-up for phases two, three, and four, which is the strength level. Static and active stretches typically require the same body position and movement patterns. However, static stretches involve holding each stretch for 30 seconds, whereas active stretches require holding for only one to two seconds and repeating the motion for 5 to 10 repetitions.
And finally, we have dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching uses the force production of a muscle and the body’s momentum to take a joint through the full available range of motion. Simply put, dynamic stretches are bodyweight exercises that stretch muscles throughout the movement pattern.
You can use dynamic stretches in a specific warm-up protocol to mimic movements used during an exercise session or sport competition. But if used appropriately, dynamic stretching can be used in all phases of flexibility training. When used correctly, flexibility training is a key component to a comprehensive fitness program for individuals of all levels.
You should implement flexibility training in the warm-up or cool-down portion of a workout. Our fitness experts are happy to provide you with all the guidance you need, taking into consideration individual needs, a combination of flexibility techniques will always provide the best results. The concept of flexibility is about more than just stretching. It’s a full body experience that impacts everything from day-to-day functional movement to the most ambitious sports goals. Creating healthy mobility habits will change your clients’ lives for the better. All you need are the tools to take them on the journey.