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Training for Flexibility

Written by NFPT Staff Writer Monday, 21 May 2012


Among the five fundamental components of fitness -- muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular capacity, body composition and flexibility, it is flexibility that can be gained -- and lost -- the fastest.

Flexibility can be defined as "the ability to bend without breaking" or the capacity to pliable or susceptible to modification. From a biomechanical standpoint, flexiibility can be thought of as the range of motion (ROM) within a joint. Both these definition are quite apt, as a flexible person can expect to bend or twist without breaking something important like a tendon or a ligament.

There is still some controversy surrounding what exactly is being stretched during flexibility postures and training. Some believe it is primarily the tendon, others the muscle bed itself, and still others believe that it is the myofacial "web" that is being stretched. In reality, it is likely a combination of all three and special forms of stretching or tissue manipulation may favor one component over another.

Types of Stretching: Static & Dynamic

There are two types of flexibility, static and dynamic -- and both should be trained.

During a passive movement, someone should be able to move his or her limbs from full flexion to full extension. This would be considered the full ROM, or flexibility, for that joint. However, it is possible to put effort into a certain movement and either hold the limb in a given position (static flexibility) or move it quickly into a given position with additional strain on the tendon and internal components in the muscle (dynamic flexibility).

Static flexibility is the form most commonly practiced to enhance flexibility. In plain terms, this type of flexibility is experienced when someone holds a position rather than "bounces" into it. The degree of flexiblity can be affected by factors such as core temperature, bodily features, muscle fiber lengths and insertion angles, and connective tissue elasticity.

Dynamic flexibility tends to be more speciailized and its practitioners include athletes and physical peformers such as dancers who need to move quickly into a given pose and maintain it. Neuromuscular attributes, speed, torque force, and balance are just some of the factors involved in this form of flexibility.

Benefits of Flexibility Training

As mentioned above, flexiblity can be improved quite quickly and its benefits are several fold. Even a single month of intensive yoga classes and stretching, for example, can dramatically improve a person's flexibility. It's likely that one of the reasons yoga in particular is so popular is the mindfulness and mental relaxation and rejuvenation its practitioners seem to enjoy. In terms of benefits, the form of yoga practiced seems to make little difference. It should be mentioned that some yoga styles are "hot" in order to achieve the advantage of a high core body temperature. However, the extreme exhaustion caused by dehydration may act to counter much of this advantage.

In a more clinical setting, physical therapists employ stretching on a daily basis in their practices. For example, after experiencing multiple injuries, a joint may have become very limited in its range of motion. A therapist may stabilize the limb and move it in a given plane about the joint to break up adhesions or to increase blood flow within the area. Often, patients feel immediate relief from this.

The most common reason for trainers or athletes to stretch is to warm-up by means of dynamic stretches, pre-stretch tendons to prepare for movement, or help cool-down to prevent cramping and recovery. Some of the known benefits include:  

  • Decreased risk of injury. While some researchers state that there is insufficient evidence to support this claim, many experts and almost every single professional athlete in almost every sport will stretch prior to competition. The most commonly cited reason for this is that is to reduce the risk of injury risk.
  • Increased neuromuscular coordination. Nerve impulse speed is improved with dynamic flexibility training and this translates into an improved "firing" of agonist and antagonist muscles for more efficient and quicker movement.
  • Increased blood and nutrient supply. Recall that every time a muscle fires, thousands of events go into motion. The blood must carry many factors to and from the muscle fiber and the muscle fiber must accept and transport these factors. By enhancing the exchange rate, the funcitonal capacity for the muscle is enhanced, also.
  • Increased physical efficiency. Although this factor is related to many other benefits, a flexible joint has less resistance within the tendon and less synovial fluid viscosity -- and therefore can move the same distance with less energy.
  • Improved kinesthetic awareness. This translates into better balance and performance due to visual-spatial capacities being enhanced. When joints are more flexible the body alignment is enhanced and balanced movement is more popular.
  • Reduced muscular tension. A tense muscle is a resistant one. A resistant muscle does not want to move as easily or as smoothly as a relaxed one.
  • Enhanced self awareness and self esteem.

Parting Thoughts

It's not uncommon for trainers to regard flexibility stretches as a minor consideration, or even a waste of time. Ironically, it's no stretch to say that many clients seem to enjoy this more than any other form of training. Besides the obvious benefits with respect to movement, there are often physiological benefits that come from performing flexibility stretches: It's common to hear someone say that he or he feels like they have been massaged after a good stretch.

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