Flexibility is one of the most misunderstood and under-rated components of health. It’s the range of motion you have around a joint and this forms the base for building cardiovascular fitness and strength. Flexibility is largely genetic - we all have a baseline level of elasticity in our muscles which can be increased with practice.
We can improve on our baseline by approximately 20-25 percent. It’s like muscle mass – different people have a different amount in different parts of their body. Everyone’s muscle mass erodes with age, and everyone has the opportunity to rebuild it.
Fitness and strength activities work well together to form an empowering upwards spiral. The fitter you are the harder you can push yourself with your strength, and the stronger you are the harder you can push yourself with your cardiovascular fitness. Strong leg muscles help you run faster, running faster gives you stronger leg muscles. Unfortunately, as you move up the spiral you’re gaining strength and endurance in a limited or even narrowing range of motion. If you’re not actively working to broaden that range of motion then your body will become increasingly brittle and vulnerable to a snap.
Despite the benefits of being flexible, stretching fell out of favour about 15 years ago when studies found that stretching prior to sport can reduce performance by up to 20 percent. A lot of people still avoid stretching entirely because of the confusion about best practice. It’s important to understand the difference between static and dynamic stretching and the role of timing. Static stretching involves placing a muscle in its most lengthened position and holding for at least 30 seconds. Dynamic stretching involves stretching movements performed at a gradual speed. It is now generally agreed that prolonged static stretching before explosive exercise can be counterproductive because the loosening of muscles can temporarily weaken them. It’s a grey area whether there is a place for short-duration static stretching prior to some exercise activities.
What we do know for sure is that flexibility is important, and it can be safely achieved with dynamic stretching prior to exercise and static stretching post-exercise and in general. Any pre-exercise stretching should be preceded by a full warmup to make muscles more pliable. You should stretch to the point of tension, not pain. Hold static stretches for at least 30 seconds and don’t bounce the stretch.
Unfortunately, stretching isn’t the solution for every problem. Each muscle in the body is like a rubber band and it has an ideal level of tension, not too tight and not too loose. We all have different areas of tightness in our bodies (which need stretching) and looseness/weakness (which need strengthening). Many people think the time to stretch is after they sustain an injury but at that stage it’s possible the muscle is already overstretched. Don’t attempt DIY on your injury – you may worsen the problem by stretching when you need to be doing the opposite – resting first and strengthening second. The biomechanics of an individual body can be very complex and are best left to a medical professional.
A body that is structurally sound and functional is a huge asset in exercise performance and everyday life. Range of motion around your joints is an important component. Don’t wait till you’re injured – you’ll find yourself spending far more time at the physio than you ever would have spent on a bit of preventative stretching.