Flexibility is an important aspect of overall fitness, and it gets more important as we get older. We improve flexibility by stretching, and the primary purpose of stretching is to increase the range of motion of our joints. There are many other advantages, too, such as:
• Improving cardiovascular and muscular performance
• Decreasing pain. Stretching does not help injuries heal faster, but stretching the muscle and nerve fibers interrupts the transmission of pain impulses.
• Decreasing stiffness and minimizing age-related loss of joint movement
• Decreasing stress. When you force muscles to relax, it shuts off the biochemical stress response
• Improved posture and balance.
There are three basic types of flexibility training: static stretching, dynamic stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).
When we talk about stretching, this is usually what we are talking about. The correct technique for static stretching is to slowly stretch a muscle group as far as possible without incurring pain. You hold that position briefly, and then slowly release the stretch.
Static stretching should only be done when the muscles have been warmed up; cold, stiff muscles are prone to injury. 10-15 minutes of light aerobic activity is usually sufficient to warm up your muscles before stretching them out.
Some recent studies have shown that stretching before aerobic or resistance exercise does not improve performance and, in some instances, may even decrease it. Some people still recommend light stretches before exercising; many recommend stretching afterward instead.
Dynamic stretching is intended to replicate the movements that you use when doing an activity and to increase your range of motion during those movements. Thus, dynamic stretching is faster than static stretching and you do not hold the stretch. When done correctly, it is a great way to prepare your body for specific activities.
Advanced forms of dynamic stretching include bouncing and ballistic stretching. These stretches can cause injury in people who do not have sufficient muscle strength and/or who do them incorrectly. You should work with a trainer if you plan to incorporate them into your routine.
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
PNF originated as a rehabilitation technique, and it is very effective in restoring function to a muscle after an injury. It’s also great for targeting specific muscle groups, and it increases strength along with flexibility and range of motion.
PNF does stress the muscle being worked with, so it’s essential to do a good warm-up first and to start slowly and increase the stretch and degree of contraction gradually. Do not work past pain.
The technique for PNF is as follows:
• Position yourself comfortably and fully stretch the muscle group.
• Immobilize that muscle group. (Have a partner hold it still or position yourself next to a wall or something that prevents movement). This is to maintain the stretch throughout muscle contraction.
• Contract the muscle and hold the contraction.
• Relax the muscle and slowly increase the stretch.
• Repeat 2-4 times for each muscle group.
Flexibility is just as important to fitness as muscle strength and aerobic conditioning. A stretching workout will increase your flexibility—and improve your muscular and aerobic workouts.