In nearly 40 years as a fitness educator, I have never been sidelined by a significant injury, in spite of decades of high-impact classes, rigorous weight training, participation in competitive aerobics, and group exercise schedules that sometimes exceeded 25 hours per week. I attribute my longevity in this grueling business to one thing—cross-training all aspects of fitness, including flexibility.
We place great emphasis on cross-training cardiovascular and resistance conditioning, but flexibility is still an afterthought on many schedules. Although most facilities provide some kind of flexibility-oriented programming, options are often limited. Yoga is popular, and participants enjoy various degrees of flexibility while practicing it. However, while yoga improves range of motion and some aspects of flexibility, cross-training this aspect of fitness would lead to greater gains.
Today’s workouts are dominated by high-intensity, physically challenging movements. The rise of these programs has led to more injuries. A more effective stretching regime could help to minimize damage from overuse. On the other end of the spectrum, sedentary people may be dealing with muscle dysfunction and atrophy, along with limited ROM in some areas of the body. A varied stretching routine may remedy many of their difficulties. Regardless of fitness level, flexibility training is vital. Fascia makes up as much as 30% of a muscle’s total mass, and accounts for about 41% of a muscle’s total resistance to movement (Rahman et al. 2015). Fascial restrictions contribute greatly to mobility limitations, so a comprehensive program that includes a variety of stretching techniques should be part of any fitness regimen.
There are many different stretching options to choose from, and the right program depends on genetic makeup, personal preferences, injury history, age, gender, weight, body type and activity level. Because movement occurs through many planes, not just forward and backward, it’s beneficial to stretch in as many positions as possible. Not all techniques are right for everyone, and some stretches are contraindicated for people with specific injuries; however, mixing and matching leads to the best results. Here are some of the most popular choices:
- Ballistic stretching uses a fast bounce to push the body beyond its normal ROM. While this practice may be beneficial for certain athletes, it can increase the risk of injury for average fitness enthusiasts.
- Dynamic stretching employs active movements through full ROM to stretch and prepare muscles and joints for activity. It helps to increase blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues prior to exertion.
- Active Isolated Stretching involves extending a muscle, holding that position for 2 seconds and then returning to the starting position. This targets and lengthens the muscle without triggering the protective stretch reflex and subsequent reciprocal antagonistic muscle contraction, since the isolated muscle achieves a state of relaxation. If stressed too far too fast, however, the body will react. Therefore, AIS calls for multiple repetitions to build the body’s awareness.
- Passive stretching uses outside assistance to achieve results. This “assistance” could be body weight, a strap, leverage, gravity, another person or
a stretching device. The key is to relax through the stretch while continuing to maintain pressure as the muscle lengthens.
- Reciprocal inhibition involves stretching a muscle and then actively contracting the opposing muscle group. With this technique, you relax the muscle you’re trying to stretch, and you rely on the opposing muscle(s) to initiate the stretch.
- Static stretching requires holding a stretch in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time, somewhere between 15—90 seconds.
- Isometric static stretching involves no movement. The technique is based on tensing the muscles that are being stretched.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a more advanced form of flexibility training that involves stretching and contracting targeted muscles. It consists of a passive stretch, then a muscular force or contraction, and finally a second, deeper passive release.
- Myofascial release uses stretching, compression, direct pressure and other techniques to release restricted areas of fascia, ideally creating a biochemical and mechanical change that allows for more efficient movement. Foam rollers and other niche products assist in targeting and releasing the tissue.
In almost all cases, warm up the body before stretching. Taking a few minutes to raise core temperatures before participants stretch will optimize results. (There are some exceptions when working on a specific area without a warm-up may be helpful. For example, if plantar fasciitis is an issue, it may help to roll a ball beneath the arch of the foot first thing in the morning and several times throughout the day to increase circulation and reduce pain and inflammation.)
When there is limited time to stretch, focus. Sometimes you need to prioritize the muscles that worked hardest that day. For example, in indoor cycling classes, concentrate on the legs and lower back.
Encourage attendees to diversify. Mention how important it is to add something different to an existing flexibility routine.
Go primal. Include some dynamic floor training or “animal” movements such as bear crawls, monkeys, froggers and crab walks to challenge flexibility in motion and to cross-train the body. Incorporate these exercises throughout class to maintain intensity. Be prepared to offer alternatives for those who are not quite ready for this advanced form of flexibility training.
Catch people early. In group exercise, many of us have experienced participants leaving just as class is winding down and it’s time to stretch. Sneak in some stretches early on and throughout the workout, so everyone benefits from this important element of total fitness.
Be strategic. Dynamic flexibility work is another wonderful way to actively stretch the muscles and increase ROM. Although this technique is used primarily in the warm-up, you can add movements between weightlifting sets to improve muscle recovery and increase joint mobility. For example, after a set of heavier shoulder presses, pick up a lighter weight and do full-ROM arm circles at a slow pace.
Reaping the Rewards
There are two major contributing factors that affect flexibility: genetic predisposition/physical makeup, and training. Additional factors—such as injuries, overuse, underuse, and internal/external temperatures, among others—may also contribute to inflexibility and mobility challenges. It’s obvious that some people have better natural flexibility than others; however, improvements can be significant, ranging from 20%—25%, with effective stretching (Humphries 2010). Regardless of which techniques you choose, combining methods will often improve performance, recovery and overall physical wellness.