Stretching and Flexibility Conditioning

There are several guidelines required to maintain and deploy an effective stretching routine. The most common technique is called static stretching. This requires one to enter each stretch gradually, holding for at least 15 to 30 seconds until a mild pull is felt within the related muscle tissue area. Forced stretching or stretching to the point of pain will likely cause tears in the muscle fibers and coupled with improper breathing throughout each motion will lead to injury, some of which may be long-lasting.

Proper stretching should be performed for 3 to 4 repetitions, similar to muscle training and development exercises. Each session should include a total of between 5 to 10 stretching exercises. Exercises can be preformed daily or on specified days, but proper stretching should be done before beginning cardiovascular or weight training exercise. Gently increase the degree of the stretch, in subsequent repetitions, ensuring proper form throughout each motion. It can take weeks, months and even years to attain an increase in flexibility.

Passive stretching requires the assistance of a trainer, coach or therapist and leads to an even greater range of motion. The trainer places the body in the proper stretch position using their own force and weight. Passive stretching can be accompanied by contract-relax stretching. This is where the person isometrically contracts the related muscle area, then relaxes while the coach, therapist or trainer hold them in the stretch position. Ballistic stretching is yet another stretching technique that refers to a bounce type of stretching. Used by athletic trainers, ballistic stretching triggers muscle contraction, but may cause injury if performed improperly.

Stretching major muscle groups before workouts is optimal to improve performance and increase safety, as is stretching after exercise and activity. Stretching in the morning, or stretching cold, when muscles are tight from immobility can lead to injury. Instead, begin with light movement or cardiovascular exercise for 5 to 10 minutes as a nighttime of immobility leaves the body stiff. Once there is blood flow the joints and limbs will move fluidly through full ranges of motion; from which stretching exercises should follow.

When a muscle is stretched, some of its fibers lengthen, while other fibers remain at rest. The length of the muscle depends upon the number of stretched fibers.

The stretching of a muscle fiber begins with the sarcomere. The sarcomere is the  basic unit of contraction in muscle fibers. As the sarcomere contracts, the area of overlap between the thick and thin myofilaments increase. As it stretches, this area of overlap decreases, allowing the muscle fiber to elongate. Once the sacromeres are fully elongated or stretched and the muscle fiber is at its maximum resting length additional stretching places force on the surrounding connective tissue. As tension increases, the collagen fibers in the connective tissue align themselves occupying the remaining slack. This process helps realign disorganized fibers in the direction of the tension. This realignment helps rehabilitate scarred tissue back to health.

Flexibility exercises provide a ballast against chronic tightness and are an important means of avoiding injury. Flexibility is the range of movement in a joint or a series of joints that can be achieved through momentary effort with the assistance of a training partner or stretching aid. Flexibility is not something general, but is specific to a particular joint or set of joints.

Proper flexibility is the ability to carry a joint through full range of motion and is necessary to maintain fluid and effective movement. All muscle-tendon units have a perfect length at which they are most efficient. When these units become too tight or too flexible, the muscle-tendon will have to work harder to achieve flexibility.

Genetics are a major component to being flexible; some people are tight and can’t touch their toes, while others can contort themselves into seemingly impossible positions. Further, certain joints may be highly flexible while others may be taught and inflexible. Joints can even have flexibility in one direction, but not in another, creating imbalance. An example of this is exhibited within the shoulders of both tennis players and baseball pitchers. Both sports require their athletes to maintain a large amount of rotation in their shoulders to be successful. The front part of the shoulder must become stretched out, while simultaneously, the back part of the shoulder tightens resulting in an imbalance of flexibility. Dancing, gymnastics and sports, flexibility is a desired trait. However, too much flexibility indicates instability, weakness and susceptibility to injury in a particular joint.

If consistent, stretching exercises improve flexibility and when followed by a proper warm up enhances outcomes for cardiovascular and strength training performance. The more the muscle fibers are stretched the more they can be torn without injury during exercise and activity. The greater the range of motion, the greater the results when proper nutrition and rest are introduced following exercise. Unlike weight training and intense cardiovascular training like HIIT, stretching can be done daily. The body does not require recovery time between bouts of stretching.

After age 30, flexibility is markedly decreased which is a leading cause of sports injuries and a primary reason for performance decline in professional athletes. Several factor cause the human body to decline in flexibility with age. The amount of water in all tissues of the body decreases as does the presence of synovial fluid, which lubricates joints. Articular cartilage, which provides a soft, cushioned surface where bones meet the joints, becomes stiffer and less able to absorb shock. The tensile strength of ligaments, which stabilize joints also decreases. Tendon resiliency also decreases and the tendon is the part of the muscle that is most likely to become injured.

Increased flexibility directly improves athletic performance in several ways too. It allows for a greater range of motion, which in many cases translates into a capacity for potential increases in power, it protects tissues against injury and it reduces post-exercise soreness, known as delayed-onset muscle soreness. Most importantly, however, it can speed and enhance the healing process after injury.