Did you know that flexibility training is one of the most important but often overlooked parts of any good bodyweight exercise routines.
Despite the tremendous benefits of stretching I have lost count of the number of times I have seen people do an exercise session without any stretching whatsoever, or if they do stretch, they do the wrong type for that stage of the workout.
So what are the benefits of stretching? Well! Dynamic stretching which is the type of stretching that should be done during the warm up phase of a workout not only increases your core temperature, increases blood flow to the muscles and increases the heart rate all of which are essential to preventing injury but also improves your performance in any type of training or sport that requires a full range of movement.
Relaxed or (passive) stretching which is the type of flexibility training that should conclude all workouts can speed up post recovery because after strenuous exercise the length of your muscles will shorten and it can take several hours for the length to return to normal. However, if you stretch the muscles towards the end of your workout you instantly return them to their former length which reduces the occurrence of chemical and metabolic damage and therefore enhances recovery.
A well developed level of flexibility will also enhance the development of speed, strength and coordination which is the foundation of all sports and is also essential for anybody who wants to master hardcore bodyweight exercises such as planche press ups and full hanging leg raises.
It’s also true that a lack of flexibility will hinder techniques in martial arts and sports such as football and gymnastics and it is hard to imagine how anyone could become as good a footballer as their potential would allow if their lack of flexibility prevents then from striking the ball with speed and power at whatever height is required.
Stretching will also restore your flexibility after an injury has occurred and failure to do flexibility training if you have been injured can permanently decrease you range of movement in that area. It is also important to realise that if you incorporate a good stretching routine in to your training program you are far less likely to get injured in the first place.
So if flexibility training provides all these benefits you might wonder why more people do not bother with it? I wish I knew the answer, perhaps it is a lack of knowledge about how to train properly, time restrictions or a misplaced believe that it is not important but what ever their reason do not fall into the same trap.
My advice to you is to put flexibility training at the top of your list of exercise priorities because after all, if you injure yourself because you did not take the time to stretch properly then you won’t be able to work out at all and you will find yourself frustrated that your progress has been halted because you didn’t take a few minutes to stretch properly and remember flexibility training is so easy that most people can master the splits in six weeks with the correct training program.
So now you know why you must have a stretching program, but do you now what type of stretching to do and when to do it?
Types of flexibility
Although there are 6 types of flexibility training used by sports coaches to develop specific goals, most people really only need to know about dynamic, static passive and isometric stretching and which one to use in the warm up and cool down phase of a workout.
static passive stretching
The warm up
Whenever you are about to exercise vigorously or participate in any sport you must ensure you warm up your muscle thoroughly to prevent injury and to prepare you mind and body for the strenuous work that is to follow.
The best way to do this is to first spend 10 minutes doing some form of cardio such as jogging on the spot, stationary bike or shadow boxing starting of slowly and increasing the intensity until a steady pace is reached. Doing this increases your body’s core temperature warming up your muscles to make them more elastic and rids them of any tension which may have built up throughout the day.
Another benefit of a proper warm up is your heart rate speeds up which in turn increases the supply of oxygenated blood available to your muscles so that they are ready and able to reach their maximum performance as soon as you press the button.
Once you are nicely warmed up with cardio you should progress to some stretching and this is where a lot of people make their first mistake in flexibility training because they start to do static passive stretching when they should be doing dynamic stretching.
What is the difference you might ask?
Static passive stretching is a form of flexibility training where you assume and then hold the stretched position using only the weight of your body, the support of your limbs, or some other apparatus such as a chair. The most famous example is the splits.
Dynamic stretching is a type of flexibility training were you stretch while moving and gradually increases the range and speed of these movements. Unlike static passive flexibility which requires you to hold a stretched position for a period of time, dynamic flexibility is a series of smooth repetitions that start off slow and short and increase in speed and length until the maximum range of motion for that movement is reached.
How many repetitions and sets of dynamic stretching should you do?
Although it does depend on the condition you are in and what type of training you are going to do, I find that two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions of each movement is enough to prepare most people for the more demanding part of the training or sport they are about to participate in.
However, as we are all different it is a case of trail and error, make sure you do enough sets and repetitions to reach maximum flexibility but not so many that it starts to exhaust you. Remember, this is only to get you fit to fight as it were.
For those who want a reasonable amount of flexibility, dynamic stretching at the beginning of your regular workouts is sufficient to do the job.
However, anyone who wants to posses a high level of flexibility can benefit from including a dynamic stretching routine of 10-15 minutes every morning which resets the nervous regulation of the length of your muscles for the rest of the day and allows you to reach your full dynamic flexibility potential quicker than just doing it several times per week.
Why you should not use passive stretching for the warm up?
You should never use static passive stretching during your warm up because for a few minutes after doing a static passive stretch your flexibility is reduced which means you are more likely to tear a muscle during the demanding part of the workout if you have preceded it with this type of flexibility training.
It is also true that after static passive stretching your coordination is temporarily reduced, your heart rate and respiratory system slows down (The complete opposite of what you want your warm up to achieve) and instead of increasing your readiness for physical exertion this type of flexibility training is more likely to make you feel sleepy which is why it should be used as part of a cool down.
So remember after your warm up you do dynamic stretching.
The cool down
The cool down is as important as the warm up period of the workout and when done correctly it helps to remove lactic acid build up from the muscles reducing muscle soreness and restores the heart rate and core temperature back to its normal state.
It is at this point of the workout that you should include static passive stretching which unlike dynamic flexibility training it does not involve moving the muscles but instead consists of holding a stretched position for a length of time using your own bodyweight
Why bother with static passive stretching?
If you use dynamic stretching for the warm up and have already completed the main part of the workout you might wonder why it is worth bothering with static passive stretching at all when simply walking for 5 -10 minutes will allow the body to cool down.
The reason is that as well as reducing lactic acid build up and restoring the muscles back to the length they were before the intense exercise began you also have the opportunity to increase the range of motion of your muscles which is a healthy thing anyway but absolutely essential for anyone who is involved in sport.
Although the flexibility demonstrated in sport is dynamic in nature and is improved with dynamic stretching your range of motion in dynamic movements cannot exceed your static passive range of motion or in other words you cannot reach a certain height in any dynamic move unless you static passive flexibility in that move exceeds it.
This principle known as the (flexibility reserve) means that achieving the maximum speed and height in any dynamic move is ultimately dependent on having a greater static passive reserve. Another benefit of static passive stretching is it is so enjoyable and can leave you with a feeling of total relaxation and peace.
How to do static passive stretching
As mentioned static passive stretching is the opposite of dynamic flexibility training and the key to success is relaxation. The method for static passive flexibility is to assume the position of the stretch and gradually increase it until the maximum range of movement (the furthest you can stretch without causing pain) is reached which might take several minuets, once in this position you hold it for thirty seconds.
The more you are able to relax in a static passive stretch the better the results will be so it pays to concentrate on deep slow breaths and focus your mind on a happy thoughts such as being on a warm tropical beach or what ever makes you feel happy and relaxed.
Including static passive flexibility at the end of your regular workouts is sufficient for anyone who requires only a reasonable amount of flexibility. However, anyone who wants to posses a high level of static passive suppleness will need to do it for 10-20 minutes every day and many people stretch several times per day.
Other benefits of relaxed stretching
Unlike dynamic stretching it doesn’t cause fatigue which means even after an intense workout you can still do a thorough stretching routine.
It can be done any time of the day with or with out a warm up.
It can be done by anyone regardless of their fitness level.
It is the most enjoyable form of stretching and can leave you feeling completely relaxed.
The drawbacks of relaxed stretching
It can take several minutes to reach your maximum range of movement in each stretch.
Progress takes longer and more frequent applications than isometric stretching.
It does not develop strength in the stretched position.
The stretch reflex
The stretch reflex is a protective muscular response to a muscle being stretched. When a muscle is being stretched to its maximum range of movement receptors detect the change in the length of the muscle. These receptors then send a signal to the central nervous system to contract or tense up the muscles to act like brakes and prevent further stretching in case the extra movement causes injury.
Although the stretch reflex is a natural protective measure used by the body it is perhaps overcautious and to increase flexibility it is necessary to stretch further than the contraction caused by the stretch reflex allows
How to override the stretch reflex
There are two ways to override the stretch reflex, the one used in passive stretching is called “waiting out the tension” and is both very effective and easy to do. As you reach the limit of your range of movement and the stretch reflex comes into play you do as the name suggests and simply wait for the tension to disappear which it will because the muscular contraction caused by the stretch reflex tires out the muscles and they can only maintain this tension for so long before they are exhausted.
Therefore, if you take deep slow breaths to promote relaxation and wait the contraction of the muscles will stop and allow you to stretch further before the stretch reflex comes back into play. This technique of reaching your maximum flexibility, then waiting for muscles to relax before stretching further can be repeated several times in one stretch before holding the final stretch for 30 seconds. The other way of overriding the stretch reflex is used in isometric stretching.
Isometric or PNF stretching
Isometric stretching is one of the most effective methods of flexibility training and is very similar to passive stretching. The only difference is that instead of promoting relaxation to reach your maximum range of movement as you do in passive stretching in isometric stretching you deliberately contract your muscles against a form of resistance for a number of seconds (normally between 8 and 10) to deliberately tire out the muscles and then when you relax you have a short window of opportunity in which you can stretch further before the stretch reflex reasserts itself.
How isometric stretching works
As mentioned earlier when ever you try to increase your flexibility the stretch reflex comes into play because the body assumes that stretching further in this unfamiliar position might cause injury.
Isometric stretching temporarily disables the stretch reflex but instead of the gentle persuasion that passive stretching uses, isometric stretching basically uses a giant cosh to hit the stretch reflex and give it no option but to relax whether it wants to or not.
How to do isometric stretching
Isometric stretching should be done at least twice per week and up to a maximum of four times per week to increase flexibility, it is not advisable to do isometric stretching more often than this because it is demanding and muscles need some rest to recover.
Once a level of flexibility is achieved and you only want to maintain it you can get away with doing isometric stretching as little as once per week.
Like passive stretching isometric stretching should be done towards the end of the workout and normally takes between 10 – 20 minutes depending on how many exercises you have included in your routine.
To do an isometric stretch begin by passively stretching to the limit of your flexibility and hold this position for 15 seconds. Now reduce the stretch ever so slightly and begin to contract the target muscles against the resistance being used, increase the contraction from the fourth second until it reaches its peak at 10 seconds and then instantly relax the muscles.
Once you relax you will feel your muscles let go and willing to be stretched that bit further without any resistance. You take advantage of this and move to your new limit of flexibility and repeat the process of holding the passive stretch, contracting the muscles and stretching further as you relax several times and on the last one you contract the muscles for up to 30 seconds to build strength in this position and reinforce the new flexibility limit.
The benefits of isometric stretching.
It is the fastest way of developing static passive flexibility.
It improves the strength of muscles in the stretched position.
With isometric stretching you can reach you maximum range of motion in a stretch very quickly.
Isometric stretching requires less frequent applications than static passive stretching.
The drawbacks of isometric stretching
Isometric stretching is not suitable for children, young adults or anyone who is not physically fit.
It can only be effectively used in a limited number of stretches.
It is very physically demanding.
It can cause pain or injury if you do not have a high level of strength.
It is not as enjoyable or relaxing as static passive stretching.
Flexibility training should be done at both the warm up and cool down phase of a workout and the benefits of doing so are very rewarding. The improvement in your exercises such as the full hanging leg raise and sports alone are enough to justify its inclusion in your exercise routine but when you combine these benefits with the other pluses such as a reduced risk of injury, a reduction in the pain caused by lactic acid build up, better posture and a return of the grace of movement you had as a youth then flexibility training is an absolute must.
Finally remember when doing flexibility trainig
Do dynamic stretching as part of your warm up.
Do static passive stretching as part of the cool down.
And if you’re a real man
Try isometric stretching and achieve the full splits in six weeks.
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