This is without doubt an overlooked area in many sports, it is without doubt a background role in most aspiring bodybuilders workout schedules. It could be argued that the average person only becomes concerned with such issues after the joints stiffen and the muscles shorten from disuse, overuse, injury or disease. I wish to briefly outline the benefits of flexibility training, the types and methods of stretching available and generally advise on how to best implement flexibility training into your training regimes.
Before I continue it is necessary to establish what is actually meant by flexibility?
Flexibility can be defined as a measure of motion available at a joint or a group of joints. This can be largely determined by the shapes of the bones/cartilage involved in the joint and by the length of the muscles that cross over the joint. Flexibility can vary dramatically from one individual to another, it can also be significantly improved upon to increase the success of your workouts/performance.
So, why should we be concerned with our flexibility? What are the possible benefits of flexibility training? In truth there are many potential benefits, some of which are not necessarily obvious. Possibly the greatest of all the advantages is the potential for reduced risk of injury that has been found to accompany a successful flexibility programme. Regular stretching has been proven to increase the range of motion around a joint when it’s pushed to its limit. Stretching regularly has also been proven to improve bio-mechanical efficiency, as extensive research has shown a distinct correlation between athlete flexibility and their performance in the gym or on the track/field. Increased range of motion can also lead to greater speed and power. This is especially useful when undergoing a plyometric training regime. Post-exercise stretching can significantly decrease tightening after exercise, by assisting in venous return. This in turn helps disperse lactic acid and waste products which contribute to post-exercise stiffness. Although nutritional aspects will also have a factor (we will deal with this separately). Stretching regularly can also aid in rehabilitation, as it is vital to stretch out fibrous tissue before it becomes hardened scar tissue. Some studies have also argued flexibility training is beneficial to relaxation, stress reduction and improved body awareness. This is largely because participants are encouraged to breathe slowly and evenly and to concentrate on one muscle group at a time.
Now that we know of these potential benefits, it is necessary to find out a little more about stretching and increasing the flexibility of our muscles. In general there are two main types of stretching, these are maintenance stretches and developmental ones.
Maintenance, as the name suggests are used to maintain the length of the muscle. Muscles, have been proven to shorten as a result of exercise in general, this is even more evident when incorporating movements/techniques that do not encompass the full range of motion. This is a serious issue and over time can make a significant difference to the ‘look’ of a physique over a lengthy period of time. Maintenance are relatively short stretches, usually 6-10 seconds and are invaluable in returning the muscle to its normal length.
Developmental stretches on the other hand are used to develop the length and flexibility of the fibres themselves. These are a little more complex and require a couple of simple guidelines. Firstly, the muscles need to be eased into their lengthened position to a comfortable point but not painful. Slightly ease into the stretch if the muscle begins to quiver or shake back off slightly. This is the preliminary starting point. Increase this stretch then until a slight tension is felt deep within the muscle belly. Hold this position for between 10-15 seconds without bouncing. As the range of motion slightly increases further the stretch ever so slightly for a further 10-15 seconds.
This pretty much concludes the broad types of stretching and their objectives, I will now need to discuss the various methods of stretching. In truth there are five main methods, that have emerged over time.
Firstly and foremost are the ‘static’ stretches which simply take the muscle to its end on normal range and held without bouncing. These are a maintenance type of stretch and are held for about 10 seconds and are effective and useful if performed correctly. Secondly, we have ballistic stretches, these are developmental by nature and involve quick and controlled bouncing actions in order to increase the length and range of motion of the muscles and joints. Ballistic stretching can produce muscle soreness and intra-muscular damage, it can also cause secondary damage to other joints that are involved. For instance, when stretching the hamstrings bouncing to touch the toes can strain and potentially injure the lower back. Although having said that they have been used as a radical approach to stretch stubborn fibres in rehabilitation and physiotherapy. Thirdly, we have ‘active’ stretches which involve the contraction of one muscle group in order to stretch another. These belong to the maintenance variety and are common place in all resistance programs. For example, when the biceps are forced to contract, a stretch is then placed upon the triceps.
The fourth method of stretching is known as ‘passive’ stretching. Again, like static and active these are predominantly maintenance orientated stretches. This method involves an external factor such as an added weight to facilitate the stretch. This type of stretch is placed upon the muscles when undergoing ‘negative’ training. For example, when shoulder pressing in this fashion. The weight places a passive stretch on the front deltoids as the weight is slowly lowered. This is potentially a very hazardous form of stretching technique, which can result in serious injury. You really do need a strong, trustworthy training partner to help you with the lifting during the positive phase of the movement, as the muscles are much stronger during the negative phase which means handling a weight the muscles and the joints in particular are not accustomed to can have serious implications. Finally, we have ‘dynamic’ stretching which is very similar to ballistic stretching, as both are developmental, the technique applied is quite similar, although dynamic stretches are not activated by momentum or external forces but by the use of the body’s own musculature, i.e. the hip flexors will flex the hip in order to stretch the hamstrings.
These methods of stretching are arguably wide ranging. It could be argued that a combination of these methods belonging to both maintenance and developmental types are best selected to achieving the many benefits of stretching previously outlined. This said we are now in a position to incorporate such training into our own regimes. Although when to stretch is often an area that attracts a great debate. Some people insist on pre-workout, some during training, whereas others insist on post-workout as ideal times to stretch and increase/maintain flexibility. To be honest all are correct to a certain extent. Pre-workout stretching is only useful prior to your warm-up, this is because it hardly prepares the body for intensive exercise and is not effective at increasing your heart rate and therefore blood supply to the working muscles. A couple of static stretches may be helpful and may help avoid any injury. This strategy is most commonly used by track athletes before a race. Stretching throughout your session should always be adhered to. Although, I wouldn’t sacrifice my training intensity for an extra minute of stretching, this simply doesn’t make sense. I prefer to incorporate my stretching throughout my training in the form of active stretching, making use of the joints full range of motion for the full duration of the exercise. This I believe is much more effective in helping developing long, flowing muscle bellies. Finally, post-workout stretching provides a fantastic platform for your cool-down and is an ideal time to make use of developmental stretches, particularly for the muscles broken down during that session. This will avoid muscle shortening and aid in recovery.
In summation, I hope this piece has shown you the importance of stretching and flexibility training in general. This importance has been justified by the numerous benefits one can achieve from incorporating this type of training into your own regime. Of which there are two main types, these being maintenance and developmental. Various techniques of stretching have emerged from these two categories of stretching, which include the methods static, ballistic, active, passive and dynamic. All of which differ in nature and effectiveness. Stretching is ideally structured around your own training in the gym. As discussed, pre-workout, post-workout and even throughout your workout are ideal opportunities to stretch and flex your working muscles. However there is a little more to this than meets the eye. Specific methods of stretches are more effective if structured in a fashion that best suits that particular variety. Be sure to include and experiment with the array of available stretches. Also, one should also consider the aesthetic quality that accompanies long, proportioned muscle bellies. Consider the significance of injury prevention, not to mention reduced recovery times and increased strength/performance.
Stay Flexible peeps!