THE IMPORTANCE OF STRETCHING
No matter what your fitness goal whether its to build muscle, run a marathon or lose weight, stretching is a vital aspect to your training that is quite often over looked. We all know that we should stretch after a workout but after you’ve ran 10 miles or lifted that final weight whilst your body shakes, something in your head says “ I’ll skip the stretching, it wont matter!” The thing is… it does matter! It matters more than you think. You wont think it doesn’t matter when you have to drop out of that marathon last minute due to a strained muscle or when you’re prevented from training a certain body part due to injury. And its not just injury prevention that should be considered when deciding to skip the 10 minute post workout stretch . All you guys out there, wouldn’t you like an increased range of movement so you can recruit more muscle fibre and therefore achieve greater gains in muscle building or increased range of movement so as to get more power behind the ball when you have a shot on goal? Good flexibility is a vital aspect of fitness and yet strength and stamina seem to be given priority. But include a simple stretching routine into your daily workout and you could reap the benefits faster than you think.
STRENGTH TO FLEXIBILITY RATIO
There must be a good relation between strength and flexibility. Too much of either one and you’ll have problems. Imagine an elastic band. If it is too tight and doesn’t stretch very far and too much tension is put on it, it will snap. Much like your muscles will if they are too tight and required to stretch beyond their capable range of motion. Likewise if an elastic band is too loose it doesn’t have the necessary power to spring back and provide power so wouldn’t hold any object it was required to hold. Much like holding your bones at the joints together. Hypermobilty may cause lax joints and also lead to injury. Strength to flexibility ratio also becomes noticeable when looking at postural difficulties. For instance someone who has kyphosis (curvature of the upper spine) will have very hypotonic (tight) pectoral muscles a loose weak rhomboids and mid traps. This is often caused by a tendency for men to over train their pectoral muscles therefore creating an imbalance. The lack of flexibility in the front of the body paired with the lack of strength in the back has created a postural problem that can easily be fixed by stretching out the pectoral muscles and strengthening the rhomboids and mid traps. So an equal ratio of strength to flexibility is ideal. All that is required to achieve this is a short session of simple stretches post workout.
IMPLICATIONS OF LACK OF FLEXIBILITY IN THE GYM
The amount of adults that can barely touch their knees whilst keeping their legs straight let alone the floor really does astound me. Growing up as a dancer I suppose I always took for granted my flexibility and ability to perform most movements with suppleness and agility. But when I trained as a personal trainer I realised that most of the population can not perform basic exercises in the gym due to the tightness of some muscles. Take for instance a basic lunge. If the hip flexors are too tight then you will tend to take a smaller step forwards causing your front knee to go over the toes putting unnecessary strain on the knees. A basic squat, if hamstrings are too tight there will be a tendency to tilt the pelvis forwards again throwing the knees over the toes and putting strain on the knees. Alternatively the squat is performed correctly but range of movement is so greatly reduced that the benefits of the exercise are not as great as they should be. So you see flexibility isn’t all about being able to touch your toes its about having sufficient range of movement at the joints to be able to correctly perform exercises at the gym and carry out day to day activities without risk of injury.
SO HOW MUCH RANGE OF MOVEMENT DO YOU NEED?
Range of movement at various joints can be measured and therefore progress can be recorded. The best way of doing this is to measure the angle of the joint be stretched. For example, to measure flexibility of the hamstrings lie on your back with your legs out straight. Now raise one leg until you can not lift it anymore without bending it at the knee. Now check the angle. You should be able to achieve a 90 degree angle here. Meaning your leg will be pointing straight up to the ceiling with your foot flexed. Give it go and see how you measure up? If you cant reach that 90 degree angle then you may be compromising your technique when doing certain exercises. If you reached 90 degrees then that’s great but don’t stop aiming to better the flexibility of your hamstrings. If you sailed past 90 degrees then brilliant but make sure that you also have sufficient strength in the hamstrings to be able to control that amount of flexibility.
Here is another simple test for flexibility in the upper body. Lay on your back and completely relax. Now put your arms above your head and get a training partner or friend to hold your wrists. Now go completely floppy. Your friend should gently shake the arms to remove any tension then when your not expecting it drop your arms to the floor. This will measure the flexibility in your lats and pecs. Your arms should fall straight to the floor directly above your head. The further your arms land down the body the tighter your lats are and if they are floating just off the ground this indicates tightest in the pectoral muscles which may mean postural problems as well. Again this can all be rectified with regular stretching sessions preferably after a workout when your muscles are warm and more pliable.
WHEN TO STRETCH?
As just mentioned the optimum time to stretch is after a workout when the muscles are already warm. Think of your muscles as plasticine. Have you ever tried to play with plasticine that is cold? It will just not move and isn’t exactly pliable. But warm the plasticine up first and you can bend it, stretch it and it is a lot more likely to do what you want it to do. Your muscles are exactly the same. So stretching after a workout when your muscles are already warm and at their most supple is best.