By Mark Hank, ACSM cPT
Many of us follow regular resistance training and/or cardio workout routines; but how often do we train for flexibility? For that matter, what is flexibility training and what are the benefits?
When we hear the phrase 'flexibility training' we often think of stretching. Stretching actually consists of four categories: 1) static 2) dynamic 3) ballistic and 4) proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Of these, we're going to focus on static stretching which is what we commonly think of as the stretching activity associated with increasing flexibility.
What are the benefits of flexibility training? The benefits of stretching include increased range of motion in the joints, reduced levels of muscle tension, enhanced blood circulation to parts of the body, and improved muscle coordination. Not to mention the great feeling you experience after stretching - your body is relaxed, yet energized!
First, let's address one common misconception: stretching is NOT a warm-up activity! Stretching is an activity generally performed during or after an exercise. Many people confuse warming up with stretching. While dynamic stretching may supplement your warm-up routine, you generally never want to stretch cold muscles.
So, when are you supposed to stretch? After (or maybe even during) your workout, when your body and muscles are warmed up. Stretching after a workout is often preferred as this provides a perfect opportunity to lengthen all those tight, contracted muscles that result from exercising. Stretching after a workout loosens those contracted muscles and allows them to return to their more elongated state.
What are some good guidelines for stretching? We've already touched on one already, but here are some more:
- Warm up first! Make sure your body is warmed up. Stretch at the end of your workout and pull those tight muscles back out to their normal length. They will still be firm and over time you may start to notice your overall muscle tone improving. In other words, you'll look flexed even when you're not flexing!
- Work the big muscle groups first. Just like with resistance training, start your stretching session with the big muscle groups: legs, hips, and back. The added benefit is - if you're like most people, these are the areas that can benefit the most because they are the tightest. Hitting them first ensures that you stretch them every time you practice flexibility training.
- Stretch slowly and smoothly. Avoid rapid, jerky or bouncy motions. Jerky and bouncy motions can result in injuries to even warmed up muscles.
- Avoid sharp sudden pain, but do take each stretch to a point of mild discomfort and hold it. Mild discomfort indicates you are reaching the edge of the muscle's range. However, sharp pain is your body's way of telling you that you've exceeded that range and you may actually be causing damage.
- Breathe! You may find yourself holding your breath while stretching. That is not relaxing, so breathe! Once you reach your point of mild discomfort while stretching, exhale. If done properly, you will feel your body relax more and more, allowing your stretches to become deeper.
- Perform multiple repetitions of each stretch. Try three repetitions of each stretch and hold the first rep for 10 seconds, the second rep for 15 seconds, and the last stretch for 20 seconds. Over time, you will find yourself stretching further with increased ease each time. Soon, you will find yourself saying, "Wow! I can touch my toes!" As you become more flexible, do not be afraid to increase your hold times to 25 seconds or beyond.
Now that you've got the basics on flexibility training, you may be asking, "What's next?" Many of our group exercise instructors here at the Burbank YMCA will take the last 5 minutes of class as a stretching and cool-down time. Start your own flexbility training by performing these stretches on your own outside. In addition, any of the personal trainers at the Burbank Y are happy to field your questions on stretching. For more information on how our personal trainers can help you reach your fitness goals, please contact the Y's Personal Training Coordinator, Jennifer Pietropaolo at 781.909.7117 or email@example.com.
Mark Hank is an ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) certified Personal Trainer. He is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the Burbank Y. Mark lives in Reading with his wife Linda, two teenage children, and three cats. In his spare time, he enjoys motorcycle riding and kayaking.
- Blaynik, Jay: "Full Body Flexibility," Human Kinetics, 2004.
- Peterson, James A, "10 Nice-To-Know Facts about Stretching, Flexibility, and Warming Up," ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal, November/December 2012.