By Brien Shamp
Flexibility is the range of motion available in a joint, such as the hip, or series of joints such as the spine. If you have areas that are tight you are performing below your genetic potential. Given our lifestyles, genetics and awareness or lack of awareness, we all have certain areas that have restrictions due to muscular imbalances. Over time these imbalances create movement dysfunctions and pains, which ultimately cause many to abandon certain actions, exercises or their sport.
There has been a paradigm shift in regards to flexibility training, stretching and warming up prior to participating in a sport. If you have never received up-to-date advice on stretching it is only a matter of when you get injured, not if. We now know that performing static stretches before exercise (i.e. holding a stretch for 30s) is detrimental to performance and can promote injuries. Post exercise static stretches are still recommended.
A common phenomenon before running is to perform a series of static stretches to prepare for the run. The exercises are supposedly done to prevent injuries. Interestingly enough, studies of endurance runners have shown warm-up static stretching have the opposite effect. In one well known study by Jacobs & Berson (1986), it was found that those who stretched beforehand were injured more often than non-stretchers. Many coaches have heard about this and other studies and have eliminated warming up all together. This is not a good idea either because you can not perform at your optimal ability when the body is not prepared to do so.
Most are confused about what to do to warm-up prior to an event and how to optimally develop flexibility. This confusion has caused many suffer to injury as a result because they, their coaches, friends, and parents are still doing old school warm-ups. Even in yoga classes around the world many are getting injured because they are pushing instead of relaxing and attempting to stretch beyond their limits.
Flexibility is the secret weapon for success; however, it can be complex topic. Many still believe that flexibility is related to touching their toes. Many also believe that if they can’t tough their toes, the hamstrings are the culprit. What I have found through testing thousands of people is that generally the hamstrings are not the limiting factor for this movement. Interestingly, the calves and the spinal muscles seem to be more important areas of restriction. This is extremely important information to know because many are stretching the wrong muscles and wasting their time. They are also increasing their risk of injury instead of preventing injuries because muscles that are already flexible should not be stretched. Something to remember is that just because a muscle feels tight doesn’t mean you should stretch it. If I bend over from the waist, I will feel my hamstrings; however, the tighter or more restricted my spinal muscles and calves are I will feel my hamstrings more because the hamstrings are compensating for my lack of movement elsewhere. By evaluating each individual range of motion, we can understand the body better and what stretches should be done to achieve balance.
All activities of daily living and sports have a specific requirement for flexibility. Some sports require more flexibility than others (i.e. gymnastics & dance). Without movement-specific flexibility you will never attain full muscle strength, control or performance potential.
Now that you know that static stretching is no longer the preferred form of warming-up, you need to know what is the best way to get ready for an exercise session. The answer is through self massage techniques and active mobility (dynamic) exercises.
Every team and athlete that I work with completes as 10-20 minute warm-up routine consisting of self massage exercises using a foam roll, intracell stick and golf or tennis balls, followed by dynamic exercises. The self massage techniques have been shown to increase blood flow, oxygen, endurance, strength, flexibility, speed, power, recovery, relaxation and reduce pain, muscular imbalances, trigger points and muscle soreness. These benefits occur by rolling knots out of the muscle, providing myofascial release and trigger point therapy. Trigger points are short, tight knotty muscles that produce pain when pressed. Trigger points lead to a reduction in performance because the muscles are not capable of producing force the way they should. Using the self massage devices creates a similar result as having your own massage therapist at your beck and call.
Dynamic exercises are those that are rhythmic, performed in a full range of motion and mimic the speed and actions of the work or sport which is being prepared for. Dynamic flexibility is extremely important for high velocity movement sports like as sprinting, baseball and basketball.
Flexibility is vital for performance, injury prevention and the treatment of pain. Good flexibility improves your joint’s range of motion, allowing the joints to easily accommodate the desired joint angles without undue stress on the tissues around them. Stretching also forms an integral part of rehabilitation programs following injury. It is accepted that a muscle tear will heal with scar tissue. This scar tissue tends to be functionally shorter and have more resistance to stretch than normal healthy muscle tissue. Therefore flexibility training is used at an appropriate time in the healing process to assist in lengthening this contracted scar tissue.
Now that you understand the need for flexibility, you should understand why I have seen tremendous results when I design personal flexibility programs for my clients that want to reduce pain and optimize performance. Without flexibility top strength, speed and power are not going to be achieved.