Almost everyone needs to be more flexible—whether because they sit at a desk all day, which leads to shortening of the hamstrings and hip flexors, or because they're an athlete who lacks movement patterns necessary to excel at their sport. Flexibility is an important feature of a healthy lifestyle.
Improving flexibility is simple. Every elementary school kid is taught how to stretch. However, if it's that simple, why does the problem persist? The answer is that no one action can make one flexible. The ability to touch your toes will not make you an Olympic gymnast.
Let's take a look at some strategies that can serve in a compounding effort in improve flexibility.
This is the classic form of stretching. Everyone knows how to perform a static stretch. Simply elongate a muscle to a point just before discomfort and hold for 30 seconds. Examples include grabbing your toes and stretching your hamstrings and holding a door frame and stretching your chest.
RELATED: The Basics of Static Stretching
How do you incorporate this into your program? At the end of a workout, use static stretching to cool down and aid recovery. Choose the static stretches you want and perform one set of 30 seconds on each. My recommendations are:
- Hip Flexors
- Pec Major
- Latissimus Dorsi
Sets/Duration: 1x30 seconds
Dynamic stretching is quite a bit different from static stretching. Dynamic stretching is used to warm up the muscles rather than cool them down and relax them. Dynamic stretches are not held and don't involve the end range of motion, like static stretches. A dynamic stretch is performed as a simple movement of the target muscle.
At the beginning of your workout, use dynamic stretching to increase circulation and temperature in the target muscle. Choose your dynamic stretches and perform around 10 reps of each until you are warmed up. My recommendations are:
- Walking Knee Pull
- Bodyweight Squat
- Forward Lunge and Reach-Up
- Lateral Lunge
- Horizontal Arm Swings
- Vertical Arm Swings
- Push-Ups (Depending on strength level)
Full Range of Motion Strength Exercises
Performing strength exercises through a full range of motion is rarely thought of as a method to improve flexibility. It helps by addressing neural input, which causes muscles to contract to prevent injury. If a muscle is never moved through a certain range of motion, sensors within the muscle give feedback to the spinal cord that any movement beyond a certain point could be dangerous. The spinal cord then sends a message back forcing the muscle to tighten and limiting how far it can stretch.
How do you incorporate this into your program? During your workout, perform as many exercises as possible with an increased range of motion and control. If you are unable to squat with resistance to depth, finish your strength work and lighten the load to work on improving depth. Accessory exercises are great for improving flexibility. The purpose of accessory work is to complement your primary lifts. For example, you may already be performing Leg Curls as part of your leg workout. Simply perform them through the largest range of motion possible. My recommendations are to increase range of motion as much as possible in both your primary and accessory exercises.
Soft Tissue Manipulation
Over the past few years, foam rolling has become all the rage. Everyone is foam rolling to massage tight/sore muscles. The question with foam rolling is how should it incorporated? Should it precede the workout or follow it? Should it be mixed in with sets of primary exercises during your workout? With soft tissue manipulation it's easy to suffer from "paralysis by analysis." Think in simple terms:
What is its purpose? To relax the muscle.
Do you want to relax a muscle before or while you use it? Absolutely not.
How do you incorporate foam rolling and other soft tissue modalities into your program? After your workout and before you do static stretching. This will further aid recovery and reduce soreness.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching
PNF Stretching is a method of using feedback in increase flexibility. It is similar to increasing range of motion in your strength work. To perform PNF stretches, you need a partner. For example, in the Partner Hamstring Stretch, one person lies on his or her back while his/her partner pushes his/her leg up into a hamstring stretch.
PNF stretches that address agonistic and antagonistic responses have multiple portions. First, while the leg is held in the air, the person being stretched contracts his/her quads as hard as possible for the duration of the stretch, 15 seconds. Second, when the leg is about to come down from the stretch, the partner assisting the stretch places his/her hands on the heel and provides resistance. The person being stretched then performs a Leg Curl against his/her partner's resistance by contracting his/her hamstrings.
Repeat 3 times.
Following these strategies can help you achieve your goals for increasing range of motion, preventing injury and improving overall mobility. By attacking lack of flexibility from multiple angles, you may not become a contortionist, but you will worry less about your sports performance.
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