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Expert Feature: Flexibility Training - An in depth look


Posted by Christnoel Buhay of Duo You Plus Us under Fitness & Training on 4 October 2012 at 11:00 PM

Duo is a private health club based in Chelsea which offers one on one fitness, rehabilitation and beauty treatments. Director and personal trainer Chris Buhay specialises in rehabilitation and injury preventions; he's outlining what you can do to improve your flexibility and why it's so important for other training too:

There are four main reasons top athletes and why fitness enthusiasts should incorporate flexibility training into their program. To put it simply our body is designed to move, any hindrances will affect our mobility and performance and put ourselves at risk of injury.

- To Increase Range of motion and flexibility

- Minimise the risk of injury

- Minimise painful symptoms

- Improve Performance

There are two types of flexibility; static refers to the amount of movement obtained by passively moving a limb to a maximum degree, and dynamic, which is the amount of active movement possible as a result of muscle contraction. Both methods are designed to increase range of motion and flexibility.

All stretching techniques are based on the premise of the stretch reflex, which involves two muscle receptors- the Golgi tendon organ (GTO) and the muscle spindle - that are sensitive to changes in muscle length. 

For example;
a typical hurdlers static stretch lasting more than 6 seconds act upon the GTO to override impulses from the muscle spindles causing the hamstrings to elongate(autogenic inhibition). Additionally contraction of an agonist muscle causes a reflexive relaxation in the antagonist (Reciprocal inhibition). 

Factors that Influence Flexibility

1) Age. There tends to be a decrease in flexibility with aging attributed largely to a loss in elasticity in the connective tissues surrounding the muscles which go through a normal shortening process resulting from a lack of physical activity. However regular exercise, including flexibility training can minimize the effect of this age- related factor

2) Exercise history. Regular exercise maximising full range of motion generally enhances flexibility; on the other hand, whereas a sedentary lifestyle often results in diminished flexibility.

3) Gender. Females tend to be more flexible than males of the same age throughout life, attributed to anatomical variations in joint structures and hormonal balance.

4) Pregnancy. During pregnancy, the pelvic joints and ligaments are relaxed and capable of greater range of motion (Bird, Calguneri, Wright, 1981). The hormone responsible for this change in range of motion is relaxin. After pregnancy, relaxin production decreases and the ligaments tighten up.

5) Resistance training. Resistance training in which exercises maximises range of motion may help to improve flexibility.

6) Temperature. An increase in body temperature via a warm-up or the participation in physical activity will increase range of motion. A lowering in body temperature is associated with a decrease in flexibility.

7) Type of joint.  Affected by joint structure (e.g., ball and socket, hinge, condyloid) and the type of movement that the joint exhibits (i.e., flexion-extension, rotation, adduction-abduction, pronation-supination, protraction-retraction and circumduction).

Methods of Stretching

Two most applied methods of improving flexibility are the static and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Stretching (PNF) techniques. Neither technique has been demonstrated to be superior for improving range of motion. Each method operates on the premise that to increase flexibility and prevent risk of injury, the muscle being stretched should be as relaxed as possible.

Static, or hold stretching, is probably the most commonly used flexibility technique and is very safe and effective. With this technique, a muscle group is gradually stretched to the point of limitation, and then typically held in that position for a period of 15 to 30 seconds.

 PNF stretching techniques are also very effective for increasing flexibility. PNF techniques can be both pasive or active and is superior to other forms of flexibility training due to its ability to facilitate muscular inhibition.

One commonly used PNF technique, is the "contract-relax". Let's use the hamstrings as an example, a partner moves pushes the hamstrings to a point of mild discomfort for 10 seconds. On instruction the athlete then contracts the hamstrings by pushing their flexed leg towards the ground while the partner applies a slight resistance. This is the "contract" phase. The partner then pushes the leg back up towards the hips as the athlete completely relaxes the hamstrings, this facilitates inhibition of the hamstrings allowing for greater range of motion. Researchers have found the contract-relax agonist contract technique to be the most effective PNF stretch for improving range of motion.

Warm-up Vs Stretching

The warm-up and stretching should not be confused. The warm-up is designed to increase the temperature of the blood, muscles, tendons and ligaments. The goal is to prepare the body's freely moveable joint structures for vigorous physical activity while reducing the risk of injury.  The warm-up is best accomplished with a full-body rhythmic activity such as low-to-moderate intensity aerobics, stationary cycling, walking or jogging. Often included after this full-body movement phase of the warm-up are some stretching exercises that go through a functional range of motion, holding positions usually no longer than 10 seconds.

Technique in Stretching

Studies have demonstrated the importance of technique in a stretch. For example the effect of the pelvic position, i.e., anterior pelvic tilt vs. the posterior pelvic tilt, in a hamstring stretch significantly affected the range of motion at the hip joint. (The anterior pelvic tilt proved to be the preferred anatomical position.) The implications of this research are clear. Those who are knowledgeable in anatomy and kinesiology of muscle attachments and joint movements will benefit more from flexibility training.

Make sure you are incorporating post-workout stretches into your routine - check out the Tribesports Get Stretched Challenge!