Flexibility and Stretching

girl stretching

Flexibility is defined as the range of motion of a joint.  It can be increased and refined through proper stretching exercises.  Often the terms flexibility and stretching are used synonymously.  However, an athlete can be flexible without stretching and conversely, an athlete can stretch without gaining flexibility.  Appropriate flexibility can greatly enhance an athletes’ success.

An individual’s flexibility is a genetic attribute with potential for improvement with training and exercise.  Each sport has specific flexibility requirements. The flexibility concerns of the athlete should be two-fold:

Is there sufficient specific flexibility to adequately perform the activities required?

Is the overall flexibility sufficient so as not to place an increased risk for injury?

Some sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating require extensive flexibility for successful participation.  Other sports require joint specific flexibility such as track hurdlers need hip flexibility and swimmers need shoulder flexibility.

Flexibility is determined by the bony construction of a joint and the soft tissues surrounding it.   Soft tissues include ligaments, joint capsules, muscles and tendons supporting the joints, subcutaneous fat and skin overlying the joint.  Joint construction is a factor in the motion permitted.  Ball and socket joints like the hip and shoulder allow for the widest range of motion.  Hinge joints, such as the fingers permit motion in only one direction.  Other joints pivot one bone on another like the radio-ulnar joint at the elbow.  The small joints between the spinal vertebrae permit small sliding-type motions individually.  Several joints may work together to produce larger motions.

Flexibility can be reduced by a number of factors.  If an athlete has had an injury causing scar tissue to develop, range of motion can be inhibited.  If the muscles and tendons crossing a joint are tight joint motion is limited.  Burns or scarring to the skin over a joint can cause it to lose its elastic properties.  Even weight can inhibit motion by two body parts running into each other. For example, a large abdomen hitting the thighs rather than hamstring muscle tightness.

The following are a few of the most commonly used stretching techniques used to accomplish results and avoid injury.

Static Stretching applies a slow, controlled lengthening force to the muscle until a comfortable stretching sensation is felt.  This position should be held for 30 seconds.

Contract – Relax Stretching uses neuromuscular reflexes to stretch more effectively.  A muscle is first contracted isometrically, without joint motion for 3-5 seconds then stretched statically for 15-30 seconds.  The pattern is repeated 3-5 times and usually requires a partner.

Dynamic Stretching actively and sometimes quickly moves the body part to the end range stretching the desired muscle.  Each stretch is held briefly and repeated 5-10 times.  This type of stretching mimics the range of motion similar to that during the actual activity.

While some of the stretches are easier to perform than others they all will increase joint range of motion.  Stretching must be done in a controlled manner.  If a stretching sensation is felt anywhere other than in a muscle or tendon, the position is wrong and needs to be re-evaluated.  The goal of stretching to increase flexibility should be to increase the length of muscles and tendons and not stress joints or ligaments.