Flexibility development for most of us is a neglected component of our fitness. This can be due to a number of reasons such as lack of time, lack of knowledge of how to be more flexible, or lack of desire or want to be more flexible due to a poor understanding of the benefits of good flexibility. Lets look at gymnasts for example. They work hard on their flexibility and can see the immediate benefits of excellent flexibility as it is a key component of their relative activities. Now for those of us who train in gyms or play sports and practice gymnastic movements regularly i,e any body weight movement, the need for good flexibility is maybe less obvious. A lot of us don't care about flexibility as long as we can bang out a few muscle ups on the rings! So the question is do we need to demonstrate the same degree of flexibility as a gymnast? Simple answer is 'No'. However, we do need to ensure that as an athlete we are not limited in our performance by a flexibility limitation and ensure that we have a well balanced degree of flexibility so that there are no flexibility issues that predispose us to injury.
So what is flexibility?
Flexibility has been variously defined as freedom to move, mobilisation, or more technically, the range of motion (ROM) achievable in a joint or range of joints. ROM is usually measured in either linear units, (e.g. inches or cms) or angular units (degrees), but you don't have to worry or pay particular attention to that. If you can get below parallel in a squat after some flexibility work and you weren't able to before, you're not going to care what amount of degrees your squat has improved, you're just happy you can go 'ass to grass'! But what you might want to pay attention to is that all the experts agree that flexibility is specific to each joint. So good ROM in the hip does not ensure good ROM in the shoulder. So we need work on all our joints in their specific ranges. A 'one fits all' approach will not work so don't go looking for one.
Types of flexibility
There are two basic types of flexibility, static and dynamic. Static flexibility is ROM in a joint with no emphasis on movement speed. An example of static flexibility would be a gymnast performing the splits, or a crossfitter holding a wall handstand. So there is a certain need for static flexibility in a lot of sports in general. Dynamic flexibility on the other hand relates to the ability to use a range of movement in performance of a physical activity at either normal or rapid speed. This is the type of flexibility that predominates in most sports. Here, too, flexibility is specific. An Olympic weightlifter needs to be flexible enough in the hips, groins,and knees to be able to efficiently move a bar from the ground in the deadlift or clean. Also needs good flexibility in the shoulders to move a bar overhead in a clean & jerk. The same can be said for a gaelic football player picking up a ball or a rugby player lifting his team mate in a lineout. So therefore dynamic and static flexibility are required in most sports and different sports make different flexibility demands.
Stretching versus flexibility development
A distinction should be made here between flexibility training and stretching carried out during 'warm-ups'. Flexibility training aims to make long term improvements in flexibility or ROM in a joint. Stretching on the other hand is intended to 'loosen' out muscles and connective tissue that will be taxed in a subsequent training session.
The importance of flexibility training
In training or playing sports, as in life, it is important that we are functionally competent. This implies having a normal ROM in joints during common functional movements that are applicable to our sport. Also we must have good stability balancing this normal ROM in the joints. Limitations in flexibility of a joint will impact on the efficiency of movement of the person. Good flexibility helps eliminate movement that is awkward and/or inefficient. This has the effect of improving our performance in the gym. So it is because of this that we should pay attention to flexibility training. Even if you have good flexibility it is still something to work on to ensure that you maintain normal ROM through the training process. Sometimes people can develop limitations if he or she does not attend to their flexibility, especially after competition or intensive capacity training. If you want to maintain or increase your ROM then its massively important to adopt the strategy of restoring normal ROM after intense training sessions and WOD's.
Factors affecting flexibility
Flexibility is influenced by a number of factors, a lot of them you probably already know, but a few of them are;
Gender. Typically women are more flexible than men.
Temperature. Flexibility increases with heat and decreases with cold temperatures.
Activity levels. Active individuals are usually more flexible than inactive people. A decrease in activity will result in an increase in body fat and a decrease in pliability of connective tissue.
Elastic and Plastic
Under normal circumstances, connective tissue is the major structure limiting joint ROM. The connective tissue structures include ligamentous joint capsules, tendons and muscles, and these are the structures we need to work on to develop flexibility. A better understanding of what's going on when we stretch could be useful here. So, there are 2 forms of a stretch that occur in a joint: elastic and plastic. An elastic stretch is a spring like action in which any lengthening of the connective tissue that occurs during stretching is recovered when the load is removed. Typically this is the guy or girl, just bending forward trying to touch their toes for 15 seconds before their chosen activity. As a result, elastic stretching achieves only temporary lengthening of the connective tissues. Whereas in Plastic stretching, lengthening that occurs after this form of stretching is performed remains, even after the load has been removed, and this is what we are looking for when we want to develop our flexibility.
So how do we ensure that the the work we put in to be more flexible is maintained?
Muscle has only elastic properties. Ligaments and tendons have both elastic and plastic properties. When the connective tissue in a joint is stretched, some of the lengthening occurs in the elastic elements (muscle fibres) and some in the plastic elements (tendons mainly but also ligaments). When the stretch is removed the elastic deformation recovers but the plastic deformation remains, so we should be concentrating on plastic deformation because of the permanent increase in ROM. So the proportion of elastic and plastic deformation can vary depending how and under what conditions we perform flexibility development. In order to maximise plastic deformation the best protocol is to stretch to the point of discomfort. 'No pain , no gain' is a term that we are all familiar with, and in this instance it rings true. If there is no discomfort you are not forcing a change in the length of the tissues. You have to push hard to reach new boundaries otherwise your wasting your time and will remain stiff as a board! Contract/relax (AKA MET or PNF stretching) is a useful way to keep pushing the boundaries and ensure permanent change in tissue length. The length of time is important. A minimum of 2 mins is required when holding a stretch prior to activity to ensure a plastic deformation will take place. Also making sure your core temperature is elevated will assist in emphasising a plastic stretch. This should be no problem after training, you should be pretty warm after a session or else you're not doing it properly, but if you're working on flexibility outside of your workouts than a warm up such as a 5-10 min row or run or skipping is recommended to raise your body temperature.
Benefits of flexibility
The main benefit of being flexible is a lower risk of getting injured. Its common sense really. For example, if you have restricted ROM in your shoulders going overhead then doing something like kipping pull ups, where your shoulders are forced into a range that you don't have, your shoulders are going to get messed up! Also research has shown that stretching has a relaxing effect on muscles lasting up to one hour. This is useful seeing as overly active muscles or being tight can predispose you to fatigue, aches and even pain. So go and stretch!
By Richard McDonald B.Sc MIAPT