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Flexibility training is up there in terms of overlooked fitness components. People stretch, they do yoga, attend Pilates classes, perform static stretches etc.
Flexibility is the ability to achieve a maximum percentage of range of motion at a given joint. We focus on functional and applicable flexibility.
First lets look at traditional approaches.
Static stretching is a method of stretching a muscle until it reaches a threshold then holding that position for a certain period of time, usually between 8 - 20 seconds. This can be an effective method of flexibility training if it is implemented correctly, however it is most-often not.
Static stretching is a great way to return a muscle to its original length after a workout or sporting activity. Many coaches and fitness experts tend to prescribe static stretching before a workout because they believe it will prevent injury. On the contrary, this causes more harm than good. Static stretching before dynamic activities creates a relaxation response in the stretched muscle. The muscle relaxes for some time afterward, resulting in a further ability to obtain maximum range of motion (ROM). The problem is that it does so at the expense of the protective stretch reflex and the muscle itself gets a little over-confident in its own ability and allows for too much range of motion for that joint to handle. This causes muscle tears, tendon ruptures and all sorts of nasties.
Apply static stretches post-workout if you are engaging in dynamic activities. I also like to apply static stretches every evening before bed to relax muscles and create an adaptive response that is more likely to be maximised at the end of the day.
PNF Stretching or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
PNF stretching is similar to static stretching except that it makes use of the proprioceptor called the muscle spindle. The muscle spindle is responsible for the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is a protective mechanism that causes a counter-contraction of a muscle when it is stretched too far. The problem is that it is over-protective.
PNF is also used incorrectly and in the wrong context. This should be used as a flexibility enhancement method. That means that it used not only to return muscles to their original length, but to build additional flexibility in that muscle so it can reach its maximum ROM.
Apply PNF stretching either at the end of a training session or as a stand-alone session for flexibility enhancement. PNF is classified as functional flexibility training. The reason being that muscle contractions are applied at each maximal stretch. This builds strength at ranges of motion not commonly targeted with common strength training protocols.
To apply PNF simply statically stretch a muscle to a point where it slightly hurts then contract the stretched muscle for 5 - 10 seconds. Then relax the muscle and ease into a greater stretch. Repeat for a total of between 3 - 5 cycles. You will find that the trickery this involves enables the stretch reflex to switch off a little more and the muscle can then be stretched further each time.
Dynamic stretching is classed as a big no-no to so many coaches and fitness experts. The presumption is that the dynamic movement at the extreme ends of ROM can cause injury, and they’re right, to an extent anyway.
Dynamic stretching involves the rapid stretch of a muscle such as the swinging of a straight leg out in front or to the side. If it's done haphazardly it can cause rapid counter-contractions from the stretch reflex and cause muscles to tear and connective tissue to snap. If done safely though it can be used as probably the most functional flexibility training you can do.
What is Functional Flexibility and how do I Obtain it?
Flexibility is often undertaken as an afterthought, like just an inconvenient chore tacked on to the end of a training session. Either that or people overdo it and end up with hyper-mobile joints that have zero stability. Functional flexibility has a few components…
Relevant ROM: By relevant ROM I am talking about the extent to which you need to be flexible. Often I see martial artists and yoga practitioners developing crazy levels of flexibility that are well beyond what is needed in their chosen activity. Many say that it never hurts to be over-prepared. Well yes it does; too much ROM at a joint can cause joint instability and even permanently damage connective tissue.
More is not always better and in order for flexibility to remain functional and actually of use to you, there needs to be an assessment of just how much ROM you need to achieve at a given joint. With that in mind you need to consider…
Functionality at given ROMs: It’s fine to be super flexible, it sure looks impressive when Jean Claude Vandamme demonstrates it. The issue is not how flexible you are or aren’t, it is how much function and stability you have at that ROM. Functional flexibility is the ability to actually use the ROM you are able to achieve, not simply possessing the ability to move your joints through that ROM. This is achieved by ensuring adequate stability and strength at the required ROM.
Relevance: Relevance is the final factor to consider in determining whether flexibility is functional or not. Constant static stretching will not necessarily mean that the flexibility developed has any real use to you, especially if you are always moving dynamically. Flexibility needs to be developed in context. That means that not all types of flexibility training are relevant or useful for individual needs.
The Unleashed Training method for developing flexibility takes into account the need for a given ROM and the context in which that ROM will be utilised. This means that stretching is not all there is to flexibility development. We use strength training through a full ROM and dynamic movements that are designed to condition muscles, joints and the nervous system to operate effectively throughout the required ROM.
Flexibility is like strength, in that there can exist imbalances. An example of an imbalance is an agonist/antagonist muscle pair where one muscle is tight and in need of increased flexibility and the opposing muscle is lax and too loose, or in other words too flexible. Take this into account and get a proper postural and movement assessment done to determine which muscle are in need of increased flexibility and which are already too flexible. Only perform flexibility training for tight muscles, don't just blindly increase flexibility everywhere.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.