I deliberately scheduled this post for “FlexFriday” (as it is now known amongst avid hashtaggers) to draw attention to an aspect of fitness that is ridiculously important, yet categorically ignored. Flex doesn’t just stand for strength – it also stands for Flexibility.
Coming from a dance background, I was brought up in an environment that valued flexibility above pretty much anything else.
In the ballet world, a large proportion of each class is dedicated to improving and increasing the students’ flexibility, both at the end of barre, and at the end of the class too. As you get older and move up the grades, you get a routine telling off if you leave the studio without spending at least 15 minutes stretching out your hamstrings.
I vividly remember, at the age of 9 or 10 years old, straddling against the wall underneath the barre in the studio, the teacher coming up to each of us individually to push our bottoms as close as possible towards the wall to increase our flexibility for turnout.
Unfortunately the fitness world doesn’t seem to have this sense of discipline, especially when it comes to stretching. One of the biggest differences I have found since stopping dancing and starting lifting, is that the amount of people in the gym who actually save that 5-10 minutes at the end of their session to stretch out all their hard-worked muscles is astonishingly few.
Even many professionals that I have met along the way, including fitness instructors and personal trainers, have focused so much on the strength & conditioning component of their workout that flexibility has long been lost by the wayside. I knew one guy who could barely lift his arms above his head, such was his limited range of motion in the chest and shoulders. I knew another who could no longer sit cross-legged because his legs and glutes were so tight.
What’s the point in being super strong if it actually limits your day-to-day physical functioning?
The Science of Stretching & Flexibility
Flexibility is generally thought of of your range of movement (or range of motion, ROM) through a joint. The greater the flexibility, the greater that range will be.
Muscles are full of of thick and thin myofilaments – tiny fibres inside the muscle structure that overlap with one another. When you contract, or tense up, the muscle becomes shorter because the thick and thin fibres overlap more. When you stretch, the reverse happens; the overlap between the thick and thin fibres decreases, fully elongating the muscle. When the muscle is fully stretched from the inside, the connective tissue at the ends of the muscle will also begin to stretch out.
When muscles have been placed under stress or tension, particularly during contraction, they will become shorter and tighter. The purpose of stretching is to lengthen them out again.
I was taught to think of stretching your muscles like an elastic band – if you pull it all of a sudden when it’s all tight then it’ll snap, but if you gradually stretch it a little each day, then soon the whole thing will be able to stretch further. We experience pain when stretching as it’s the brain’s way of letting us know if the elastic band is about to snap.
The Benefits of a Good Stretch
Improved physical performance
A flexible joint has a greater range of motion, and requires less energy to go through that range of motion, meaning you can spend your energy on working harder (either lifting heavier or going for more repetitions).
Less Chance of Injury
There’s lots of contradictory reports and evidence about stretching and injury prevention. Many people debate about the best way and the best time to stretch to reduce risk of injury – some people argue that it doesn’t help at all. The way I look at it, using the elastic band analogy, is that if you walk about your daily life every day as a really tight elastic band, then it won’t take much to snap you. However if you get rid of some of that tension after exercise by stretching, and even increase your flexibility, then you’ll be a super-supple elastic band that can take on anything….sort of?
Stretching can also help to improve muscle balance and posture by re-aligning soft tissue structures. This reduces the effort it takes to maintain good posture during day-to-day activities. An all round winner!
Increased blood and nutrients to tissues
Stretching increases the temperature of muscle tissue. This stimulates blood flow, which helps nutrients to circulate and be delivered around the body. With more nutrients, the muscles and surrounding tissues are able to achieve a greater elasticity, which will improve physical performance.
So the next time you’ve finished your workout, whether you’re stepping off the treadmill or unloading the weights from the squat rack, don’t just rush off to get as much protein and BCAA’s down you as you can manage. Take the time to stretch out, push your flexibility and release some of the tension that’s been building up in your muscles.
Chances are, you’ll recover faster and you won’t be as sore the next day.
Next week I’ll be sharing my top-favourite stretches – so if there’s an area where you’re really tight, let me know in the comments!