Flexibility training, which for most people means stretching, is very important but also widely misunderstood. Because of this, it is probably the most neglected part of fitness training.
Done correctly, flexibility training will reduce your chance of injury and allow you to reach higher levels of fitness. It can also do wonders for anyone dealing with pain or discomfort from exercise.
For example, people tend to like running because of its mental health benefits, but are put off by the pain and the impact it has on untrained muscles and joints. This is where flexibility training can help.
Its aim is to help your connective tissues stay elastic, as when you age these tend to take a beating more than anything else.
To truly gain flexibility you need to devote time to it. What I would recommend is flexibility training for at least five days a week over a 12-week period, for an hour at a time. This offers you the best chance of gaining results. The good news is you can maintain those results with one training session a week thereafter.
Research shows that if you dedicate only 20 minutes to flexibility training every day it actually does nothing. You need a certain amount of volume to merit a permanent change.
To make such a time investment easier, I would suggest you break down the hour into bitesize chunks of 15 to 20 minutes. I often have clients do 15 minutes upon waking, 15 at lunch, and 30 before bed. Clients who do this feel much better about their routines and tend not to get injured as much.
The most important thing to bear in mind when it comes to flexibility-focused training is to use a three-step sequence: PNF, dynamic and then static stretching.
1. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF. This is a set of stretching techniques used to improve co-ordination and is seen quite often in sports rehabilitation programmes. Start by getting the muscle into a stretch position and contract it for six to eight seconds within the muscle range. Through a process known as inhibiting inhibitions, this relaxes the Golgi tendon organ and helps you get more flexible for the day. It’s a great way to teach the body new ranges of motion.
2. Dynamic. These are stretches that involve motion. So, for example, think of exercises such as leg and arm swings or lunges with a twist component. There is a camp of individuals who believe this could be dangerous. However, they are stuck in the dark ages with their research. If dynamic flexibility were so dangerous for us, then every gymnast would be in trouble. Dynamic flexibility is good for you.
Aguilar et al (2012) found that a ‘dynamic’ warm-up, in contrast to traditional static stretching, increased strength output, particularly strengthening the quadriceps and increasing hamstring flexibility.
3. Static. This is the type of flexibility training that most people would recognised as stretching. Static stretching focuses on stretching the muscles while the body is at rest and gradually lengthening muscles to elongated positions. This should be placed last in your training, as it relaxes the muscles.
Static training is inhibitory to the nervous system. In other words it makes you weak — but only temporarily. It’s a great way to gain some permanent flexibility.
Once you have done around 40 to 50 minutes of flexibility work you should now continue with 20 minutes of static stretches to teach the brain that you are flexible. This helps to establish your newfound ranges of motion and acts as a protective mechanism in retaining your new flexibility.
Never do static stretching before events or before competing — research is very clear that you will increase your chances of injury. Static flexibility work is only a supplement to PNF and dynamic flexibility work.
As a rule of thumb, remember: static is to retain, PNF and dynamic is to gain. Static work should be the last unit of training of the day. This allows you to relax the central nervous system. It should be done four to six hours after your harder training choice (for example strength training) and this can help you relax and sleep, thus giving you the best training process.
As suggested, if we work on our flexibility in a smart three-step manner our chances of injury will significantly reduce. Give it a go…
15 minutes of dynamic flexibility work. Get out of your office chair and perform some leg and arm swings as well as a few lunges with twists. Not only will this help you build some strength in your flexibility, it will help prevent the afternoon slump most of us feel at work.
30 minutes of relaxing static stretches. This helps to release any tension you have accumulated throughout the day. Personally I like to do these after a nice warm bath or shower as it really does help me unwind. Plus, stretching with warm muscles is recommended.