Flexibility is when a joint can move through its full range of motion without discomfort or pain.
Some people are naturally more flexible than others as genetics can play a large part. It can come down to many things including elasticity in muscles and tendons, joint structure, age, previous injuries, body type, gender and strength of opposing muscle groups.
It is a basic component of fitness that every athlete, dancer, yoga practitioner and martial artist include in their training routine but one that is often ignored by many other fitness and sporting participants. However one needs to maintain a reasonable degree of flexibility for efficient body movement. It may also decrease the chances of muscle injury, lower back pain and muscle soreness.
When the body moves the muscles that perform the move (agonist muscles) requires the opposite muscles (antagonistic muscles) to lengthen sufficiently. Any tightness in the opposite muscles due to inflexibility in the connective tissue and tendons will restrict movement. Moreover any tightness in these muscles can result in soreness or injury. If there is tightness in any of the muscles that cross over the hip/pelvis and lower extremities of the trunk could result in low-back dysfunction or pain.
Flexibility in the lower back and the spine itself is also key to the absorption of forces. If the absorption is inadequate during activities such as jogging then the forces must be accommodated by the spine. Any limitation in the flexibility of the muscles around these joints will limit the potential to dissipate these forces but may also result in the body making compensatory adjustments resulting in poor biomechanics and additional joint damage.
To improve flexibility you need to either stretch the muscle or try to attain a greater degree of relaxation in the targeted muscle.
One way to attempt to do both is by a prolonged static stretch. This typically involves slowly lengthening the muscle to the point of slight discomfort and then holding that position for 15-30 seconds. You then repeat this two to three times.
Another form of stretching is dynamic or ballistic stretching, a method that was once favoured by Martial Artists. This involves bouncing into the stretch. However this can easily cause injury because instead of the opposite muscle relaxing and stretching it actually contracts as an involuntary safety mechanism. This phenomenon, which actually prevents the desired stretch, is called stretch reflex or myotatic.
This is not a recommended stretch for beginners.
Trainers often use Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. This mouth full is thankfully shortened to PNF. In this method the trainer will passively move the limb to its end point of movement and holds it there for 10 seconds. The exerciser then isometrically contracts the muscle for 6-10 seconds against the trainer’s resistance. Once the exerciser relaxes the muscle the trainer then moves the limb stretching it that bit further. The exerciser then once again contracts the muscle for 15-30 seconds.
PNF often provides better results than static stretching but it’s not without its problems. First you need a partner and then you need a partner who knows what they are doing as incorrect PNF can easily cause pain and injury.
It is always best to stretch once the body has warmed up, so a few minutes of cardiovascular exercise on a crosstrainer, treadmill or exercise bike would be advisable. Stretching at the end of a workout is always sensible as it can reduce muscle soreness. Also for best results stretching should be done on a regular basis.