In Defense of The Bend and Snap: 5 Ways to Improve Your Flexibility

According to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), flexibility is defined as “the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion.” At the MFF Ninja Clubhouse, you will more often hear us refer to “mobility” and encourage you to roll out your lovely bodies following a class or semi-private.

Whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that the quality of your movement matters. But even the most legendary of fitness Ninjas can get down on themselves if they feel their range of motion or mobility is not as good as it could be. There are several ways you can improve this but before we dive into those, let’s review the industry’s most #basic stretching concepts related to flexibility.

 

Breaking Down the Main Types of Stretching

In the fitness and rehabilitation worlds, we divide stretching exercises into three main categories – static, dynamic and pre-contraction stretches.

The most common and traditional is static stretching, where a position is held by the participant with or without the help of a partner, where a stretch sensation is felt.

Dynamic stretching is moving through the full range of motion and repeating several times, most often seen as skipping, hopping, or jumping jacks in our MFF warm-ups.

Pre-contraction stretches or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a technique in which the participant contracts the muscle for 10 seconds and then relaxes into a static stretch. This can be done with a partner or using an elastic band or strap.

 

7 Factors That Affect Flexibility

When we think of flexibility, we typically think of how tight or loose our muscles are when we are moving a joint or group of joints to the end of their limits. While our muscles play a part in our ability to achieve such feats, there are additional structures and situations that affect our flexibility or range of motion at any given joint.

Joint Capsule/Ligaments: Ligamentous tightness and adhesions or injury to the joint capsule can limit flexibility.

Muscle Length: Muscle length or extensibility is just as it sounds, the length of the muscle from where it starts to where it ends in a particular position. Whether a muscle is contracting or relaxing obviously affects how much the joint it is associated with will be able to move in that moment. The presence of muscle spasms or trigger points will also affect ability to move a joint, especially if movement is painful because of injury. Our bodies are awesome – muscles will contract around an injured joint to create an internal brace – so cool!!!

Fascia/Connective Tissue: Fascia and connective tissue run throughout our bodies to support various structures and give our muscles leverage in some cases like the IT band. At times, the fascia can bind to the muscle and limit its movement and thus the movement of the joint.

Neural Tension: Sometimes our nerves can get caught up in the tissues they pass through like muscles or connective tissue creating a tingling sensation when we try to stretch.

Personal Anatomy/Genetics: The shape of the joint and how well the surfaces of the bones fit together will also play a part in our joint mobility. You were born that way, baby!!!

Posture/Activity Level: Our posture will most certainly have an effect on our joint mobility as well as what is asked of us in our everyday lives.

Previous Injury: Prior injury to a muscle, tendon, ligament or joint will also impact the movement at a joint. With the exception of neural tissue, all soft tissue structures will heal with scar tissue which in the case of muscle, is less flexible.

 

4 Stretching & Flexibility Myths, Busted!

Myth #1: You should always perform static stretches before a workout.

Historically, static stretching was included and recommended as part of the warm-up to any exercise program. Research has found that static stretching decreases muscle strength and performance in running and jumping when performed immediately before exercise.

For the most part, it’s best to perform static stretching following exercise and dynamic stretching like skipping and jumping jacks as part of your warm-up. If you are preparing to dance, flip, or figure skate, you may do some static stretching as part of your warm-up since the ranges of motion required tend to be more extreme.

In addition, static stretching has been shown in research to be best performed at 10-30 second holds, for 2-4 repetitions. In my experience, the holds may be extended past the 30 second mark if a greater amount of mobility is needed.

Here are the recommendations from ACSM:

  • Adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week to improve range of motion.
  • Each stretch should be held for 10-30 seconds to the point of tightness or slight discomfort.
  • Repeat each stretch two to four times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch.
  • Static, dynamic, ballistic and PNF stretches are all effective.
  • Flexibility exercise is most effective when the muscle is warm. Try light aerobic activity or a hot bath to warm the muscles before stretching.

Myth #2: Lifting weights will make your muscles and joints tighter, decreasing flexibility.

Newer studies have been comparing static stretching programs to resistance training and their effects on flexibility. The results of these studies are showing either positive effects on flexibility or no change to flexibility as compared to static stretching.

Additionally, mobility needs stability! If we have a range of motion but are unable to support or control it, we open the door for potential injury. SO KEEP LIFTIN’ THOSE ‘BELLS!!!

Myth #3: Stretching helps decrease your risk of getting hurt.

Overall, stretching has not been proven to decrease injury rates, post-exercise pain, or muscle soreness. With that said, research does suggest that extremes in flexibility, either too flexible or too tight, are at an increased risk of injury.

Myth #4: My doctor/physical therapist/chiropractor/medical professional told me to stretch. Are they WRONG?

They are not! Always follow the treatment plan laid out for you by your chosen medical professional.

In the PT world, our goal after decreasing pain and swelling is to increase the range of motion of the injured joint, and then slowly add in strengthening exercises as mobility improves.

The stretches might stay the same through your treatment, but their timing in your exercise program will likely change.

Bonus: You named three different types of stretching at the beginning of this article. Which one is #bestlife? And what happened to foam rolling?

All three types of stretching have been proven to increase mobility. It’s up to you and your needs as to which is #bestlife. Foam rolling is still awesome and will most certainly help with mobility and muscle tightness.

 

5 Ways You Can Improve Your Flexibility

1. Consult a Professional!

Medical and sports professionals such as physical therapists, athletic trainers and some personal trainers can evaluate your posture and flexibility and make specific recommendations based on their findings.

If there is an injury or previous injury that is of interest, it’s important to consult with the appropriate doctor and then a physical therapist for a plan that also addresses any pain.

Let me say that again: If there is an injury or previous injury that is of interest, it’s important to consult with the appropriate doctor and then a physical therapist for a plan that also addresses any pain.

2. Get Some Bodywork! 

Get a massage! Try acupuncture! Maybe rolfing! If you are suffering from general “I-Live-In-NYC-And-Work-All-The-Time” tightness, treat yourself to some good ol’ self-care. A little bit of lovin’, even once a month, can help reduce muscle tightness and relax trigger points.

3. Do Soft Tissue Work!

The next best thing to getting a massage is to grab a foam roller and go to town. Soft tissue work on our bodies, especially problem areas like quads and upper backs, can assist in keeping our joints moving and happy. Soft tissue work is most effective when performed regularly.

4. Stretch On Your Own, but PROCEED MINDFULLY!

Dynamic stretching is best for before your workout, and static stretching can be beneficial if performed after your workout.

If you are participating in activities that require things like kicking your face, some sport-specific and dance-specific stretches prior to activity would be warranted.

While stretching, it is imperative to evaluate if you are stretching what you want to stretch and if your other joints are in a neutral position. Stretching should always be performed without pain!

5. Continue Your Strength Training Program Using the Full, Pain-Free Range of Motion!

Mobility means very little if it does not include stability, so take it through the full range. After gaining more movement at a joint, start utilizing it safely in your workouts.

 

Final Thoughts

Flexibility, like many things in our bodies, is individual and dependent on many factors. But at the end of the day, it’s important to make sure you’re working out in a way that promotes flexibility and quality movement.

It’s not as simple as doing traditional “static” stretches before a workout. Most of the time, you actually want to be doing those after your workout and prioritizing dynamic stretches before, depending upon the type of work you’re doing.

To increase your flexibility, it’s most important to consider your personal self-care needs and fitness goals and how stretching and mobility exercises will best satisfy those aims.

Once you’ve done that, executing a strength training program, focusing on your soft tissue, treating yourself to some bodywork, upping your dynamic stretching game, and/or consulting with a movement professional all have the power to get you moving like the badass you are.


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Amanda Ting is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and the Fitness Manager at Mark Fisher Fitness Bowery. When not teaching the Ninjas of MFF to twerk, you will find her healing Broadway babies, SLAZZing it up in dance class, or hanging with Clubhouse Pooch, Weezie.

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