Better flexibility can improve your life by making tasks easier with an increased range of motion. It also helps prevent injury to muscles. Improving your flexibility can also improve your circulation! Flexibility gains can help you to improve your fitness level by improving your ability to perform certain exercises to a fuller extent. Everyone knows that stretching is essential for flexibility, but how and when should we stretch to see real gains?
When looking to improve your flexibility, there are a few simple rules to follow with your stretching routine so as to not overstretch or injure yourself, but still, see gains in your range of motion. The first rule pertains to how often to stretch. When stretching for flexibility improvements, you may stretch up to three times per week using the techniques we will be discussing. This is not to say that you may not stretch besides these three times, you just should not stretch in the same way (length of holding the stretches or number of sets, etc.) If you would like to stretch additional times, you should perform dynamic stretches, or hold the stretches for a much shorter period of time, preferably 30 seconds or less.
Now let’s talk about the actual stretching. In each stretch session, you may do each stretch a total of three times (or three times per side/leg if the stretch has multiple sides.) Each time you hold the stretch, you want to hold it for between 45 seconds to a minute. When holding the stretch, make sure you are breathing deeply and relaxing your muscles as much as possible. After the minute is up, you can move on to your next stretch, or the other side of the same stretch. Then you can repeat each stretch a total of three times throughout the session, totaling up to 3 minutes of static stretching per muscle/group.
It is very important to remember to hydrate properly, especially on stretch days. You also must make sure to never stretch cold; always do a 10-minute warm-up prior to stretching for flexibility gains, and try to stretch somewhere warm where your muscles will not get cold too fast during your stretch session. If you stretch muscles that are not properly warmed, not only will you not be able to make the same gains you would be able to if you were warm, you also are at serious risk of injuring yourself. When we stretch cold muscles for prolonged periods of time, such as holding a static stretch for a minute at a time, we are at risk for
stretching out our tendons and ligaments. This can destabilize our joints instead of stretching the body of the muscle, and make us injury-prone over time.
When we hold static stretches for the purpose of making improvements in our flexibility, we actually impede certain abilities of our bodies for a short period of time. There is some fascinating research that points out short-term detrimental physical effects that occur when static stretching, even when muscles are warm. Performance parameters such as strength, power, endurance, balance, grip strength, sprint time, jump height, and reaction time are all affected by stretching. The neural detrimental effects dissipate within about 15 minutes, but the muscular properties can take up to an hour to return to normal. For this reason, you would never want to do static stretching for the purpose of increasing flexibility prior to a workout, a class, or an event/performance.
Another thing to be aware of is a balance of flexibility. It is important to stretch opposing muscles equally, so as to not put a strain on your joints. For example, if you want to stretch your hamstrings and gain flexibility there, you would also want to stretch your quadriceps. This will prevent your knees or hips from having any extra strain that can be caused by inequality.
An often overlooked tool for improving flexibility is foam rolling. Foam rolling is especially useful for releasing fascia tension, which is something that holds all of us back from not only our flexibility potential but also our comfort! Releasing this fascia tension allows for a greater range of motion, improves the potential for increasing flexibility, and reduces discomfort or feelings of tightness. Unlike long holds of static stretching, foam rolling may be done every day!
These simple techniques can really help improve your flexibility and range of motion, and your quality of life as well! The number one rule here is PATIENCE! Flexibility does not come overnight, but with proper focus and consistency, you can safely make flexibility gains that will make your body thank you!
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