Flexibility is the third pillar of fitness alongside cardiovascular conditioning and strength training so why is it that people often neglect this part of training? Whether you can’t be bothered to make time in your gym routine or you don’t think you need to stretch because you have no desire to contort your body into the shapes that gymnasts and dancer do, you are just making excuses. And let’s face it, you don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t train because they make excuses for themselves do you? I thought not.
Now, I am not insisting that you adopt a lengthy routine to increase your flexibility, but what I will say is a little is better than nothing! I mean, after a hard workout who doesn’t want to lie down on the mats and begin to relax before they rush out of the gym door and carry on with their busy lives. Increasing your flexibility can help prevent injuries, aid recovery, increase stamina and even strengthen muscles that would not normally get attention during cardio or weight training. Stretching will increase flexibility. If you have tried a routine before and seen little gains, try taking pictures of yourself in various positions (I’d advise doing this fully clothed..) each week to monitor your progress. Most of us get the camera out to track our muscular progress and it works just as well for flexibility!
Below are some exercises to get you started.
Static Passive Flexibility: This is the most common form of flexibility you will probably see. It is the ability to hold a stretch using bodyweight/gravity etc. Stretches are slow and constant and should be held for 30 seconds. In these stretching positions, the external forces (bodyweight/gravity) hold you in place as opposed to activated muscle. Passive flexibility can be improved with static and isometric stretching. If you are a beginner, static stretching is a good place to start. Isometric stretches are a good way to progress static stretches when they become easier.
Sit on the floor with both legs straight in front of you. There are 2 ways to perform this exercise and both are effective. You can either move one leg so that your leg is behind your body at a right angle so that your heel is pointing towards your glutes or you can move the leg so that the sole of your foot touches the upper thigh of the outstretched leg (with the knee as close to the floor as possible). Once you are in this position, take a deep breath in. As you breathe out, lower your body towards your outstretched leg with arms above your head. Aim to hold onto the foot of the outstretched leg. Try to avoid curving the spine as much as possible to increase the stretch.
To perform this stretch, I’m afraid you will have to take your eyes off of all the beautiful people in the gym. Begin by facing the wall with feet together. Both hands should be placed on the wall parallel to your shoulders. Take one leg back and bend the front leg so that you a performing a shallow lunge. Push against the wall and aim to lower the heel of the rear leg to the floor. If you can do this easily, take the leg behind you even further.
Stand on one leg and pull the heel of the free leg towards your glutes. If you can touch your glutes already, holding this position, slowly tilt your hips forwards while moving your leg backwards (knee behind the hips).
Lat Isolation Stretch
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and arms extended to the ceiling (palms facing each other). Keeping your hips and lower half of your body still, reach up and over to one side. Drop the arm on the side you have moved towards and hold the stretch.
Clasp and Lean
This stretch is really great for the chest, shoulders and hamstrings. Stand with feet shoulder width apart and clasp your hands behind your back (it is best if you link fingers). Bend forward towards the floor and begin to lift your hands as if you are trying to move them over your head to touch the floor. Those with outstanding flexibility will be able to touch the floor!
Perform a straddle sit on the floor. Keep your heels on the floor exactly where they are but bend your legs at the knee slightly. Hold. Then straighten your legs and point your toes. It will feel as if you are lengthening your legs.
Dynamic Flexibility: The need for dynamic flexibility is very sport specific. Football players, dancers, hockey players and pole vault athletes all display varying flexible dynamic movements. Dynamic stretches use the speed and momentum of the movement along with active muscular effort to bring about the stretch. Dynamic stretches are not held in position.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and hands on hips. Begin making circular rotations with your hips by pushing your hips forward then round to the side etc. Make sure that you complete full circles with no sharp movements and rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise. Wrist and arm rotations are also useful to increase range of movement.
Lay on your back with arms outstretched to the side forming a T-shape. Bend both knees so that the soles of your feet are touching the floor. From this position, lower both knees to one side while keeping your shoulder blades and arms in contact with the floor. Slightly straighten the leg furthest from the floor and swing the leg as high as possible to the side. Return back to starting position and move to the other side. Keep the motions fluid and do not hold the position.
Standing Leg Swings
Stand on one leg, swing the free leg behind you and then through to a high kick in front of you. Perform 10 on each leg.
Static Active Flexibility: This is the impressive flexibility that you will see particularly in martial arts. It is the ability to hold a stretch using the strength of the opposing muscle groups. Strength and flexibility combined are very impressive and well worth training!
Stand on one leg and hold the opposite leg out directly in front of you as high as you can. The quadriceps will engage to actively hold the muscle in place. If you can kick the leg much higher than you can hold it, you have good dynamic flexibility but need to work on muscle strength to improve active flexibility.
The Bow Stretch
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and arms stretched to the ceiling. Keeping your back completely FLAT reach forward until you form a table or ‘bow’ position. Hold the stretch.
The Needle Stretch
Get on your hands and knees then push yourself up onto your feet so that you form an upside down V shape. From this position, lift one leg towards the ceiling as high as possible and hold. Positions should be held for at least 10 seconds for all active flexibility exercises.
The Lunge Twist
Perform a lunge with your back leg extended and place your hands shoulder width apart on the floor in line with your front foot. From here, lift the arm on the side of your forward leg (right lunge = right arm) up towards the ceiling until your fingertips are pointing towards it. You will have to twist your body towards the front leg to achieve this. Look towards your fingers and hold the position.
PNF Stretching Another great way to improve flexibility (and my personal favourite) is PNF stretching. This can be achieved through a contract-relax cycle or a hold-relax cycle. For example, if you are trying to increase hamstring flexibility you can have a partner lift your leg in front of you (either on the floor or against a wall) and stop when you start to feel mild discomfort. If you opt for the hold-relax cycle, at this point you should begin to push down against your partners force. Your partner needs to exert the same amount of force upwards as you exert downwards to hold the leg in place. Push for 5-7 seconds and then relax. You will find that your partner is able to push your leg higher than it previously went. You can repeat the exercise at increasing heights. If you opt for contract-relax the premise is exactly the same BUT when your muscles contract to push your leg downwards, your partner needs to exert opposite but not equal force to allow your leg to gradually lower.
To maximise flexibility training, ensure that your joints receive the nutritional support that they will need for these exercises. Optimum Health Ultimate Joint Support is a cost-effective way to ensure you are not deficient in calcium, vitamin C or glucosamine. References: Alter MJ, Science of Flexibility, 3rd Edition, 2004. Bandy WD, Irion JM, The Effect of Time on Static Stretch on the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscles, Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, 1994, 74: 845-50.