As an Exercise Physiologist, I believe that it isn’t enough to build muscle and become fitter. Flexibility is just as important for your health and fitness too!
It’s often forgotten that having the desired mobility in your muscles, bones and joints is the building block of any great movement pattern. Without adequate mobility, it’s very difficult to achieve stability, strength and power! Think of it as a great pizza base. A necessary starting point of any great pizza before you can worry about the sauce and toppings!
I appreciate that often when we think of flexibility, the first thing that usually pops into our mind is a gymnast performing a floor routine, or a runner warming-up for a big race. But let me assure you, that being flexible isn’t reserved just for elite athletes or experienced yoga attendees. Improved flexibility is available to everyone, and targeted stretching helps you get there (whilst also being a great low impact exercise option)!
- So why bother stretching?
Stretching is part of what can help keep our muscles flexible, strong and healthy – we need adequate movement to maintain the range of motion in our joints. Without it, our muscles can become shorter and/or tighter. When muscles are shorter, we can lose the ability to activate those muscles effectively. It can also make it tough to reach, extend or twist as far as possible, which can make day to day tasks harder. If the muscles are tight, they are also more susceptible to injury, such as strains and joint pain if they are then pushed beyond their capacity.
Let’s work through an example together.
Sitting in a chair for long periods at a time can result in tight hamstrings muscles (found in the back of the thigh). When our hamstrings are tight, they can make it harder to fully straighten your knee, which can affect your walking stride and pace. Hamstrings can also affect the position of your pelvis, and can therefore put more strain on your lower back muscles.
It’s also worth explaining that when a tight muscle is put under sudden load through strenuous exercise (such as side-stepping to reach a ball when playing tennis), there is a greater risk of straining the muscle, due to the sudden stretch under significant force.
Regularly stretching helps keep muscles long, flexible, and prepares them for future exercise and activity. Read here for our previous blog post on how we think stretching can reduce injury.
- How much stretching do you need to do?
Unfortunately, the odd one off stretching session won’t magically give you all your flexibility needs. Just like exercise, stretching needs to be done regularly and gradually progressed over time to achieve best results.
Tight muscles can occur in a range of ways. It can occur as a result of months of being immobile, periods of illness, lots of heavy training, lots of sitting, lots of running! Significant periods of time spent doing anything can actually contribute to tight muscles, therefore my advice is to incorporate stretches as a part of your exercise regime. If performed consistently, you’ll be able to minimise this effect and begin to make improvements in your mobility over time. And again, just like exercise, a little every day can go a long way.
- So, where do you start?
There are approximately 639 muscles in the human body… the good news is that you probably don’t need to stretch them all!
The most critical muscles to stretch are going to be best identified after having an assessment performed by a skilled therapist. There is no magic program that everyone should be doing! And like any exercise, we know the effects of any stretching will be better if it is specific to you and your body.
Some common areas that can get tight in your lower extremities: calves, hamstrings, hip flexors and quadriceps. Stretching your neck, shoulders and lower back can also be beneficial, especially if you’re in a role or environment that has you sitting for long periods of time. Even if you are active and mobile throughout the day, it is best to pick 3-4 specific stretches that suit your needs and do them consistently.
Another way to incorporate regular stretching is to build it into your warm up.
It’s important to note, if you have a chronic condition, such as Osteoarthritis or Parkinson’s Disease, you’ll want to ensure you pick the safest stretches. If you’re unsure about suitable stretches for you, or feel like there are barriers to starting a stretching program (such as time or motivation), an Exercise Physiologist can assess your mobility and tailor a stretching program to fit your needs!
Stay tuned for my next blog post where I will go into some more detail about how to stretch some key areas.