Andrea Metcalf by Andrea Metcalf

We know how good it feels to stretch, but why is flexibility training so important?

There are three components of fitness: cardiovascular training, strength training and flexibility training. Each one benefits the body differently. Quite simply:

-Cardiovascular training benefits the heart.
-Strength training benefits the muscles.
-Flexibility training benefits the joints.

While many people understand the importance of both cardiovascular and strength training, few understand the importance of incorporating a regular component of flexibility.

If you feel stiff in the morning or can’t touch your toes, you might say, “I need to stretch” or “I’m just not that flexible.” But flexibility training is NOT just stretching. Flexibility training focuses on “ease of movement.” Movement is based from the joints of the body. Flexibility training improves range of motion of the body and allows the body to extend, flex and bend without restriction.

Flexibility training can be broken down into two components:

-Lengthening tissue including the muscles and connective tissues such as ligaments, tendons and fascia network
-Strengthening the weaker muscles

The part most people fail to understand is that being flexible is closely connected to muscle balance and strength.

So why do you need flexibility training?

Flexibility training is essential for maintaining optimal movement. The more “ease of movement” you have, the more improved your balance and coordination will be. If you walk with stiff knees and you slipp on the ice, you could injure your knee badly. If you sprint too quickly and your ligaments are not surrounded by strong muscles on all sides, the ligaments could tear. Being flexible helps prevent injuries. Tight muscles limit joint movement and the body’s ability to move in its normal pattern.

Another benefit of flexibility training is that it feels good. Tight muscles and stiff joints can translate into pain. Plus, many forms of flexibility training, such as Pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais and tai chi, help focus the mind on the body, which results in other health and hormonal benefits. These disciplines focus on alignment and flexibility, but they also incorporate breath, as well.

Conscious breathing during activity changes the way the brain tells the muscles to remember movement patterns. It helps the resting muscles, which many refer to as “muscle tone,” keep the body in proper alignment. Bones are pulled and held into position by the muscles. When you think of a skeleton hanging on the wall, you can clearly see the strings that hold this structure together. Each bone is connected to one another by muscles and ligaments. Flexibility training helps maintain the correct position of each joint so that body moves freely.

If you have never had a full flexibility assessment, here are a few easy movement patterns to check your flexibility.

The Move: Bend forward from the waist and touching the ground

Needs Improvement: Can’t touch the floor with your fingers without bending your knees
Normal: Can touch the floor with your fingers without bending your knees
Injury Potential: Have to bend your knees to bend forward, but many inches from touching the floor

The Move: Turn your head to the side

Needs Improvement: Can’t turn head 90 degrees to both sides, where chin is over shoulder
Normal: Can turn head 90 degrees to both sides, where chin is over shoulder
Injury Potential: Can turn head farther to one side than the other, or neither side turns 90 degrees

The Move: Side bend with fingers sliding down the outer thigh to touch the knee

Needs Improvement: Can’t bend sideways and touch fingers to or past the knees on both sides
Normal: Can bend sideways and touch fingers to or past the knees on both sides
Injury Potential: Can bend sideways, but one side moves farther down than the other or cannot touch one side

These three simple flexibility tests can help alert you to possible neck pain, back pain or even hip pain that may lead to an injury. To understand how to improve your flexibility and incorporate 10 to 15 minutes of training into your lifestyle check out “Free Moves: The Art of Flexibility Training.”

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