Being holistically physically fit means much more than just being able to run a mile or ride your bike for 30 minutes. Complete physical fitness means more than going to the gym and lifting weights three times a week. In fact, physical fitness actually encompasses five essential components:
- Cardiovascular endurance
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Body composition
Of these five, flexibility, which is the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion, is arguably the most neglected component of fitness among the general population. It is a highly adaptable fitness component and one can reap the benefits of flexibility training at any age. Flexible joints are vital for the maintenance of pain-free and independent movement.
There are three components that affect flexibility: muscle elasticity and length, joint structure and nervous system. While heredity controls a person’s joint structure, muscle elasticity and length and the nervous system can be positively impacted by regular flexibility training.
Flexibility is important for completing everyday activities with ease. Getting up out of bed, lifting groceries and vacuuming the floor require a certain level of flexibility, which, if not attended to regularly, will deterioriate with age. Engaging in regular flexibility training can assist with increased joint mobility, better posture, decreased back pain and a lower risk of injury.
Not only is flexibility neglected among the general population, it is often misunderstood within the sports performance, athletic and fitness communities as well. As a result, flexibility training is often entirely absent from athletic and sports performance practices. It is unfortunate that this neglected fitness component does not receive more attention in relation to human performance, as it could significantly improve outcomes.
Increased flexibility can improve aerobic fitness training, muscular strength and endurance, and sport-specific training. Increased range of motion (ROM) is a key component in preventing injuries through unimpeded, fluid movement. Flexibililty training can decrease soreness and stiffness, particularly among athletes who train at much higher frequencies and intensities. It is also a form of relaxation, which can positively impact not only physical fitness, but also mental fitness. This, in turn, can positively affect human performance through increased mental toughness.
To achieve peak performance, we must utilize the full length of the muscle to exhibit power and strength. If muscles are too tight, they may not be able to provide the explosiveness necessary for a particular movement. Tight hip flexors, for example, will not allow you to extend to a full stride while sprinting, thus inhibiting performance. Flexibility enhances movement and mobility for the athlete.
Here are several key benefits of flexibility:
- Improved performance of daily activities
- Improved performance in exercise and sport
- Enhanced joint health
- Prevention of low-back pain and injuries
- Relief of aches and pains (particularly in the muscles exercised)
- Relief of muscle cramps
- Relaxation and stress relief (mental and physical)
- Decreased risk of injury due to more pliable muscles
- Improved posture and balance (minimizes stress on spine)
Static and dynamic flexibility training is important and necessary to become “flexibly fit” and to enhance performance. Dynamic flexibility is important for daily activities and for playing sports as these require movement through full ranges of motion (e.g., a golf swing). Static flexibility, on the other hand, is preferred for increasing overall flexibility through muscle elasticitiy and joint mobility.
Flexibility training should be performed after the muscles of the body have been properly warmed up to allow effective stretching to take place. Ideally, flexibility fitness should be included five to seven days a week for all major joints. Here are some guidelines for general flexibility fitness:
Three days per week (5 to 7 days is ideal)
Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain
Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds and perform them two to three times for the same area
Static stretching exercises that focus on the major joints (stretch slowly and do not bounce). For sports-specific performance, incorporate dymanic flexibility as well.
If basic static stretching is too boring, try some other popular methods, such as yoga, Pilates, or tai chi. These methods all incorporate proper breathing techniques, visualization and meditation, which can contribute to improved mental and physical performance.