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Stretching and Flexibility for Sports

Learn the difference between flexibility, stretching and warming up for sports

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Updated August 08, 2013

What is Flexibility?

Flexibility refers to the ability to move joints through their entire range of motion, from a flexed to an extended position. The flexibility of a joint depends on many factors including the length and suppleness of the muscles and ligaments and the shape of the bones and cartilage that form the joint. Flexibility can be genetic, but it can also be developed by stretching.

Flexibility is an important component of fitness and exercise tends to increase the amount of flexibility in a joint. Flexibility is also specific to the type of movement needed for a sport so it is more important for some sports than others. Cyclists, for example, require less hip flexibility than hurdles, and swimmers need more shoulder flexibility than runners.

Can You Increase Flexibility?

Improving flexibility is done mainly by performing stretching exercises. The most common forms of stretching exercises are static, sustained stretching exercises that are slow and controlled. Static stretches are thought to be safe for most people. They involve a slow, gentle stretch of the muscle that is held in a lengthened position for 10 to 60 seconds and repeated about three times.

Another type of stretching exercise is called dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves gradual increases in your range of motion and speed of movement with a controlled swing (not bounce) that reach the limits of your range of motion in a controlled manner. You never force this type of stretch. Examples of dynamic stretching are slow, controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists.

Dynamic stretching exercises improve flexibility required in most sports and are often performed after a warm up before aerobic exercise training. Dynamic stretching exercises includes 10 to 12 repetitions of the movement.

Ballistic stretching uses momentum in an attempt to force a joint beyond its normal range of motion. Bouncing-type stretches are ballistic and very different from dynamic stretching because they are trying to force a greater range of motion. This type of stretch is not recommended because there is an increased risk of injury (from overstretching the muscles, tendons or ligaments) with ballistic stretching.

How to Increase Flexibility

Before stretching, it's important to warm up the muscles and joints. Stretching cold, tight muscles can lead to injury, so perform some gentle joint rotation exercises and an easy aerobic exercise first. Joint rotations are done by working head to toe using small, slow circles (clockwise and counterclockwise) at every joint until they all move smoothly and easily. You can also do some marching or even jumping jacks to raise your core temperature and increase your circulation before you stretch.

For a stretch exercise to improve flexibility, it needs target the specific joint and provide enough stretch to the muscles and ligaments over time to allow an adaptation to a new, increased, range of motion. Basically, what this means is that when you stretch, you need to feel the tightness and slight burning sensation that comes from going slightly beyond your normal range of motion. By doing so, you will develop a new range of motion over time. It is important to avoid over-stretching the muscles and causing an injury or muscle strain. The recommendation is to stretch to the point of mild discomfort but not to the point of pain.

To develop long-term improvements in flexibility, stretch every other day for at least six weeks. Keep in mind that when you stop using or stretching this new flexibility, you are likely to lose the gains you made.

Benefits of Flexibility

As an athlete, keep in mind that overall flexibility is less important than having the right flexibility for your sport. Research shows that the relationship between flexibility and injury risk is misunderstood. Having more flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean fewer injuries and an athlete with poor flexibility isn’t more likely to get injured. The key is to have the right flexibility for your sport, so you can easily move through the range of motion without straining muscles. [See: Is Flexibility Overrated]

In fact, research also supports the idea that performing a proper warm up before exercise is far more likely to help reduce injuries. Warm up by lightly exercising the major muscle groups to be used in your sport. You can also warm up with marching, arm circles, jumping jacks, or starting your sport at a very slow pace. If you lift weights, it’s important to stretch and the best time is right after a workout. Static stretching a fatigued muscles can increase flexibility and improve muscle building. Static stretching helps loosen muscles, removes lactic acid and prevent the muscle tissues from healing at a shorter length after a heavy workout.

Can You Be Too Flexible?

It is possible for the muscles and ligaments around a joint to become too flexible. Extreme flexibility may be due to loose ligaments and muscles which may offer less joint support and may even increase the risk of injuries such as joint dislocations. Excessive flexibility can be just as bad as not enough.

Source

Stephen J. Nicholas, MD, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

Fradkin AJ, Gabbe BJ, Cameron PA., Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials?, Journal Science Med Sport. 2006 Jun;9(3):214-20.

Thacker SB, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CD Jr., The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2004 Mar;36(3):371-8.

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