Most people aren’t sure why EXACTLY they should stretch – they are told it’s good, so they go along with it. But before you spend hours in a painful hamstring stretch or injure yourself contorting your body in strange positions – it is important to know WHY you are doing it.
So before we proceed any further, let’s establish your motivation behind increasing your flexibility, the WHY:
- You want to prevent exercise-related injuries.
- You want to improve performance.
- You want to improve muscle growth.
- You want to increase the range of motion of your joints.
- You want to reduce pain realting to muscle stiffness or Delayed Onset Muscle Stiffness (DOMS).
- You want to stay fit and mobile for your kids; able to run after them and play with them for as long as possible.
- You want to complete your daily activities without pain, and exercise well into old age.
- You want to improve posture.
- You want to be able to do the splits/backbends.
…the list goes on and on, but I am going to focus on a few in specific.
Before I do:
Okay so now to the nitty-gritty…
The Benefits of Being FLEXIBLE
Most people that go to the gym have one thing in common: they want to lose fat and gain muscle. Surprisingly, many are unaware of the benefits flexibility will give their muscle growth. Weight-lifters actually avoid stretching because they think it will decrease the size of their muscles by elongating them. FALSE! The connective tissue, called fascia, that surrounds your muscles do not grow as your muscles do. Therefore, if that connective tissue does not have proper elasticity – your muscles will only grow until they get restricted by the fascia covering them. This means that if you DO have proper elasticity in your fascia, your muscles will have a much greater growth potential. And for those wanting to lose weight…more muscle = a higher metabolic rate = more efficient weight loss.
Again, most people know stretching prevents injuries, but they don’t know WHY. Well, firstly we need to define what “stretching” is. Simply put, STRETCHING is when the fibres of your connective tissue glide over proteins called glycosaminoglycans (GAGS). These proteins need to be well hydrated in order to function properly. Therefore, if they aren’t adequately hydrated – layers of connective tissue cannot slide over them and become brittle (like a dry sponge). These tissues cannot stretch efficiently and then make you prone to INJURIES. This is where you’re like: well just drink plenty of water…problem solved. Yes, this is true – BUT the water you drink will only reach the desired tissues if they have a clear path to get there. You need to stretch to unkink the hoses so that the water can reach those proteins before being urinated out. Furthermore, it is important to be aware that your fascial system is connected throughout your entire body. So, if you injure your neck, for example, that injury has the potential to travel down into your shoulder and down your back. This is why it is so important to keep your fascia healthy.
The connective tissue, fascia, is very elastic in nature. By embracing this property, you have the ability to greatly improve athletic performance. The lengthening of muscles required for running/jumping/ throwing comes from the stretching of the fascia! Athletes who train their fascia to be more elastic will use less muscle power – and will be able to preform activities for LONGER and experience LESS FATIGUE. Alternatively, bouncy movements where you land on the ball of your foot, has been seen to promote elasticity into the tendons and entire fascial system.
Just like the lens of our eye becomes rigid with age – our connective tissue will also eventually lose it’s elasticity. However, this process can be greatly delayed! I have been to many a yoga class, where ladies of 70 and above displayed greater flexibility than I could (in my 20s!!). It isn’t an uncommon sight at all! And they left me in admiration…I want to be like THAT when I’m 70 years old! Unfortunately, however, if we do not stretch our fascia regularly – the layers of connective tissue will start sticking together – gradually reducing our range of motion with every passing year. The outcome is a 70-year-old lady that walks at around half a kilometre per hour, bent over so much – she resembles a hangman post.
How to INCREASE Flexibility
After the aforementioned long-winded explanation of what flexibility can add to your quality of life – the following explains HOW flexibilty can be achieved:
- Promote elasticity of fascia by embracing bouncy movements: running, box jumps, skipping, kettlebell exercises.
- Bouncy movements favour your fascial system, so avoid jerky movements and sudden changes in direction.
- Add variety. Avoid repetition.
Avoid isolating muscles by working them in one plane only (i.e. exercise machines at gym). This will work your muscles, but it is of no use to your surrounding connective tissues. They will not stretch, and become prone to injury when faced with a change in motion. Rather challenge your fascial system with whole-body exercises that require constant adaptation and stability. For example: free weights instead of machines; dancing; balancing exercises; yoga or Tai Chi. Trail running is also an excellent way to exercise your fascia because of the varying terrain. Additionally, try and walk barefoot more to engage connective tissues, and favour uneven surfaces over smooth ones.
- Try and stretch out your whole body every morning (think sun salutation…downward-facing dog/upward-facing dog etc).
- Don’t overexert yourself and stretch to the point of pain – you could injure yourself in the process. This happens because the connective tissue cannot respond fast enough. Stretch to challenge yourself, but go SLOW because the connective tissue doesn’t stretch as fast as muscles do. Hold a stretch for at least 2-3 minutes and release.
- Don’t always train at maximum capacity. While it will strengthen some ligaments; it will also lead to others becoming weakened. Instead, vary the load and frequency of training. This will build different parts of the connective tissue.
- Rest! Incorporate adequate rest into your training programme. Working out too much dehydrates muscles, leading to brittle GAG proteins and reduced flexibility. Try having a 20 minute Epsom salts bath every so often to sooth fascia and tired muscles.
- Last but not least. Drink enough water!! Dehydrated GAG proteins are reluctant to stretch, causing fascia connective tissue to glue to each other and cause injuries.
So there you have it! Plus you’ve learnt a new word today (fascia whoopieee!!)…