Flexibility is a term thrown around quite a lot these days, but what is it and why is it important for sustained physical health? This blog will delve further into this topic and hopefully give you the answer you’re looking for.
What is flexibility?
When talking about flexibility, we are referring to the ability of muscles, joints, and soft tissues to move through an unrestricted range of motion. It involves the capacity of these structures to stretch, lengthen, and contract without limitations, allowing for smooth and efficient movement. Having an adequate amount of flexibility can not only enhance athletic performance, but is paramount in the maintenance of musculoskeletal health and optimizing functional abilities.
Flexibility varies widely from person to person with factors such as genetics, age, activity levels and previous injuries determining one’s capacity for flexibility. In saying this, flexibility is not fixed and one’s capacity to become more flexible can be developed over time.
So, why is flexibility so important?
For starters, joints require movement through a full range of motion to maintain the health of the cartilage and other intra-articular structures. Muscles that are inflexible tend to fatigue quicker leading to other muscle groups overworking as a means of compensation. This higher rate of muscular fatigue and lower propensity to take on loads can lead to muscular injuries and the inability of the muscles to protect joints from more severe injuries. Moreover, a diminished level of flexibility may also lead to abnormal stress on structures distant from the site of inflexibility, this leading to further dysfunction.
It should be noted that flexibility is a cornerstone of mobility. Often, the terms are used interchangeably, however this is not correct. Flexibility is a passive component of mobility, with mobility being a determining factor of biomechanical function. Good flexibility alone does not decrease risk of injury, however, good flexibility allows for improved mobility and Improved mobility increases an individual’s function and as such, decreases the likelihood of injury.
How can I improve my flexibility?
Regarding improvement of flexibility a combination of exercises can be helpful. Contrary to popular belief static stretching does not actually increase the length of your muscles to make you more flexible. Rather, static (or passive) stretching acts as an inhibitory override if you will and “re-educates” the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing pain signals, this allows us to move further. Dynamic stretching on the other hand involves actively contracting your muscles throughout a movement. Dynamic stretching looks to allow the body to adapt to moving through a specific, functional movement that will be engaged in at a later point at a higher intensity.
Contrary to popular belief resistance training does not reduce flexibility, rather the exact opposite. A 2011 study found that when an exercise is performed properly, through a full range of motion, it can actually yield the same results as static stretching. Furthermore, eccentric loading has been associated with an increase in serial sarcomere number as well as an increase in fascicle length. This further contributing to improved flexibility and in turn, mobility and function.