What do you think of when I mention the word flexibility? I can tell you what I thought about when I heard the term flexibility; and it typically involved a super slender and super bendy girl that was organic and practiced yoga three times a day and used words like harness your chi, and talked about aligning chakras. This is my attempt at being funny but I’m pretty sure that this is a misconception that a lot of people attribute to flexibility. In reality though this is just one of the various activities a person can participate in to become more flexible and help with elongating and extending the muscles and the tissues surrounding the joints. In this blog I will be explaining the different types of flexibility training and give you practical realistic was to incorporate flexibility into your workout routine.
The majority of the occupations that a lot of professionals perform on a daily basis requires them to sit at a desk in front of a computer for extended periods of time. Sitting in one place in a fixed position for a long time increases stress on our hip flexors and can cause low back pain due to tight hamstrings and glute muscles. Typing and staring at a computer can cause problems with our wrists and forearms, as well as increasing tension in our neck muscles. These problems, if not corrected, can lead to more serious injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome or severe neck issues. Aside from making sure your workspace is ergonomic and situated in such a way that you are able to work comfortably without excess strain on the body as well as taking frequent breaks where you are able to stand and walk around, having a solid flexibility training program in your overall workout routine can help with increasing circulation to these muscles and help to decrease muscle imbalances while improving range of motion.
Since 9 times out of 10 the average person is already dealing with some minor tissue trauma that is causing discomfort and pain on a normal basis and decreasing quality life, cue chronic back pain, wrist pain, and neck pain, and also considering that most people either neglect waappetitierming up and cooling down after working out or they are performing stretches improperly. This is where corrective flexibility comes in, the goal of corrective flexibility or corrective stretches is to increase mobility in the joints, decrease muscle imbalances, while assisting with the correction of altered joint motion.
For example if you have low back pain and you focused on making sure you properly stretched and warmed up your hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors before exercise as well as afterwards and made sure that while performing all of your workout moves that you were using correct form and made this a habit for every time that you worked out, you would notice a decrease in low back pain and over time you would start feeling better and better. Of course this is only true if there isn’t a pre existing condition such as a herniated disk or other underlying condition that causes you to experience low back pain. Although it could help increase mobility it is very important that you refer to your physician or physical therapist to learn what corrective stretches you should be doing to address your specific concerns.
Ultimately corrective flexibility consists of 2 different types of stretches. The first stretch being foam rolling, you may have heard of foam rolling or seen the multiple videos on YouTube that show how to properly perform foam rolling or you may have attempted to try foam rolling yourself and was discouraged when you felt when you started working out those tender spots. Don’t let the initial discomfort dissuade you! The second type of corrective stretching is Static Stretches, these are stretches that you perform on muscles that are shortened and tight or during your cooldown to properly elongate and extend the muscle back to its appropriate length. Let’s dig deeper into foam rolling.
Foam Rolling & Static Stretching
Foam rolling involves the use of a foam roller to apply gentle pressure to areas of the muscle that have formed trigger points or muscle knots. To properly foam roll you would use a foam roller, but you can also use a softball, lacrosse ball depending on the area that you are looking to achieve active release and depending on how tight and dense your muscles are. So to start don’t go aggressive because that could lead to unnecessary muscle soreness which could create a less than exciting experience if you are trying to focus on decreasing pain. So the first step is to make sure you choose the right foam roller for you, even if you have to test it out in the store (I’m kidding but hey testing it out might be a good idea). Once you have the right foam roller picked out it’s time to get rolling!
With my foam rolling routine I focus on muscles that I use frequently and that have the propensity to develop pattern overload due to over use, for example if you work in retail you are standing on your feet all day so your legs(calves, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes) are usually tight and throbbing by the end of your shift due to standing and stooping to pick up items all day, foam rolling those muscles often ensures that you get adequate circulation to those areas to aid in proper recovery and also helps teach those muscles to relax, while easing those trigger points or adhesions your body has already developed due to standing day in and day out.
Focusing on those overactive and tight muscles begin rolling that muscle over the foam roller, slowly with the intent of looking for any tender spots in the muscle. When you locate a tender spot that’s when you begin to apply pressure to that area for a minimum of 30 seconds and a maximum of 2 minutes or until the discomfort begins to subside. Then you can find another tender spot and repeat the same technique. It is usually recommended to look for 2 spots per muscle. After deactivating and calming the trigger spots in those tight muscles it’s time to lengthen and elongate those muscles with some static stretching.
There’s a reason that foam rolling and static stretching go so well together. The primary job of foam rolling is to deactivate trigger spots that cause pain and discomfort and prevent the muscle from performing it’s function to the best of its capability. This usually causes the muscle to become overactive and shorten the length of the muscle which is what leads to pain and inflammation in the area. Simply put the goal of static stretching is to elongate. So those tight muscles that you just foam rolled you are now going to get your exercise mat out and you’re going to stretch them out with the main goal being to elongate those tight, short muscles.
Typically with static stretching you choose the appropriate stretch for the muscle, get into position and hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds and maximum 2 minutes, or until you feel a lengthening in the muscle. These types of stretches are great to correct overactive muscles that are tight and are contributing to muscle discomfort and preventing from appropriate range of motion and mobility during day to day activities. I find that foam rolling and static stretching are wonderful for warm-ups and cool-downs and great to include in the evenings after work when you want to relax the muscles that are overused and underactive. There is another type of stretching that can be utilized to prepare muscles for high intensity workouts and work the muscle through it’s range of motion in order to properly prepare for exercise. This type of stretching is known as Active-Isolated Stretching.
Progressing to active- Isolated stretching
Active-isolated stretching as I explained a little beforehand is a form of stretching that is used to encourage the muscles on one side of a joint to contract, while allowing the muscles on the other side of the joint to relax; this is referred to as reciprocal inhibition. It’s best to perform this type of stretching before working out, and are especially helpful if you are going to be participating in a high intensity workout.
These stretches are performed in 1-2 sets and about 5-10 reps but there are no long steady holds like you see in static stretching, quite the opposite you will hold the stretch for a minimum of 1 second and a maximum of 2 seconds. The goal with active-isolated stretching isn’t to elongate the muscle it’s to move the joint surrounding the muscle as dynamically as possible through a given range of motion; and we are looking to prepare those muscles for an exercise or an activity so that they can perform at their best.
Typically foam rolling and static stretching would seldom be combined with active-isolated stretching unless there were still muscular imbalances that needed to be addressed and then you would simply foam roll and static stretch the overactive or tight muscles before progressing to the active-isolated stretches. This ensures that your joints are able to move through the given range of motion without compensation and without leading or causing unnecessary injury.
The Importance of Stretching Pre & Post Workout
If you already have a fitness plan in place and you aren’t warming up and cooling down properly and you aren’t including foam rolling and stretching as part of this I highly recommend that you start today. Not warming up properly can lead to exercise related injury due to poor range of motion and decreased extensibility and lack of circulation; not properly cooling down can lead to muscular imbalances, altered length tension muscle relationships, as well as poor recovery which means muscle soreness and stiffness.
Keep your warm up stretching relevant to the muscles that are tight and prone to stiffness, when you foam roll focus on 2 spots per muscles to decrease the amount of time that you foam roll, when you stretch focus on stretching only the muscles that are short and tight. There is no need to stretch the muscles that are already at their appropriate length. Also make sure to include some cardio as part of your warm up to increase blood flow to the muscles that you will be working and make sure the cardio you perform is similar to the types of movements you will be performing. In other words don’t warm up the triceps and triceps when you plan on using the legs for the majority of your workout.
For your cool down focus on again foam rolling the muscles that are prone to becoming tight focusing on 2 spots per muscle, and for your static stretching make sure to stretch all muscles that were used during the workout. This ensures you get proper recovery but also that you restore the proper muscle length to all the muscles that you used during your workout session.