When I mention the term flexibility, most people get one mental image in their minds like a person in tights and a leotard putting their body through a wide variety of contortions, splits, and stretches. But, in reality, there are a number of styles and types of flexibility, and for the most part, flexibility is an undervalued and ignored aspect of fitness.
In the past, I was as guilty of skimping on my flexibility as anyone. If I was working out and I was pressed for time, I would never skip my weight training, my cardio, or my “abs”, but I would neglect my flexibility. As an athlete, coaches would tell me all the time that I needed to improve my flexibility and I generally ignored it. It wasn’t until I started to get chronic and overuse injuries, partially contributed by poor flexibility that I got serious about “stretching.” As we age, the elasticity in our bodies that we had in our youth starts to diminish. It is important for all aspects of the population to work on their flexibility, not just athletes.
As stated above, there are many forms and disciplines of flexibility. Here are a few:
Static Flexibility: Your traditional form of flexibility where you elongate a muscle by holding a stretch for a period of time. Generally, this form is best utilized post-workout.
Self-Myofascial Release: Also known as foam rolling, where a tight/overactive muscle group is stretched and inhibited by slowly rolling and using your body weight to press on that muscle group. This is great part of the warm-up portion of a workout as a way of inhibiting the overactive muscle and as an important part of recovery at the end of the workout.
Active Flexibility: This form of flexibility should be done pre-workout, as a part of the warm-up, generally after the muscle has been foam rolled. Muscle groups should be gently moved through the range of motion that will be involved during the workout. This should also be done when the muscle has been slightly warmed up, through rolling and light movements. An example of active flexibility would be knee hugs, toe reaches, walking heel-to-butt, etc. The key to this is going slowly and gradually increasing the intensity and range of the movements.
Dynamic Flexibility: Also known as Ballistic Flexibility. This should be done only when the body is fully warm and is not appropriate for all members of the populations, especially when someone has biomechanical or postural imbalances. Examples of dynamic flexibility include: butt kickers, lateral jumps, hops, bounding, and multi-planar lunges. This form of flexibility is more explosive in nature, and is not for everyone.
PNF Flexibility: Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (now say that 3x’s fast!) PNF stretching is employed by physical therapists and massage therapist and is generally done with a partner manually increasing the range of motion of the individual’s specific muscle group. The therapist/partner will stretch the individual to a full range of motion and then hold it in the position for a number of seconds. Then, the individual will contract the muscle against the pressure the therapist is placing on them (generally for 5-10 seconds). The individual will then stop the contraction and the therapist will increase the range of motion of the stretch. This sequence will be repeated 4-5 times, allowing the individual to lengthen and increase range of motion of the specific muscle group. PNF stretching can be done on your own but is generally more effective if done with a partner.
As with any form of fitness, your form of flexibility should be determined on an individual basis. Everyone is different and your form of flexibility should be tailor-made to meet your individual goals and objectives.