Flexibility – the ability to move a joint through a full, pain-free range of motion – is an important component of health-related fitness. The American College of Sport Medicine recommends that adults perform flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week.1 However, this recommendation is often overlooked, even by regular exercisers. So why does it matter? Some of the many benefits of flexibility training include:
- improved muscle balance,
- decreased muscle tension and stiffness,
- reduced joint stress,
- reduced incidence of low back pain,
- physical and mental relaxation, and
- increased sports performance for activities requiring increased range of motion.2
Additionally, flexibility training improves your ability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) such as reaching, bending, and stooping. Any safe stretching regimen that you’re able to stick to will be beneficial. Here are three types of exercises to increase flexibility and range of motion.
Static stretching is arguably the most popular type of flexibility exercise. It involves moving a muscle into a lengthened position and holding the stretch for an extended period of time, typically 10 to 60 seconds. An effective static stretch may cause mild discomfort, but it should not be painful. Static stretching can be performed passively with the help of a partner (e.g. a personal trainer assisting with a supine hamstring stretch) or actively by the exerciser (e.g. supine hamstring stretch with subject drawing leg towards the chest). It is best to perform static stretches when the body is warm, such as during the cool-down period after a workout, or after taking a warm bath. On the other hand, static stretching performed during the warm-up and prior to exercise has been shown to be counterproductive, in some cases decreasing strength and sport performance.3
Dynamic stretching is a method of flexibility training that uses slow, controlled and rhythmic movements to actively increase joint range of motion. This type of stretching can be performed during the pre-activity warm-up and is often used to “rehearse” sport-specific movement patterns prior to competition. Dynamic stretching during the warm-up has been shown to improve power, as well as jumping and running performance in athletes. A runner performing standing leg swings to increase hip mobility and elasticity of the hamstring muscle group prior to a run is an example of sport-specific dynamic stretching.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a method of flexibility training during which an individual uses their own body weight to apply pressure to a targeted muscle using a foam roller. SMR improves circulation which is important for both the workout and the recovery period. Thus, SMR techniques can be performed during a pre-activity warm-up and during post-activity recovery. It is thought that the pressure placed on the targeted muscle during SMR may help to break up adhesions in muscle fascia, increase stretch tolerance (by dulling the stretch sensation), and stimulate Golgi tendon organs, sensory receptors that respond to changes in muscle tension through autogenic inhibition, ultimately allowing the muscle to relax. The interaction of these three mechanisms is thought to be responsible for the increased joint range of motion observed with SMR.
Guidelines for flexibility training
To design an effective flexibility program, remember the F.I.T.T. principle.1
- Frequency: Stretches should be performed at least 2-3 days/week, with daily being most effective.
- Intensity: Stretch to the point of feeling tightness or slight discomfort, but not pain.
- Time: Static stretches should be held for 10-30 seconds for most adults. In older individuals, holding a stretch for 30-60 seconds may provide greater benefit.
- Type: A series of flexibility exercises for each of the muscle-tendon units is recommended.
Keep having fun with your workouts, and don’t forget to stretch! As the saying goes, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shan’t be bent out of shape.”
Riebe, D. (Sr.Ed) (2018). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 10th edition. Philadelpia, PA: Wolters Kluwer.
National Exercise Trainers Assciation (2018). The Fitness Professional’s Manual, 5th edition. Minneapolis, MN: National Exercise Trainers Association.
Page, P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109–119.
Jennifer Turpin Stanfield, M.A. (Exercise Science), is the Assistant Director for Fitness and Wellness at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, a fitness writer, and a national presenter for NETA. She has more than 15 years of experience in the health and fitness industry and is passionate about helping others live healthier lives through the adoption and maintenance of positive health behaviors.