An Overview of Stretching and Flexibility

Walker, Brad. Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility. 3rd ed. 2011. Print.

What is flexibility?

Flexibility is commonly described as the range of motion, or movement, (ROM) around a particular joint or set of joints. In layman’s terms; how far we can reach, bend and turn. When improving flexibility is the goal, the muscles and their fascia (sheath) should be the major focus of flexibility training. While bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and skin do contribute to overall flexibility, we have limited control over these factors.

What is stretching?

Stretching, as it relates to physical health and fitness, is the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen the muscles and their associated soft tissues. Upon undertaking a regular stretching program a number of changes begin to occur within the body and specifically within the muscles themselves. Other tissues that begin to adapt to the stretching process include the fascia, tendons, skin and scar tissue.

Fitness and flexibility

An individuals’ physical fitness depends upon a number of components, and flexibility is only one of these. Although flexibility is a vital part of physical fitness it is important to see it as only one spoke in the fitness wheel . Other components include strength, power, speed, endurance, balance, agility, skill and co-ordination. Although different sports require different levels of each fitness component it is essential to plan a regular exercise or training program that covers all the components of physical fitness. Rugby and Gridiron for example, rely heavily on strength and power; however the exclusion of skill drills and flexibility training could lead to injury and poor performance. Strength and flexibility are of prime importance to a gymnast, but a balanced training program would also improve power, speed and endurance.

The same is true for each individual, while some people may be naturally strong or flexible it would be foolish for such a person to completely ignore the other components of physical fitness. And just because an individual exhibits good flexibility at one joint or muscle group does not mean that the entire individual will be flexible. Therefore, flexibility can be assessed according to a specific muscle group, a specific joint or the specific requirements of a particular sport.

The dangers of poor flexibility

Tight, stiff muscles limit normal range of motion. In some cases, a lack of flexibility can be a major contributing factor to muscle and joint pain. In the extreme, a lack of flexibility can mean it is difficult, for example, to bend down or look over the shoulder. Tight, stiff muscles interfere with proper muscle action. If the muscles cannot contract and relax efficiently, decreased performance and a lack of muscle movement control will result. Short, tight muscles can also cause a loss of strength and power during physical activity. In a very small percentage of cases tight, stiff muscles can even restrict blood circulation. Good blood circulation is vitally important to ensure the muscles receive adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrients. Poor circulation can result in increased muscle fatigue and ultimately, the ability to recover from strenuous exercise and the muscles repair process is impeded. Any one of these factors can greatly increase the chance of becoming injured. Together they present a package that includes muscular discomfort; loss of performance; an increased risk of soft tissue injury; and a greater likelihood of repeated injury.


How is flexibility restricted?

The muscular system needs to be flexible to achieve peak performance and stretching is the most effective way of developing and retaining flexible muscles and joints. However, a number of other factors also contribute to a decrease in flexibility. Flexibility, or range of motion, can be restricted by both internal and external factors. Internal factors such as bones, ligaments, muscle bulk, muscle length, tendons and skin all restrict the amount of movement at any particular joint. As an example, the human leg cannot extend forward beyond a straight position because of the structure of the bones and ligaments that make up the knee joint.

External factors such as age, gender, temperature, restrictive clothing and of course any injury or disability will also have an effect on ones flexibility.


Flexibility and the aging process

It is no secret that with each passing year muscles and joints become more stiff and tight. This is part of the ageing process and is caused by a combination of physical degeneration and inactivity. Although we cannot halt the aging process completely, this should not mean giving up on trying to improve flexibility and fitness. Age should not be an excuse that prevents one from living a fit and active lifestyle, but certain precautions should be taken as we get older.