Flexibility development is perhaps for many sports men and women a neglected component of fitness. This may be because of the seeming lack of applicability of flexibility to performance in team sports. Whereas a Gymnast and dancer can see the immediate benefits of excellent flexibility as it is a key component in their relative activities, the game player’s need for good flexibility is less obvious. Is there a need to develop the same degree of flexibility in a games player as that demonstrated by the Gymnast. The answer is simply ‘No’. However, there is a need to ensure that the player:
a) is not limited in his performance by a flexibility limitation and
b) ensures he or she has a well-balanced degree of flexibility to ensure there is no flexibility issue in predisposing him to injury.

What is Flexibility?

Flexibility has been variously defined as freedom to move, mobilisation or more technically, the range of motion (ROM) achievable in a joint or group of joints.  Range of motion may be measured either in linear units (e.g. inches or centimetres) or angular units (degrees).  All the experts agree that flexibility is specific for each joint.  So that good range of motion about the hip does not ensure good range of motion about the shoulder.  Similarly ROM in one hip may not be highly related to ROM about the other hip and so on.

Types of Flexibility

There are two basic types of flexibility, static and dynamic. Static flexibility relates to ROM about a joint with no emphasis on movement speed.  For example static flexibility is utilised when the gymnast performs a split.  For the Rugby player the front row will require good shoulder but not excessive flexibility to maintain constant and static pressure on the opposition in a scrum. Thus there is a certain requirement for static flexibility in sport. Dynamic flexibility on the other hand corresponds to the ability to use a range of movement in performance of a physical activity at either normal or rapid speed. This is the type of flexibility that predominates in most sports. Here, too, flexibility is specific. The gaelic footballer for example, needs to be flexible enough about the hips and groin to bend, reach and pick the ball from the ground. The hurler on the other hand needs to have good internal and external rotation of the shoulders to ensure that he can manage to successfully complete the swing or strike. Likewise a golfer who is limited in shoulder rotation will not possess the ideal ROM in the back or down swing.  Thus dynamic and static flexibility are required in most sports and different sports make different flexibility demands. 

Stretching versus Flexibility Development

A distinction should be made between flexibility training and stretching carried out during warm-ups. Flexibility training aims to make a long term improvement in flexibility or ROM about a joint. Stretching on the other hand is intended to ‘loosen’ out the muscles and connective tissue that will be taxed during the subsequent training session.

The Importance of Flexibility Training

As we have already noted the foundation upon which all physical fitness development is based is on a sound functional competence. Sound functional competence implies having a normal ROM about the joint during common functional movements that are applicable to sport. In addition there has to be a good degree of stability balancing this normal ROM about the joint.   Limitations in flexibility about a joint will impact on the efficiency of movement of the athlete or player. On the other hand optimum flexibility helps to eliminate movement that is awk­ward and/or inefficient. This has the effect of improving sporting performance. Because of this important benefit, fitness coaches should impress upon all athletes and players that flexibility training is important. Even if the athlete has no evident limitations in their functional competence it is still important to continue to maintain a normal ROM throughout the training process. Sometimes an athlete can develop a ROM limitation if he or she fails to attend to regular ROM resetting in particular after competition or intensive capacity training. Restoring a normal ROM after intense training or playing or competing is an important strategy in ensuring continued normal ROM.

Factors Affecting Flexibility

Flexibility is influenced by a num­ber of factors, which include the following:

Ø  Gender plays a role. Typically, women are more flexible than men.

Ø  Age plays a role. As a child grows he/she becomes less flexible reaching a low point between 10-12 years. After this age flexibility improves but never to the level found during early childhood other than for those who intentionally develop this component of fitness.

Ø  Flexibility increases with heat and decreases with cold temperatures.

Ø  Active individuals are usually more flexible than inactive individuals. A decrease in activity will result in an increase in body fat and a decrease in the pliability of connective tissue.

Flexibility Is Joint-specific

As stated already flexibility is normally highly specif­ic to the joint being evaluated.  It is possible to have a high level of flexibility in one joint and limited ROM in another.  Because of this, performing a single flexibility test as a measure of overall flexibility is invalid. Also when the Fitness and Conditioning coach is arranging a suitable programme of flexibility development or a flexibility resetting routine it is important that the major joints stressed during the activity are targeted in these routines.

Connective Tissue Target Area

When completing flexibility development exercise or stretching prior to activity, connective tis­sue (muscles, ligaments, and ten­dons) is the most important target of ROM exercise.  Evidence indicates that when a relaxed muscle is stretched, perhaps all of the resis­tance to stretch is derived from the extensive connective tissue frame­work and connective sheathing within and around the muscle.  Under nor­mal circumstances, connective tis­sue is the major structure limiting joint ROM.  The connective tissue structures include the ligamentous joint capsules, tendons, and mus­cles.

Elastic and Plastic

There are 2 forms of a stretch that occur about a joint: elastic and plastic.  An elastic stretch is a spring like action in which any lengthening of the con­nective tissue that occurs during stretching is recovered when the load is removed. As a result, elastic stretch is a temporary condi­tion.  In contrast, the elongation that occurs in a plastic stretch re­mains, even after the load is re­moved. This latter outcome is the intention of flexibility development training.

Muscle only has elastic prop­erties.  However, ligaments and tendons have both plastic and elastic properties.  When the connec­tive tissue about a joint is stretched, some of the elongation occurs in the elastic tissue elements (muscle fibres) and some occurs in the plastic elements (tendons mainly but also ligaments).  When the stretch is removed, the elastic de­formation recovers, but the plastic deformation remains. Obviously, flexibility development tech­niques should primarily be de­signed to produce a plastic defor­mation because a permanent increase in ROM is the goal.

When using flexibility development exercises, the proportion of elastic and plastic deformation can vary depending on how and under what conditions the flexibility training occurs.  Emphasising stretching to the point of mild discomfort, holding the stretched position for a period of time, and stretching only when the core temperature has been elevated will assist in emphasising plastic stretch.

Possible Benefits of being more flexible

The most important benefit of a specific flexibility programme is to ensure that the athlete can cope with the demands of his sport. In addition, if there is a predisposition to injury and the limb that is affected is limited in ROM then it is critical that the player rehabilitates the proper flexibility function to minimise the risk of injury. Most players will display a need for this type of prehabilitation flexibility.

One possible benefit of a flexibility programme is the promotion of relaxation.  Being tight or having overly active muscles can predispose to fatigue, aches and even pain. Work from Magnusson (1998) and his team of researchers in Denmark demonstrated that static stretching for 45 seconds had a relaxing effect on muscle with the effect lasting up to one hour.

Warm-up stretching – Does it prevent injuries?

Most coaches believe that static stretching during a warm-up is critical for injury prevention. However, there is very limited sport science evidence showing that static stretching actually prevents injuries. Herbert and Gabriel (2002) recently reviewed the scientific evidence on the effects of stretching before and after exercise. Their conclusions were as follows:

‘’Stretching before or after exercising does not confer protection from muscle soreness. Stretching before exercising does not seem to confer a practically useful reduction in the risk of injury…’’

Thus as previously stated there is little scientific evidence to support pre-exercise stretching as a method of reducing the risk of injury. However, there is good anecdotal evidence to recommend active or dynamic stretching as part of a progressive warm-up for the game, competition or training session. The two should not be confused. Stretching in a dynamic manner incorporated into a progressive warm-up is intended to do just that – to warm-up for the activity or sport or training unit. In this regard it should progress to a sport specific movement pattern and thus this does not include the classical static stretching routine so common in days gone by.

Does stretching aid subsequent performance?

A simple answer is that it depends on the type of stretching carried out. The wealth of the scientific evidence points to static stretching negatively affecting power, strength and speed performance while dynamic stretching will better prepare the athlete or player for activity (Bradley et al 2007, Fletcher and Jones 2004, Little and Williams 2006, Fradkin et al 2006, Kokkonen et al 1998, Young and Behm 2003, Nelson et al 2005).

Nelson and colleagues showed that local muscular endurance was compromised following a bout of static stretching. Kokkonen et al (1998) showed a significant reduction in maximal strength following a bout of static stretching. Also Young and Behm (2003) showed that static stretching had a negative effect on explosive force and jump performance. McMillian et al (2003) compared dynamic and static stretching routines and found that the dynamic routine was more effective than the static routine for warming up men and women prior to power and agility tasks. In this particular study the subjects had a 2 minute break between the stretching routines and the subsequent power and agility tasks. It is very likely that there is a time effect which operates when static stretching is completed. Bradley et al (2007) showed that this indeed was the case. The negative effects of static stretching seem to be short lasting and most recent evidence suggests that if the athlete or player completes static stretching 15 minutes prior to performance that the negative effects may have worn off by the time the unit or session begins (Bradley et al 2007).

Interestingly Little and Williams (2006) compared dynamic, static and no stretching prior to high speed motor tasks in professional soccer players. They found that while the dynamic stretching routine in the warm-up was most effective in preparing players for the subsequent motor tasks, static stretching was not detrimental to subsequent high-speed performances. Fletcher and Jones (2004) had trained rugby players complete 20m sprints following one of 4 different stretching techniques. Their results showed that when static stretching was completed then there was a reduction in sprint performance whereas dynamic strethching assisted the players.

And what about using static stretching for warming-up children. Faigenbaum et al (2005) had 11 year old children complete one of three different stretching protocols during a 10 minute warm-up before completing a vertical jump, long jump, shuttle run and flexibility test. The dynamic warm-ups were more effective in preparing the children for the subsequent tasks.

The bottom line for us as Fitness coaches is that warming up for optimum performance should include dynamic stretching as opposed to static stretching.

Limit static stretch to after training or playing.

In contrast to what we noted on pre-exercise static stretching, static stretching carried out immediately after a hard training session or a game can help reduce the risk of injury in a later session. While there is good evidence to show that stretching following a vigorous bout of exercise will not relieve muscle soreness or the Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS) there is good support both scientifically and anecdotally to recommend static stretching after training or playing. The scientific evidence for this has been around for over 20 years (Ekstrand 1982)! Yet few coaches have embraced this into their practices. For the Fitness coach here are some key points in relation to post-training or playing stretching:

  • Hold the stretch for between 15 and 30 seconds
  • Repeat this 3 times for the muscle group
  • Stretch the main muscles that have been taxed in the training unit or competition
  • A series of 4-5 exercises can be done in the comfort of a warm indoor room or changing room.
  • Limit the stretching out on the pitch on a cold, damp evening. This will not help the player to apply his attention to the stretches properly.

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1 comment:

  1. As a collegiate strength and conditioning coach at Morehead State University, I found this article to be very interesting. As strength coaches we always hear about the benefits of warming up, cooling down, and stretching,and we always include these components into our programs. However, flexibility still seems to get "lost" in our programs since it is rarely the focus of a program. Many athletes have flexibility restrictions, but don't realize that this could be hindering their performance in their respective sport or increasing their risk of injury (Baechle and Earle, 2008)

    There is a lot of information on flexibility out there, and a lot of it is ambiguous, and for this reason I really appreciate the way you have complied this information into an easy to read and understand article.

    Baechle, T., Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning . (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.