What exactly is flexibility?
Of course flexibility is important – when bending down to pick something up, striding to enter a tram, or reaching up with one arm to get a bowl out of the cupboard, for example. A healthy level of flexibility enables you to move easily and prevents injury.
Flexibility is the ability to perform movements at will, using your joints at the optimal width. This needs two things:
- The ability to stretch: how far can you move your muscles, tendons, ligaments, capsules and fascia?
- Agility in the joints: how far can the bone structure move? (including the range of movement throughout the bony joints)
In contrast to the ability to stretch, joint agility is a physical characteristic determined by your constitution and is therefore difficult to train. This is quite the opposite with flexibility:
The «how» and «when» of flexibility training
Flexibility level is primarily due to genetics, gender, age, body shape and physical activity. But flexibility can also be trained in the same way as stamina or strength. Before stretching, it’s advisable to warm up for 5-10 minutes.
Even though the effect and practice of stretching is controversial and opinions have changed over the years, many people have had positive experiences with stretching and use the exercises to either prepare their bodies for training, to regenerate afterwards, or simply to relax.
Before training: active dynamic stretching
- Active-dynamic stretching involves alternating between stretching and relaxation at approximately one-second intervals.
- The exercises are repeated 8-12 times and should be performed without momentum.
- Alternatives to stretching include mobility exercises, such as swinging the arms or circling the hips.
After training: passive static stretching
- Once in the correct starting position, the slow continuous stretch can begin. Rocking is to be avoided.
- The position is held for 20-30 seconds on each side. The breath is calm and steady (no strong exhales) and full concentration is required on the muscle group in question.
- If you want to achieve a noticeable or visible effect from your flexibility training, you should ideally practise every day, or at least every other day.
- Before stretching, it’s advisable to warm up for 5-10 minutes.
- The best time to stretch is after strenuous physical activity, and after sitting for long periods, such as after long car journeys.
Alternatives to traditional stretching
Flexibility can also be improved using a foam roller to exercise the fascia. By exercising your fascia on a regular basis, you will stay fit, become more flexible and train your muscles at the same time. Yoga or Tai-Chi are also good ways of boosting flexibility. In the same way, targeted strength training, performed across the whole spectrum of joint movements, will lead to greater flexibility whatever your age. And studies have shown that athletes who performed strength training in parallel to static stretching were the best at enhancing their flexibility.
The positive effect of flexibility training
- Enables more freedom of movement and improves posture
- Increases physical and mental relaxation
- Relieves muscle tension and aches
- Can reduce the risk of injury
Tips and tricks for stretching
- Before endurance sports like swimming, jogging or cycling, stretching is usually not necessary – but it can be useful afterwards.
- As static muscle stretching temporarily reduces strength, speed and the power to jump, it's actually counter-productive to stretch before practising strength-related sports, jogging or ball sports.
- As far as soft sports and the elderly are concerned, static stretching and hold-relax stretching exercises (gentle PNF techniques) are particularly useful.
- Athletes have said themselves that static training helps them to better transition to the recovery phase after a strenuous training session.
Sources: American Council on Exercise, 2018, Hohmann 2003, Behrends et al., 2012