Flexibility is the range of motion at a given joint. As an example, your shoulders should allow you to reach behind your back and touch both hands together. If this is not possible, you are not as flexible as you should be. This does not give you a license to force yourself to do this stretch. Flexibility must be attained in a controlled and safe manner. Flexibility is likely the most neglected aspect of physical fitness and should be a part of everybody's weekly fitness routine.
What is the big deal about flexibility? Flexibility increases physical efficiency and performance. A flexible joint has the ability to move farther in its range and requires less energy to do so. Flexibility decreases risk of injury. Most professionals agree that increasing ROM (range of motion) decreases the resistance in various tissues, and a person is therefore less likely to incur injury by exceeding tissue extensibility or maximum range of tissues during activity.
Flexibility increases blood supply and nutrients to joint structures. Flexibility training increases tissue temperature which in turn increases circulation and nutrient transport. This allows greater elasticity of surrounding tissues. Flexibility provides increases quality and quantity and decreasing the viscosity, or thickness, of sinovial fluid enables more nutrients to be transported to the joint articular cartilage. This allows more freedom of movement and has a tendency to decelerate joint degenerative processes.
Flexibility increases neuromuscular coordination. Studies have shown that nerve impulse velocity (the time it takes an impulse to travel to the brain and return) is enhanced with flexibility training. In attuning the central nervous system (CNS) to the physical demands placed upon it, opposing muscle groups work in a more synergistic or coordinated fashion. Flexibility training also reduces muscle soreness. Recent studies have indicated that stretching is extremely effective in reducing localized, delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
When it comes to the big three of exercise, cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training, it is pretty clear which one can get overlooked. After all, while we prize cardiovascular and strength training for their role in helping us lose weight, build muscle and get fit, the benefits of flexibility training are less immediately alluring. However, as the population ages, more of us are learning to appreciate the rewards of stretching. Staying limber can offset age-related stiffness, improves athletic performance, and optimizes functional movement in daily life. Research shows that flexibility training can develop and maintain range of motion and may help prevent and treat injury. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine has added flexibility training to its general exercise recommendations, advising that stretching exercises for the major muscle groups be performed two to three days per week.
Think in terms of serious flexibility training, not just brief stretching. Squeezing in one or two quick stretches before or after a workout is better than nothing, but this approach will yield limited results. What's more, generic stretches may not be effective for your particular body. The more time and attention you give to your flexibility training, the more benefits you will experience. A qualified personal trainer, physical therapist, or health professional can design a functional flexibility program specifically for you.
Consider your activities before you stretch. Are you a golfer? Do you ski, run, or play tennis? Does your daily work or home routines include bending, lifting, or sitting for long periods? Functional flexibility improves the stability and mobility of the whole person in his or her specific environment. Individualized stretching to improve both stability (the ability to maintain ideal body alignment during all activities) and mobility (the...