As a gymnastics coach I understand as well as anyone, about the importance of flexibility. In gymnastics, flexibility plays as much a part in training, as developing muscle strength, coordination and learning new skills. Flexibility is in fact, one of my biggest frustrations as a coach, as it takes time and commitment to develop, and is often seen as uninteresting and unnecessary, particularly to some of my younger gymnasts.Outside of the world of gymnastics though, it amazes me how inflexible many people are. Obviously, we don't all want to be able to jump into the splits at any given moment, but many people fail to recognise the importance of good muscle mobility to both their physical health and athletic performance.
So what is flexibility and why is it important?
People often get confused when it comes to flexibility, as to whether it is their joints that are responsible for their degree of flexibility, or their muscles. This confusion is partly caused by the fact that when stretching a limb for example, people will often feel discomfort at the ends of their muscles, where they join to the bone near a joint. Although conditions such as arthritis can reduce movement within the joint, in the majority of people, flexibility is largely dependent upon the muscles in the body, and is determined by the degree to which a muscle can flex and stretch. In clinical settings and biological research, we measure the amount that people can move their limbs for example. People with poor flexibility tend to have tight muscles which allow very little movement in their joints. Because of this, they may often feel discomfort when they try to stretch or carry out tasks they wouldn't normally do.
The problem with poor flexibility, is that people are more likely to experience injuries, joint problems and pain throughout their bodies over time. The next section of this article, explains why.
How can poor flexibility lead to musculoskeletal injuries?
Musculoskeletal injuries are caused by damage to the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and joint structures within the body. This damage usually occurs either by trauma, (such as a bang to the body, or a fall), or by gradual wear and tear over a long period of time. When it comes to flexibility related injuries, people tend to experience problems when they lie at either end of the spectrum. That is, when they are extremely flexible, with hyperextended joints, or when they have poor flexibility and stiff muscles, with hypoextended joints. In particular, these problems occur when the level of flexibility and muscle tension differs on one side of the body compared to the other. I shall use the back as an example of how this occurs. Say for example, somebody carries a heavy bag on the same shoulder everyday. The added weight will lead to development of stronger muscle fibers in the back muscles on that side of the body. There will be tighter cross-links between the muscle fibers to provide extra strength to the muscle, and this in turn makes the muscle become shorter and more pronounced. Generally these changes occur gradually over time, (except in cases of extreme overuse or heavy lifting), and slowly lead to postural changes. The tight, inflexible muscles can cause the persons posture to lean subtly over to one side, therby causing curvature of the spinal collumn. Without treatment to correct this, problems such as scoliosis, slipped discs or chronic back pain can occur, causing huge amounts of pain and discomfort. The difficulty with such musculoskeletal imbalances, is that they are often very suble, and unrecognisable to the untrained eye. People therfore often remain unaware of these issues until the damage has been done and they are in considerable pain.
How can you prevent muscular imbalances and poor flexibility?
There are a number of ways to prevent problems occurring, many of which can easily be incorporated into everyday life or your routine exercise regime. The specific things that will help, may depend on your exercise or activity habits, your body shape and any injuries you might have, Below are just a few ideas which could help.
1. Stretch regularly
Stretching is an essential part of any exercise regime, yet it's very commonly forgotten. The majority of clients who visit me with problems, tell me they rarely stretch when exercising. They then present with injuries that have been largely caused by the resultant poor mobility that they experience. In an ideal world, you should try to lightly stretch your muscles and limbs during a warm up before your training session, and then finish with a nice long stretch. When you stretch, make sure that you do not push too hard, as this can also cause problems. You should push into a stretch until you feel your muscles tighten, and then hold in that position for a few seconds before releasing. Doing this, not only helps to remove all the waste particles that accumulate in the muscles during exercise, but also extends the muscles to their full range of motion, preventing them from becoming short and stiff.
2. Use both sides of the body equally
Apart from those of us who are ambidextrous, we all tend to favour one hand, arm or leg when doing things. Whether it's carrying your bag, lifting heavy objects, or the arm you hold the dogs lead, favouring one side of the body and using it all of the time, can lead to the muscular imbalances discussed previously. Golfers, tennis players, cheerleading bases are perfect examples of these. Obviously there are some things we can only do with one side, such as handwriting for example, but when it comes to carrying objects, lifting weights or carrying out exercises, try to make sure you alternate between the left and right sides, and undertake equal amounts of exercises on each side. If your playing sports which exercise one arm or leg more, try to compensate for this by stretching that side more carefully, and by exercising the other side to compensate.
3. Take a yoga class
Yoga is one of my favourite ways to de-stress and stretch out my muscles. It is perfect if you are not sure where to start, and also gives you a very thorough stretch. I constantly seem to find ways to reach muscles I'd never felt stretch before. Clients I've advised to try yoga, are sometimes reluctant because of fears that classes will be full of super flexy contortionists. Fear not. Yoga is ideal for all levels of participant, as each pose, (or stretch) has a number of different levels depending on your flexibility, strength and ability. Another great thing about it, is that yoga helps you to focus on your own body, and helps you to achieve balance within it, meaning that it will help to stretch out muscles that could be tight down one side of the body, and prevent muscular imbalances.
4. Ask an expert
There are a number of experts who can help you to either resolve existing muscle imbalances and injuries, or who can identify problem areas to work on to prevent problems from developing. Depending on who you visit, they can either apply techniques such as deep tissue massage, directly to the body to resolve the problem, or they may recommend exercises or stretches you can do to rectify any problems. My advice would be to try a physiotherapist, or a sports/sports massage therapist.
By sparing a little thought for your body, you can easily prevent a large number of common problems and injuries. As a sports massage practitioner, the majority of clients I see with injuries, (as well as some of my own injuries in fact) could have been prevented with a little more care warming up and cooling down regularly. We are not super human, and therefore cannot avoid injuries altogether, but I urge you to take the little steps that you can to prevent avoidable problems from developing.