Flexibility, also referred to as range motion (ROM), is a major component of fitness. Decreased ROM may leave you susceptible to injuries or even affect your performance if you’re joints aren’t able to move to their fullest potential. For example, tight hip joints might negatively affect your running form, which could cause other mechanical problems and perhaps injury. There are several ways to improve your flexibility. Isolated bouts of stretching are a good way to improve your ROM for a brief period of time (for example, just before a PT test), but getting into a regular routine will result in changes to your flexibility that last longer. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching at least two days per week. They also note that stretching is most effective when muscles are warm, so warm up briefly using a low-level cardiovascular activity such as biking or jogging before you begin stretching. For more detailed information check out HPRC’s ‘Flexibility and mobility’ article.
Strategy #1: No pain means gain
Stretching should not be painful. Listen to your body! Stretching should cause a feeling of tension in the muscle sometimes described as “discomfort,” which does not mean pain.
Strategy #2: Static stretching
To perform a static stretch, extend the target area (muscle and/or tendon) and hold the position for 15–60 seconds. Only stretch until you feel slight discomfort or tension in the muscle or tendon. Remember that this should not hurt! Static stretching may be something you do every day already, maybe as part of a yoga routine. Some examples of static stretches are located on the Mayo Clinic website. You also can follow along with these videos from The Permanente Medical Group.
Strategy #3: Dynamic stretching
Dynamic stretching, a technique currently promoted by fitness professionals because it shows positive results for improving flexibility, involves stretching muscles through continuous and repetitive movements. This type of stretch is more appropriate for sports or other specific activities, in which stretching targets and warms up the muscles in ways that address the activity to be performed. An example of a dynamic stretch would be a runner taking long strides to prepare for a race.
Strategy #4: Ballistic stretching
Ballistic stretches involve repeated bouncing movements to stretch and activate muscle groups. This type of stretch has been shown to increase the risk of injury and muscle soreness in some studies and it is not recommended for beginners, but it may be appropriate for activities that include quick, explosive movements such as the sprinting or jumping portion of a combat readiness test. To minimize the risk of injury, begin at a lower intensity and increase as you begin to warm up. For example, when performing high-knee exercises, gradually increase the height and speed to which you raise your knees as you warm up.
Strategy #5: Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching
PNF stretching requires the help of a trained partner. It requires alternating (isometric) contractions and relaxations, which allows you to be pushed into a deeper stretch by your helper. An example of a PNF hamstring stretch involves lying face up on a mat while your partner raises one of your legs to the point of a static stretch, while you keep your other leg straightened against the ground. Your partner should help you keep your elevated leg straight by placing one hand at your ankle or shin, and the other above, not on, your knee closer to your thigh. After holding this static stretch for 15–60 seconds, your partner resists as you push your raised leg into your partner’s shoulder with just enough force that you don’t push them over but they can’t move your leg. Hold this isometric contraction for six to 10 seconds. When you relax, your partner gently pushes your leg into a deeper hamstring stretch/position. Repeat these steps until the stretch can no longer be done without pain or discomfort.
Strategy #6: Myofascial release (foam rolling)
Myofascial release requires the use of a foam roller. Foam rollers activate part of a muscle, causing it to relax and stretch. A foam roller can be rolled back and forth over a relaxed muscle, or it can be used to apply static pressure to sore or sensitive areas for 10–15 seconds at a time. For example, when foam-rolling your hamstring muscles, you can roll back and forth on top of the roller as seen here. Or you might decide to find a sensitive spot that feels tender when you roll over it and then gently lower your weight over the roller, isolating that sensitive area for 10–15 seconds. You should feel the muscle begin to release and relax with this technique.