May 24, 2011 by AnnMarie
Flexibility: the Much Neglected Third-Leg of Fitness ~by M’elaine Howlett
Everyone wants to be physically fit these days, but I’ve noticed that people neglect one aspect of their fitness: flexibility. It’s probably because being “fit” has become synonymous with “losing weight/fat” and because of this culture of shedding pounds; everyone seems to focus only on strength and aerobics. But flexibility, that third leg to the “tripod of health” is just as important. Ensuring that your muscles are flexible and limber is an integral part to any fitness regimen – and not just for injury prevention, but also for performance improvement.
Just think about it: if your body & muscles are limber, there is less resistance to any other exercise that is part of your workout. So when you’re flexible, it’s easier to do your cardio workout or strength exercises – not only because you won’t be as stiff or sore from a previous workout, but because you’ll be able to use that extra flex to jump higher or punch harder.
So here are some tidbits that I learned from Brent Anderson, a physical therapist who worked with my ballet company back in my neurotic dance days. While most of you aren’t interested in becoming a human pretzel or yogi master, the principles for increased flexibility are the same.
1) The best time to stretch and work on flexibility is AFTER your workout.
When you are all sweaty and about ready to drop – that’s when you should drop into a stretch. Your muscles will be warmed up you will be as limber as you’ll ever get! Also, stretching is beneficial because it maintains higher blood flow levels to the muscles that you use during your workout – breaking up the lactic acid build up that causes those muscles to become sore.
2) Don’t be in such a hurry!
When you first get into a stretch position and you reach that point where your muscles are just starting to resist you, that’s when you should hold your position. Muscles are designed to contract and after a work-out, they will be tensed up –which means that they will resist any initial motions to stretch them out. Brent told us that typically, a muscle will fight against a stretch for about 20 seconds before finally relaxing into it. So if you want to be really effective, you need to hold it for 30 seconds (sounds like a long time I know). That way you get 10 seconds of a real deep stretch once your muscles have relaxed into the position. For maximum benefits, set up a routine of stretches and run through them twice whenever you finish your workout (slowly the first time and more quickly the second); you’ll be amazed at the difference you feel!
3) Pain is NOT your pal.
The thing I hear most often on this subject is “I hate stretching because it hurts!” Well news flash- if you are stretching and it actually hurts (not the good kind of hurt), you are doing it wrong. Stretching should be something that relaxes your body overall. If you push yourself into a near agony position, not only are you inviting injury by potentially pulling a muscle, but you are actually decreasing your overall flexibility. The body tenses up in response to pain which is the opposite of your goal, but also, you can actually over stretch a muscle or ligament. So as with any activity, listen to your body and take stretching slowly and thoroughly.
4) Be consistent.
Make a point to stretch out after every workout for at least 5 minutes when you’re super sweaty. Brent, the trainer, once said that you can lose 60% of your flexibility by not stretching after a workout – because your muscles automatically tense up afterwards from all the strain. Talk about a recipe for injury! Just keep in mind that increasing /maintaining your flexibility is a long term goal that you should work on slowly and consistently, just like you would train for a race or build up to a new weight goal to bench press – but you will feel better and more relaxed if you don’t neglect it. My post-workout stretch time is one of my favorite parts of the day because that’s when I actually take a quiet moment to consciously enjoy and celebrate my physical health; it’s a practice that I recommend to everyone.