Flexibility has many uses and is something that many of us should develop but that few of us do. The problem is that we think of flexibility as something that you use in gymnastics or in sports and think of stretching as something that you do before a 100 meter sprint. Few people consider the many benefits it can have in real life.
It will improve your sports and agility for instance and this will help you to win competitions and generally impress your friends. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of physical prowess! At the same time though it will also help to prevent injury – precisely because your body can bend or stretch further before it causes a torn ligament or a pulled muscle. This can of course also increase your range of movement that can have many applications – some as simple as scratching your own back. Finally, by improving flexibility it’s also possible to get your legs behind your head… and for women that’s something that many a man can appreciate… Whatever your motivation for improving your flexibility, you will reap many benefits and be glad you did. Here we will look at how to go about achieving it and becoming more like Mr. Fantastic.
Obviously the first and simplest way to improve your flexibility is through stretching. Like anything your body will adapt to the process of stretching and you will improve with practice. What precisely changes when you stretch is unknown, while you would imagine the tendons and ligaments are becoming more supple, some studies suggest that actually it is just our tolerance for the pain that is changing. However the fact that you can target your flexibility – that you can make one limb stretch more than another by practicing only that limb, suggests that it’s not just a matter of pain threshold.
Either way, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about stretching for flexibility. The key here is to stretch gently and gradually and to slowly push yourself into the position. So if you wanted to increase your ability to do the scissor splits (legs split forward and backwards) then you might practice this by using a lunge forward and going deep into the movement and as far forward as possible. Go forward as much as you can, then hold the position for the count of four, before returning to the starting point. Now lunge forward again but this time aim to go just a bit further – you should be able to because of the first stretch. Do this a couple of times and hold it each time.
What you mustn’t do however is to try stretching the limb by ‘bouncing’ into it and this is a common mistake and a common cause of injury. Many sports teams etc will teach you to hold a position and then bounce down deeper and deeper into the lunge, but actually this can risk tearing the ligaments or tendons and so is not highly advisable.
Of course you need to train the correct areas that correspond with the kind of flexibility you want. Stretching into your lunge will be great for the scissor splits for instance, but it won’t be useful if you want to link your hands behind your back.
If you want to see results then it’s important to stretch very regularly, and over time you should start to notice that you find it easier to stretch into the move. Most of us will have difficulties remembering to stretch in this way regularly or in having the motivation and so it can be beneficial to join a class of some sort where flexibility is key and they will likely take you through these kinds of stretches at the start of each session. Something like Karate, dancing, Pilates, gymnastics or yoga will help tremendously. At the same time the physical exertion on a regular basis will also help to increase your flexibility and your range of movement.
As well as stretching in this way it’s important to develop your muscles correctly. In some cases you will find that your muscles can hamper your flexibility and in these cases it is of course crucial to combat this effect.
For instance if you have very large biceps or pecs then this can sometimes limit movement of the upper body as they physically get in the way. You need here to decide what the best ratio of strength to flexibility is for you – but bear in mind that you can train muscles to be flatter depending on the exercises you use.
It’s also important to avoid having shorter muscles. This can occur if you weight train through a limited range of movement. For instance if you are bicep curling but only at the top of the movement and you don’t fully extend your arm to the bottom each time then you will find that you are building up the top half of your bicep and not the bottom. This will result in a taller yet weaker bicep that also exerts uneven pressure on the body. What you should do instead is to make sure that you train through the whole range of movement by lowering the bicep all the way to the bottom.
In some cases in fact you will be able to train past the usual range of movement and this will help you to develop your entire muscle as well as increasing flexibility. An example of doing this would be to do press ups, but with your hands on dumbbells so that you can lower your chest below the palms of your hands.
Finally it’s also important to ensure that you train your muscles evenly and don’t over work one muscle group in a pair and not the others – particularly if they exert opposing forces on the body. For instance the quadriceps and the hamstrings pull on the knee joint in different directions and so if one of these is more developed than the other it can of course make it harder to move against that direction. Always give equal care to all the different muscle groups when training – this will help to avoid injury too.
Finally it is important to maintain a good diet. While you can’t increase your flexibility through diet alone it is important to provide your body with the nutrients it needs in order to go through the training free of injury. For instance you will need to provide your body with lots of protein in order to make sure that your ligaments and tendons are well maintained and don’t rip or tear. At the same time you should consume a lot of calcium found in milk and green vegetables as this can also strengthen those areas.
Very useful is to use oil in your diet such as omega 3 fatty acid or cod liver oil. This is a natural lubricant in the body and can help to prevent arthritis and other joint issues by keeping them lubricated.