Flexibility is an important part of fitness. But just how flexible do you need to be and what is the best way to work at it?
The answer to the first part of the question depends largely on your activity requirements. For example, dancers and gymnasts need to develop an extraordinary degree of flexibility throughout the whole body. Sports and other activities, on the other hand, generally require increased flexibility only in certain parts of the body. That is, golfers need to be flexible in the torso and shoulders, but do not have the same concern for their legs and hip joints as do those who take up karate.
For people who have sedentary jobs or otherwise non-demanding lifestyles, a moderate increase of flexibility is all that is needed. It is, however, an important need. Increasing the normal range of movement not only counteracts the inevitable stiffening that comes with age, but also provides resilience so that injuries are less likely to occur.
Flexibility is essential to healthy physiological functioning as well. In this respect, the spine, being the conduit for the supply of vital elements to all parts of the body, is the most important part to keep flexible and free of constrictions. Moreover, a spine that has lost its flexibility and succumbed to the pull of gravity is more likely to incur vertebral degeneration.
Last but by no means least, correcting postural faults is almost impossible unless independent movement of body parts is made possible through stretching exercises.
Although books on stretching are available and most fitness classes include stretches, there is often insufficient instruction as to how to stretch properly.
Good stretching practices include regard to alignment, breathing and proper body mechanics. Without these, stretches can magnify existing muscle imbalances and even cause strain. Much depends therefore on how you stretch.
The most effective stretches for long-term gain are those that are done slowly and even passively over several minutes, using body weight and, for maximum stretch, positioning the body in such a way as to create a bi-directional pull on the muscles. The central alignment of body parts should be maintained.
Breathing should be an integral part of the stretch, with the breath inhaled before the stretch begins, and exhaled during the stretch. The exception to this rule is where body weight is lifted during the stretch. In this case, the breath is taken in and held during the stretch, (See the Side Stretch in the box.) With stretches that are held for a longer time, breathing can be normal – though more emphasis on the exhalation helps to release tension – and a deep breath taken afterward.
Contrary to the popular notion that muscles should not be stretched until after the body is warmed, slow, focused stretching releases tension, stimulates the muscles and prepares the body for active use. It is, in my opinion and experience, a warm-up in itself. Stretching after muscles are warmed up allows muscles to stretch further of course, so this is an excellent time to stretch as well.
Three exercises are given in alternative ways to demonstrate their relative effectiveness. In each case, the first way shows how the stretch is usually done, and the second, how it can be done more effectively.
First way: Sit on the floor. Bend the left knee, thigh dropped out and foot close to the crotch. Extend the right leg to the front. Hold the right leg and bring the head down toward the knee.
Second way: Sit as before. Hold the leg and pull on it, keeping the head up and flattening the back so the body presses down toward the leg. The hamstrings will be stretched more deeply and the erector-spinae muscles strengthened.
First way: Stand with feet hip-width apart and clasp the hands behind the head, elbows to both sides. Take a breath in. Breathing out, bend the body to the side. Notice the strain of the body weight bearing downward and stopping the breath.
Second way: Stand with feet and arms as before. Take a breath in and lift the left arm and shoulder strongly upward while holding the breath. Let the breath out as the body bends to the side.
Breathe in as the body straightens and the right arm and shoulder lift to repeat the bend to the left.
The strain is not felt here because body weight is lifted and supported by the intake of breath. This holds true even if the body bends further.
First way: Standing, bend one knee and clasp the foot behind the buttocks. Pull the foot toward the seat. In most cases, this will overarch the lower back.
Second way: Clasp the foot behind the buttocks as before. Take a breath in. Breathing out, press the foot into the hand – away from the buttocks – and, at the same time, press the bottom of the pelvis forward. This increases the stretch to the thigh and holds the pelvis straight, avoiding the excessive arch in the lower back.