The worst moment ever in sixth grade Phys. Ed class was the day our teacher informed us that the upcoming unit was going to be gymnastics. And as a bonus, after honing our skills for three weeks, a performance in front of an all-school convocation was to follow. (How embarrassing, especially since my girlfriend in fifth grade would be in the bleachers watching.)
As a 12-year-old, all I wanted to do was run a few laps and play dodgeball! How could our fun-loving teacher, revered and adored by all of his boys, turn on us like this? Our collective thought was settled — there was no way this idea was going to work. There was no way we were going to like this sport! Ironically, several years later, I would gain a deep respect and appreciation for men’s gymnastics, but at this moment, gym class had taken a quick turn south.
While watching men’s gymnastics in high school at the Olympic Games, it was obvious how flexible and powerful these athletes had become. The connection between being flexible and being successful was apparent. Although I was a runner, my new found affinity with gymnasts was settled. I needed to find out if improved flexibility would help me become a better athlete.
Flexibility training is perhaps the most undervalued component of conditioning. While ongoing debate questions its role in injury prevention, athletes can gain much from a stretching regimen. From a pole vault approach to a rugby drop kick, flexibility of the body’s muscles and joints play an integral part in many athletic movements. The more flexible you are, the greater the odds for success.
In general terms, flexibility is defined as the range of motion around a joint and its surrounding muscles during movement. There are considerable variations in baseline flexibility in individuals. For example, a person may have flexible shoulders but inflexible hips. Genetics, injuries and abnormal biomechanics all play a role in these differences. Stretching should be done gradually over long periods of time and then maintained to prevent slipping back toward inflexibility.
There are three methods of stretching — static, ballistic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Static is recommended for the majority of athletes since it is the least likely to cause injury. Ballistic (bouncing) and PNF stretching are best reserved for those under the tutelage of a coach. Dynamic warm-ups, which are comprised of a variety of movements including sprints and jumps, are fabulous exercises to facilitate in preparation for hard workouts and games. Increased blood flow to muscles aid in flexibility gains from stretching, and is an important component for injury prevention.
Things to bear in mind in following a flexibility program are:
• Warm up thoroughly before performing exercises.
• Stretch just to the point before discomfort sets in.
• The feeling of tightness should diminish as you hold the stretch.
• Breathe out into the stretch avoid holding your breath.
• Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds.
• Complete two to three stretches before moving on to the next exercise.
Competitive sports can have quite an unbalancing effect on the body. Take racquet sports for example: The same arm is used to hit thousands of shots over and over again. One side of the body is placed under different types and levels of stress compared to the other. In most sports, athletes tend to develop a dominate body side, reaffirming the need for proper stretching. A flexibility training program can help correct disparities and prevent chronic, over-use injuries.
What is your activity or sport of choice? Are you explosive, repetitive or a combination of the two? Flexibility is one of your keys for long-term success.
Dana Neer is a local coach and fitness enthusiast who contributes a monthly column. He may be reached by email at Dana.Neer@Culver.org.