What is flexibility?
Flexibility, mobility and suppleness all mean the range of limb movement around joints. In any movement there are two groups of muscles at work:
- agonistic muscles which cause the movement to take place and
- opposing the movement and determining the amount of flexibility are the antagonistic muscles
See the page on muscle movement to find out what happens when you stretch or contract a muscle.
Why do flexibility exercises?
The objective of flexibility training is to improve the range of movement of the antagonistic muscles.
What are the benefits?
Flexibility plays an important part in the preparation of athletes by developing a range of movement to allow technical development and assisting in the prevention of injury .
How will I know if I am stretching properly?
When you perform a stretch correctly, you will feel mild discomfort in the antagonistic muscles. If you feel pain or a stabbing sensation, you must STOP.
What do I need to consider before conducting flexibility exercises?
The body responds best to a stretching program when it is warm and the muscles and joints have been exercised through their current range of movement.
What types of flexibility exercises are there?
The various techniques of stretching may be grouped as Static, Ballistic, Dynamic, Active, Passive, Isometric and Assisted. Click here for some examples of general mobility exercises.
Static stretching (isometric contractions ) involves gradually easing into the stretch position and holding the position. The amount of time a static stretch is held depends on your objectives. If it is part of your cool down then stretches should be held for 10 seconds, if it is to improve your range of mobility then hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Often in static stretching, you are advised to move further into the stretch position as the stretch sensation subsides. Click here for some examples of static stretching exercises
Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion.
Dynamic stretching (isotonic or isokinetic contractions ) consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you gently to the limits of your range of motion.
Where the event requires a dynamic movement then it is appropriate and perhaps necessary to conduct dynamic stretching exercises. Start with the movement at half speed for a couple of repetitions and then gradually work up to full speed.
An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. Active stretching is also referred to as static-active stretching.
Passive stretching is also referred to as relaxed stretching, and as static-passive stretching. A passive stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus.
Isometric stretching is a type of static stretching which involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric contractions (tensing) of the stretched muscles.
Assisted stretching involves the assistance of a partner who must fully understand what their role is otherwise the risk of injury is high. A partner can be employed to assist with Partner stretches and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) techniques.
Your partner assists you to maintain the stretch position or helps you ease into the stretch position as the sensation of stretch subsides.
You should aim to be full relaxed and breathe easily throughout the exercise. Partner assisted stretches are best used as developmental exercises, with each stretch being held for thirty seconds.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) involves the use of muscle contraction before the stretch in an attempt to achieve maximum muscle relaxation .
- You move into the stretch position so that you feel the stretch sensation
- Your partner holds the limb in this stretched position
- You then push against your partner by contracting the antagonistic muscles for 6 to 10 seconds and then relax. During the contraction, your partner aims to resist any movement of the limb.
- Your partner then moves the limb further into the stretch until you feel the stretch sensation
- Go back to 2. (Repeat this procedure 3 or 4 times before the stretch is released.)
Which method is best?
Static methods produce far fewer instances of muscle soreness, injury and damage to connective tissues than dynamic or ballistic methods. Static methods are simple to carry out and may be conducted virtually anywhere. For maximum gains in flexibility in the shortest possible time PNF technique is the most appropriate. Dynamic - slowed controlled movements through the full range of the motion - will reduce muscle stiffness. Where the sport or event requires movement then dynamic stretches should be employed as part of the warm up .
What order should the flexibility methods be used?
When conducting flexibility exercises it is recommended to perform them in the following order - Static, Assisted and then Dynamic.
When should they be performed?
- the warm up or cool down program
- a stand alone unit of work
It is considered beneficial to conduct flexibility exercises as part of the cool down program but should not include ballistic or dynamic exercises, as the muscles are fatigued and more prone to injury. Static exercises are recommended as they relax the muscles and increase their range of movement.
Factors limiting flexibility
- the type of joint
- the internal resistance within a joint
- bony structures which limit movement
- the temperature of the joint and associated tissues
- the elasticity of muscle tissue, tendons, ligaments and skin
- the ability of a muscle to relax and contract to achieve the greatest range of movement
- the temperature of the place where one is training (a warmer temperature is more conducive to increased flexibility)
- the time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning)
- the stage in the recovery process of a joint (or muscle) after
- age (pre-adolescents are generally more flexible than adults)
- gender (females are generally more flexible than males)
- the restrictions of any clothing or equipment
- one's ability to perform a particular exercise
- one's commitment to achieving flexibility
All athletes require a basic level of general all round flexibility to allow them to benefit from other forms of training. In addition, athletes will need to develop specific flexibility for those joint actions involved in the techniques of their events or sports.
"Mobility Training" (Brook 1990)  contains a collection of flexibility exercise diagrams, including Track and Field event specific exercises.
- BROOK, N. (1990) Mobility Training. 2nd ed. England: Reedprint Ltd
- MACKENZIE, B. (1997) Flexibility - Mobility [WWW] Available from: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/mobility.htm [Accessed