Flexibility exercises aren’t a bonus extra, they are crucial to any physical goal. Here’s how to get it done.
“What does a good fitness routine look like?” This is a question I get asked a lot, either from people who are brand-new to exercise or who have been stuck in a rut for many years.
My answer is that a well-rounded fitness routine includes strength or resistance training, cardio (especially if you’re sedentary), activity outside of formal exercise, and flexibility work.
That last piece is the bit most people struggle with. “Flexibility” brings up visions of lycra-clad yoga classes, boring static stretches, or impossible contortionist challenges. In truth, flexibility is none of those things. But is it absolutely crucial.
Why is flexibility work important?
Flexibility work is anything that keeps our soft tissue (muscles) and connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, cartilage, muscle fascia) moving freely. The demands of modern life can quickly leave our bodies under stress, with poor posture and over-use injuries. Flexibility work helps the body move as nature intended.
What counts as flexibility work?
Studies like this one define flexibility as “the range of motion of muscle and connective tissues at a joint or group of joints. In contrast to more general fitness components, flexibility is highly specific to each of the joints of the body.”
What comes to mind when I say “flexibility”? Chances are, you’re thinking about yoga. Whilst yoga certainly counts as flexibility work, there are a lot of other ways to tick the flexibility box.
Static stretching – stretching a muscle to a mildly uncomfortable length and holding for 30-60 seconds. Examples are a seated hamstring stretch, or standing quad stretch
Ballistic stretching – stretching that involves a gentle bounce or swing. This should only be done after a proper warm up, and is most relevant to specific sports.
Dynamic stretching – taking a joint through its range of motion (ROM) to stretch selected muscles. An example would be a slow walking lunge.
PNF – proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation involves holding a static stretch for 30 seconds, then contracting the muscle for 5-10 seconds, then going into the same static stretch (usually a bit further).
7 reasons we all need to do flexibility
Flexibility is much more than being bendy. As you can see from the different types of flexibility work mentioned above, it can be part of a warm up or cool down, it can be used to ease tight muscles, or can become part of a general wellness routine to keep your body moving freely in all planes of movement.
1. Better blood flow
Stretching helps move blood around the muscles you are stretching, which will also help maintain the health of connective tissue like ligaments and tendons (which can be famously hard to keep flexible)
2. Getting nutrients into cells
With that improved blood flow comes a range of benefits, including getting more oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells
3. Improved recovery from training
Stretching after training, and between sessions, will speed up your recovery – especially from resistance training, HIIT, or endurance work
4. Reduced injury risk
In the longer term, flexibility and mobility work will reduce your risk of injury (from training and anything else in life!) because your body will move more freely
5. Less soreness and DOMS
Flexibility work can be a lovely way to ease off tight muscles after training, which can be one way to reduce stiffness and soreness
6. Reduced back pain
The back and pelvis are a hot spot of moving parts, so any flexibility work you can do for the spine, hips, shoulders, ankles and wrists will have a positive impact on back pain
7. Fewer balance issues
Flexibility work is big-picture stuff and will help you train, exercise, and live life in a body that functions more optimally. This has so many benefits, including better balance as you age
Try this flexibility flow (>10 minutes!)
There are lots of ways to introduce flexibility into your life, from pre-workout dynamic stretching to post-training static or PNF work. But you can also set aside time (every day or several days a week) to do 5-10 minutes of flexibility and mobility work.
Here’s a short stretching routine on my YouTube – perfect for following along.
Or try this super short flow
- Hold a child’s pose for 15 seconds to decompress your lower back
- Lie on your front and push up into a cobra. Move your spine by twisting slightly to look side to side.
- In a table top position, move through “cat cow” by raising your chest and hips, then tucking head and tailbone underneath.
- Get into downward facing dog, and march your feet to work through feet and ankles.
- Walk your feet to your hands and hold a forward fold, keeping your head loose.
- Get into a lunge position and pulse your front knee gently to the side to work into your hips. Repeat on the other side.
- Sit with legs crossed and gently roll your neck from side to side, then hold the stretch down each side of your neck.
- Lie back and bring both legs up so your knees are bent. Drop your legs to each side, moving slowly but constantly from side to side.
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