FLEXIBILITY: ITS IMPORTANCE AND WHICH ARE THE DANGERS OF NOT DOING IT
What is flexibility?
Have you ever wondered why flexibility is so important till the point that you should include it in your daily routines?!
Well, in this article we wanna emphasize fact that, without a good level of flexibility a human body lacks of a very important element that allows it to stay away as far as possible from injuries, aches and pains.
To define flexibility, we can refer to the definition given by Wikipedia that states what follows:
“Flexibility or limberness refers to the absolute range of movement in a joint or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints to induce a bending movement or motion. Flexibility varies between individuals, particularly in terms of differences in muscle length of multi-joint muscles. Flexibility in some joints can be increased to a certain degree by exercise, with stretching a common exercise component to maintain or improve flexibility.”
How do you know if you are flexible enough or not?!
Now, given the definition above, we can also say that, the so called ROM that stands for “Range Of Movement”, it is usually referred to a motor pattern that can be completed in its full range of motion.
To give a concrete example, I will consider one of the most common techniques that allows to know if a person has a good level of flexibility in the hamstrings or not:
Consider a laying body in a supinated position (the back lays on the floor), grab one leg by holding it from the toe; start to move the leg towards the chest of the patient till the point that it doesn’t bend.
If the leg starts to bend while it is still in a less than 45° angle, it means that the body lacks of flexibility in consistent way hence it needs to work and focus on that as a priority.
In the pictures below, you will notice how this concept is very useful to test your flexibility, with the help of a second person, so that you won’t miss to (maybe) do a step back and start to work on it with more awareness.
In particular, you will see three different stages of this hamstrings flexibility test starting from a low level of flexibility, to an intermediate one and finishing with the maximum extension possible:
If, in this stage, the leg tends already to bend, it means that you have poor flexibility in your hamstrings as well as in your lower back.
As you can see, the hamstrings are strictly connected with the lower back/lumbo-sacral belt and a very good level of combined flexibility of both, can lead you to reach such ROM.
In Calisthenics, a very good example that shows how a subject can have a good level of flexibility in the hamstrings as well as in the lower back, is represented by all those exercises where the legs are in a straightened position.
It often occurs to me personally, to come across many young people while performing exercises such as the L-Sit hold position, or half leg raises as well as leg raises in full ROM and noticing how poor their flexibility is, because of bent legs.
Well, these are evident negative signs often ignored, because all the efforts and the attentions are focused mainly on the movement itself without paying attention also to its quality (first thing first).
Another case that you can take and test on yourself, occurs when you are going to perform an exercise such as the hollow body hold position.
In this exercise, you are laying once again with supinated position, hence with your back laying on the floor.
There are different stages of execution and if we consider the last of them, this means that by fully extending backwards your arms and at the same time extending forward your legs, your lower back should maintain a flatten position as well as your legs.
If, on the contrary, the lower back and the legs tend to bend slowly while trying to go into the full extension, this is an evident sign of flexibility’s lack in your hamstrings/lower back.
The risks of having a low flexibility level in your body
As you all know, stretching is one of the best methods that helps to improve your flexibility in your muscles so that they won’t be stiff along the aging process.
Aging process is a very important variable not to underestimate, that slowly affects your performance while you grow up.
Let’s say that the more practice, the better and I personally insist on this aspect as I can give you a clear example of what effect the stretching can have on your body till the point to be substituted with a surgery.
When I started my journey as an amateur basketball player, so this means when I turned 16 more or less, I didn’t even think for a while that, later in the journey, I could have faced a serious injury.
Training by training, game by game, I used to try always to jump as high as I could without an effective technique especially for what regards the landing phase (where the load goes mostly on your spinal column and knees).
Well, at that time I wasn’t wise enough to think that, I should have dedicated more time to build a consistent and strong core, lower back and especially increasing my flexibility as it is fundamental in order to be able to jump higher.
Well, all of a sudden, one day I felt a very strong pain in my lower back that left me completely immobilized and I got pretty scared as I couldn’t literally move, walk nor bend and I needed to lay all the day for at least a couple of weeks.
This caused me to take a long break from practicing the sport I always loved, and I still love, and mostly I was scared of fact that I could’ve never been able to play again.
After accepting such consequences, I went for X-rays and it turned out that I had a herniated disk in my L5-S1 veterbrae (most typical zone affected by this ache); this caused me also to go for a more accurate check at a specialist in spinal column diseases and anesthetist.
The specialist, at that time, told me that I should have gone through a series of ozone injections painful and expensive to afford.
Scared by listening to this “news/prediction”, I walked out the door with my father and I carefully listened to him when he told me:
“Son, don’t trust these kind of solutions to such issues as in this case I do not believe you have to go through such hard treatment. I firmly believe that there is always a better way to come out of trouble whenever is possible of course; it is just a matter of will and being positive.”
After pondering on such words, I realized that effectively I had to do something with myself and start to think in a more positive way and work on my problem in order to fix it.
So I started by taking a break both from playing basketball and going to the gym lifting weights just to keep in shape, and going for another way that was including more stretching and swimming as rehab activity.
At that time, I used to go for swimming every Saturday morning for the whole winter and I used to do stretching three times a week after my workouts in the gym.
I started to go for swimming more than I used to do hence two/three times a week for the whole summer, in the same time practicing multiple stretching sessions throughout the weekdays and resting in the weekends.
In the beginning of course, was painful to try to stretch and relax my lower back, knowing that I was going to reach a point where that ache was so intense that I couldn’t bend over more than a certain point.
No matter the pain and the efforts I put into that, after spending the whole summer far from every possible danger for my back, at the beginning of the following autumn/winter I approached for the very first time the bodyweight trainings.
Since that time, I felt more and more confident in my capacities and, most of all, I realized how fundamental and vital stretching is.
Another very good and clear example of how stretching can literally “save” you from terrible physical conditions, that I wanna bring on the table, happened when my father had a terrible motorcycle accident because of a cat that crossed the street while it was almost empty.
After fully recovering, when my father explained me the dynamic of the accident, I couldn’t simply believe in it and gave me to think how destiny had been ungrateful with him.
Basically, while my father was in the same lane with another car, he decided to pass it within the lane line.
Right in that moment (he was next to the car) a cat crossed the road and passed the two car front tyres and fully hit the front one of my father’s motorcycle, throwing him in the air for at least 10 meters or more before landing on the empty road.
When he regained consciousness, he noticed he had a broken tibia (shinbone) and he couldn’t move at all, plus of course multiple bruises and scars all over his body.
Now, after receiving an urgent surgery that very same day in night, they put on his broken leg an external apparatus plus some screws inside the bones in order to let them recover and bond together since the fracture was a compound one with also broken knee ligaments.
The damage in the leg was huge and, at a first sight, my father thought he could’ve never been able to go on a cycling bike for one of his weekly rides. I had never seen him so down because he has always been positive, and thankfully was just a moment of discomfort.
Since when they released him from the hospital, when he came back home he started his rehabilitation plan without that any doctor nor specialist had told him to do so.
After more or less three months, they removed the first part of the apparatus that was connected to the tightbone with a screw in order to keep the tibia in line as much as possible.
By that time, every single morning after waking up, despite the fact that he couldn’t still move from the bed without the chair-wheel or the crutches, he would practice a short stretching and massage session on the part of the leg now free.
By doing so, I was astonished of the effects that such routine have had on his leg, after they removed (more or less other three months later) also the second part of the apparatus from the lower part of his leg.
When he went for the checkup before removing the apparatus, specialists and doctors didn’t believe that he could be already able to walk considering the serious injury he went through.
Happened instead an unbelievable thing (considering that my father was 55 and you all perfectly know that the older you are the longer is the time to recover from such bad injuries) because as soon as they removed the second part, he could actually stand on his feet without any support and be able to walk almost normally!!!
All this happened, because of just that one thing that literally changed everything: the daily stretching sessions together with the manual massage he applied to stimulate the muscles and ligaments still weak and on their way to recover after the surgery.
All this guys, just to say that I am surely no hero, but I can tell you that these two experiences taught me a lot!
I became a better version of me, wiser, inspired to learn more and more regarding stretching techniques as well as the beautiful world of bodyweight training where I also found my comfort habitat and most of all to stay positive and so to have a positive attitude to troubles as much as I can.
I hope you will be able to get the message I wanna give you and get a better chance to start from a different position compared to where I started.
WHICH PROS AND CONS BRINGS FLEXIBILITY
As we mentioned above, the more flexible you get, the better will be your physical condition no matter which kind of sport you are going to practice.
Said that, we must now consider which effectively are the pros and the cons of practicing stretching in order to achieve more flexibility.
Starting from the cons, we can surely say that performing a short stretching session before working out, is not exactly the best thing to do.
Since before starting a workout our muscles, tendons, tissues are stiff, cold and short, we must firstly ensure that they get properly warmed up and so that they get loose; a good warm up that raises the body temperature and that allows the joints to be well oiled surely puts you in a safer position avoiding so muscle tears.
As we mentioned also in previous articles, warm up is a very important pre-workout phase, where indeed your goal must be to raise your heart rate till the point to be slightly sweat.
Once this happens, it means that you are ready to go more in depth and focus on warming up in better way your neck, shoulders, shoulder blades, elbows, wrists, knees, lower back and so on, also by using eventually some resistance bands (especially for shoulders and shoulder blades).
I highly recommend instead, to always having a longer stretching session after the workout and concentrate the cool down on flexibility as well as mobility, rather than going for stretching at the beginning of a workout.
If you do not raise properly your body temperature firstly, hence, your heart rate and you go straight into the workout, or to stretch the single body joints, the risk of muscle tears will be high as well as other kind of injuries that could come while you are performing an exercise.
After analyzing the cons, let’s go now for the pros.
If you dedicate at least 20 to 30 minutes of your cool down session, to practice different stretching techniques, with duly time you will be able to see incredible effects.
Keep in mind that, when I talk about stretching techniques, I am referring to an infinite combination of stretching positions that you can mix up as you wish (e.g. static active and passive stretching, PNF etc.).
My personal recommendation is to always aim to a “360 degrees” stretching routine, that allows you to stretch from the head to the toes all muscles, joints, tendons, tissues so that, once you have finished, you will feel incredibly lighter and ready to recover before the next workout session.
Now we must emphasize one fact very important in order to let the stretching session be as much effective as possible.
If you have gone through an intensive cardio/aerobic workout such as HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or TABATA for instance, I highly recommend to NOT do any intense and long stretching routine straight after them.
Why do I say that?!
Because I personally noticed also on me personally that, if your muscles lack of oxygen due to the high and intense effort you have just done with such kind of cardio workouts, once you will try to relax and stretch them, they will be still recovering from the effort.
You definitely won’t be able to feel any difference in terms of flexibility.
A different effect is reached instead, if you are going to perform a Calisthenics routine, that in terms of effort works more on hypertrophy or movements that are aiming more to increase the strength and not the stamina.
Going for a stretching session after them, will have on the contrary, a different effect on your flexibility.
Consider that, a relaxed muscle is able to better adapt to a movement that aims to stretch it rather than shorten it; that is why I recommended to practice in the rest days.
A complete stretching routine of 60 up to 90 minutes more or less (it can vary depending on your level) and also after your training according to how much time you have would be the best.
Another pros that has to be mentioned and that in terms of performance it is surely noticeable, regards the increased ROM.
Stretching can be considered as a way of living and by means of it, an athlete can reach incredible flexibility levels no matter how tall the subject can be.
Increasing the ROM, in sports like Calisthenics and Street Workout, means everything as it is something that you can feel while performing an exercise.
Just take as an example the back lever, where a lot of stress applies on your shoulders when you are performing the propaedeutic exercises such as skin the cat, tuck BL, advanced tuck BL and so on.
The same principle applies if you are trying to achieve the Muscle Up and also in this case much stress goes into the shoulders (in particular front deltoid) in the transition from the pulling phase to the pushing one (bar dip).
We cannot forget to mention also the increased power that your muscles will be able to generate a far bigger kinetic energy.
First of all, is worth saying that, the myth according to which by practicing too much stretching can lead you to an actual decrease of power and joints stability is not true.
Actually, more flexibility allows your muscles to be more explosive and reactive in terms of force generated and so this makes a lot of difference on the quality of the movements.
By constantly increasing the muscle length as well as the ROM, you will also increase the distance between them in the stretching phase.
It is also true indeed that, another pros brought by practicing stretching regularly is a reduced fatigue when you are working out.
Since muscles are divided in agonist (working muscles) and antagonist (opposing/opponent muscles), the fatigue on the first ones will be reduced by increasing their flexibility; if the agonist muscles indeed are more flexible, this will allow the antagonist ones to generate less force in a movement and this principle translates in less effort to perform it.