Exercise Choices for Building Flexibility
This is an excerpt from Fitness for Life Canada With Web Resources by Guy Le Masurier,Charles B. Corbin,Kellie Baker & John Byl.
The type of exercises that you choose for building flexibility depends on your personal goals. The following sections describe some of the most popular flexibility exercises.
Basic Flexibility Exercises
The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) recommends that you perform exercises to stretch all of your major muscle groups. The 12 exercises described at the end of this lesson allow you to do so by choosing 8 to 10 exercises. As you'll see, all of these exercises can be done using static stretching, and some can also be done using PNF or ballistic stretching. The following guidelines will help you perform these exercises effectively.
- Consider the FIT formula information in table 12.1. Also consider the recommendations for the appropriate number of reps, sets, and time that accompany each of the exercises described in this lesson.
- The exercises labelled PNF include a contraction of the muscle before stretching. To perform them as static stretches, omit the contraction phase.
- The exercises labelled ballistic can be made ballistic by using a gentle bobbing movement rather than a static stretch.
As noted in this chapter's first lesson, ROM exercises are commonly used in physical therapy and can be performed daily to help retain a healthy ROM. Dynamic and developmental stretching exercises can also be used by people recovering from injury and by beginners. Specific details for these types of exercises are not provided here because the static, PNF, and ballistic exercises are better choices for healthy teens. However, most of the basic exercises listed here can be done using dynamic or developmental stretching.
Yoga, Tai Chi, and Pilates
In addition to the static, PNF, and ballistic stretching exercises described in this chapter, there are other popular activities that can be good for building flexibility. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) refers to these types of activities as functional fitness training because they help people (especially older people) perform tasks of daily living effectively. They also have health benefits (see Fit Fact). Tai chi and yoga are sometimes called neuromotor exercises because they build components of skill-related fitness such as agility and balance that require the nerves (neuro) and muscles to work together.
Tai chi is an ancient form of exercise that originated in China. It is considered to be a martial art and has many different forms. Tai chi is now practiced worldwide as a form of exercise rather than a martial art, and its basic movements have been shown to increase flexibility and reduce symptoms of arthritis in some people. When practiced regularly, it can help in developing muscle fitness, preventing back pain, and improving posture and balance.
Research studies show that tai chi provides a variety of benefits, including improved bone health; improved functional fitness; better quality of life; and, among older people, reduced risk of falls.
Yoga was introduced centuries ago in India. Traditional forms include meditation as well as the exercises and breathing techniques that are common in modern forms. Yoga poses, called asanas , are similar to many flexibility exercises and can contribute to improved flexibility and provide other health benefits similar to those for tai chi. Yoga is practiced by millions of young adults as a method of relaxing and training, and many schools now have yoga clubs. However, yoga should be undertaken with care. Physical therapists and other health experts caution against performing certain yoga poses because they are considered to be risky exercises. In addition, beginners are cautioned to progress gradually; it can be more harmful than helpful to try advanced poses without weeks or even months of practice.
Pilates was originally developed as a form of therapy but is now practiced as a method of building muscle fitness and flexibility. It focuses on core muscle fitness but also includes exercises for building flexibility. When practiced properly, it helps prevent back pain, improves posture, and aids functional capacity in daily life.
If you're considering tai chi, yoga, or Pilates, you should seek qualified instruction and follow the guidelines outlined in this chapter for building flexibility.
Guidelines for Flexibility Exercise
To get the most benefit and enjoyment from your exercise program, perform the exercises correctly and use caution to avoid injury. Before you begin stretching, follow these guidelines and cautions to help you safely achieve and maintain flexibility.
- Before stretching, do a general warm-up. Warm muscles respond better than cold ones, and the CSEP recommends doing a general warm-up of 5 to 10 minutes before performing stretching exercise.
- Make flexibility exercises part of your workout. Don't rely on warm-up exercises to build flexibility. Select an appropriate type of exercise and follow the FIT formula for that type.
- Choose exercises for all major muscle groups. Twelve different exercises for the various muscle groups are described later in this lesson.
- When beginning (or for general health), use static stretching or PNF. Consider ballistic stretching after achieving the good fitness zone. Dynamic and developmental stretching may also be beneficial.
- Progress gradually. Regardless of the type of flexibility exercise you choose, progress gradually. Some flexibility exercises may seem easy, but, as with muscular endurance exercise, it does not take much to make your muscles sore. Gradually increase the time and number of repetitions and sets.
- Avoid risky exercises. Exercises that hyperflex or hyperextend a joint should be avoided, as should exercises that cause joint twisting and compression.
- Do not stretch joints that are hypermobile, unstable, swollen, or infected. People with these conditions or symptoms are at risk of injury from overstretching.
- Do not stretch to the point of feeling pain. The old saying "no pain, no gain" is wrong. Stretch only until your muscle feels tight and a little uncomfortable.
- Avoid stretching muscles that are already overstretched from poor posture. The abdominal muscles, for example, typically do not need to be stretched.
- Avoid stretches that last 30 seconds or more before performing strength and power activities. Research suggests that stretches lasting longer than 30 seconds may have a negative effect on performances of strength and power in sport and other activities. As a result, some experts recommend doing dynamic movement exercises rather than stretching before strength and power performances.
Stretching works best after a 5- to 10-minute general warm-up.
I never struggled with injury problems because of my preparation - in particular my stretching.
- Edwin Moses, U.S. Olympic gold medalist
Once you've reached an acceptable level of muscle flexibility, you must continue to move all of your joints and muscles through this new and improved ROM on a regular basis. If you don't, your muscles will begin to shorten again, and you'll lose that flexibility. All types of exercise described in this lesson help maintain flexibility.
Planning a Flexibility Exercise Program
Elijah is a 16-year-old who used the five steps of program planning to prepare a flexibility exercise program. His program is described here.
Step 1: Determine Your Personal Needs
To get started, Elijah prepared a table summarizing his flexibility activity (or lack thereof) over the past two weeks and his flexibility scores. (He wrote his plan during the summer when he was not in school.) As you can see in figure 12.4, he did no flexibility exercise during that two-week period. He also had not done any recent flexibility tests, but he did have scores from tests he had done in school during the previous semester.
Figure 12.4 Elijah's flexibility exercise (physical activity) and fitness profiles.
Elijah obviously did not meet the CSEP recommendation of performing flexibility exercise for the major muscle groups on at least two days a week. Even so, he had passed several of his recent flexibility tests (and he had been doing some flexibility exercises at that time).
Step 2: Consider Your Program Options
Elijah listed seven types of flexibility exercise that he wanted to consider. He reviewed many types of exercises before preparing a list of exercises that he thought would be good for him and that he would be most likely to perform.
- Static stretching exercises
- PNF exercises
- Ballistic stretching exercises
- Tai chi
- Dynamic movement exercises (for warm-up)
Step 3: Set Goals
For his flexibility exercise plan (see figure 12.5), Elijah chose a time period of two weeks. This was too short a time for setting long-term goals, so he developed only short-term physical activity goals for this plan. Later, he'll develop long-term goals, including some flexibility improvement goals, when he prepares a longer plan. For now, he just wanted to get started by trying some new exercises. Besides, it was summer, and he didn't have access to school facilities, nor was he a member of a fitness club. So he chose SMART goals for his specific situation and wrote them down.
- Perform one set of eight static stretching exercises on three days a week, including back-saver sit and reach, knee to chest, side stretch, sitting stretch, zipper, hip stretch, chest stretch, and calf stretch.
- Perform a dynamic movement exercise warm-up for 10 minutes including nine basic exercises before playing sports.
- Perform yoga for 30 minutes on one day a week.
Step 4: Structure Your Program and Write It Down
Elijah's next step was to write down his two-week flexibility exercise plan (see figure 12.5). He chose static stretching that he could do at home three days a week. Because he played soccer two days a week, he also decided to do a dynamic movement exercise warm-up prior to his matches. He didn't expect the warm-up to be his main source of flexibility development, but he thought it would supplement his other flexibility exercise. He also agreed to go to yoga class with his sister Nicole, who was allowed to bring a guest for two free sessions.
Figure 12.5 Elijah's written flexibility exercise plan.
Step 5: Keep a Log and Evaluate Your Program
Over the next two weeks, Elijah will self-monitor his activities and place a checkmark beside each activity he actually performs. At the end of the two weeks, Elijah will evaluate his activity to see whether he met his goals. He can then use the evaluation to help him write a future activity plan.
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