Flexibility


Flexibility

Flexibility

Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission), 14023-53

Prepared by: Janina Strauts, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Australian Institute of Sport
Evaluated by: Ross Smith, Manager Strength and Conditioning Operations, Australian Institute of Sport
Last Updated: December 2016

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Introduction

Flexibility training is designed to increase the length of a muscle complex and/or decrease muscle tension for a specific muscle or muscle groups. This type of training can be included before, during or after a training session depending on the sport and individual needs of the athlete. Flexibility training may also be conducted as a standalone training session if this has been identified as a focus through the completion of an athlete assessment. Ensuring the athlete possesses the required range of motion (ROM) around particular joints will allow them to complete sporting activities safely and effectively decreasing their risk of injury. [1]


Methods and Protocols

Muscle fibres are composed of myofilaments which consist of thick (myosin) and thin (actin) filaments. When the brain signals the muscle (neural stimuli) it causes the thick and thin filaments to contract and shortening the muscle fibres. Once the signal ends the myofilaments relax decreasing this overlap. Over multiple contractions the amount of shortening can become grater than the resultant lengthening therefore creating a decrease in the overall length of the muscle. Over longer periods of time the tendons and fascia surrounding the muscle fibres may also shorten. Without the appropriate intervention, prolonged exposure to this can result in negative changes in effective muscles and connective tissue. Stretching immediately following muscle contractions will cause the fibres to lengthen and continued stretching may allow the surrounding muscle fascia and tendons to lengthen. Lengthening of these muscle components will result in the increased length of the muscle complex which can decrease muscle tension, soreness and improve flexibility.


 

Methods and Protocols

14024-17There are multiple methods which can be used to improve flexibility. The most common techniques involve stretching which required the participant to hold a certain position for a specific amount of time (static), move through a particular ROM either under control (dynamic) or use momentum to push through the ROM (ballistic). These stretches can be completed passively or actively. For passive stretches there is no antagonist (opposite) muscle contraction required to hold the stretch. For example if you are passively stretching the quadriceps the hamstrings are relaxed. Alternatively stretches may be conducted actively entailing the antagonist (opposite) muscle or muscle groups to contract to hold the stretch. For example an active calf stretch may be completed by using the shin muscles only (Tibialis anterior) to dorsiflex the ankle and stretch the calf musculature.

The table below highlights the difference between stretching methods for developing flexibility: 


Background Method Protocols Contraindications
Static Static stretching is considered the 'traditional' form of stretching and has proven benefits for increasing joint range of motion. Some research suggests static stretching decreases the stiffness in the musculotendinous unit which impairs subsequent performances, particularly those requiring speed and power. Therefore it is recommended that static stretching is used post exercise to restore range of motion and improve flexibility. [2-5]

Hold the desired position without movement for the recommended period of time.

For example a standing calf stretch off a step. 

>30-90 sec per stretch [6, 7]

Hold at the point of mild discomfort 

Always perform these stretches following a light warm up.

Do not stretch injured sites. 

Dynamic Dynamic stretches are more favourably used in warm ups as they can be tailored to closely match the movements of the sport. Due to their dynamic nature they allow the body to gradually build through the range of motions that are required for their chosen sport. It is recommended dynamic stretches are used as part of a well-planned movement specific warm up. [7]

Controlled movements through an active joint range of motion.

For example arm circles. 

8-12 reps

1-2 sets 

Always perform these stretches following a light warm up.

Do not stretch injured sites. 

Ballistic Ballistic stretching is considered a more extreme form of dynamic stretching and uses the momentum of the movement to push through the end range of motion forcing a stretch of the muscle and fascia.

Speed and momentum is used throughout the joint range of motion to force the stretch past its current joint.

For example leg swings. 

       

8-12 reps

1-2 sets 

       

Always perform these stretches following a light warm up.

Do not stretch injured sites.

Precautions must be followed as poor preparation and/or execution may result in adverse trauma to the muscles or soft tissue.

Not recommended for novice or older/veteran athletes. 

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation  (PNF) PNF stretching decreases neural activity in the muscle being stretched through various neuromuscular mechanisms. As a result PNF stretching aids relaxation of the muscle being stretched thus allowing the stretch to go beyond its current point. The three different types of PNF stretching are contract-relax, hold-relax [8] and contract-relax-antagonist contract. Similar to static stretching, it is recommended this method of stretching is performed post-training. [3] PNF stretching is performed more easily with a partner. The joint is passively moved to the end of pain free ROM and held here for 3-6 seconds. The athlete is then asked to push against the stretch (antagonist isometric contraction) for 3-6 seconds followed by another passive stretch in which the joint is pushed further into range.        

3-6 sec Passive stretch

3-6 sec Isometric Contraction

Repeated 2-3 times 

Always perform these stretches following a light warm up.

Not recommend for consecutive days.

Do not stretch injured sites. 

Myofacial Release Unlike stretching myofascial release uses different mechanisms to release tension in the muscle and may be useful before or after a training session to improve mobility. [9] Pressure is applied to 'tight' areas called trigger points using foam rollers, massage balls or through the use of manual therapy. Pressure is applied until the muscle releases. Self Selected  >45sec per area Not to be completed on injured sites

As seen above there are a variety of methods which can be used to improve flexibility. These methods provide valuable feedback to both the coach and athlete regarding ROM and possible injury or potential injury sites. It is important to understand how and when to use these methods effectively to get the best outcomes. The following factors should be considered prior to developing a flexibility training program:

  • Body anatomy -
    • Type of joint
    • Elasticity of the muscle tissue
    • Elasticity of connective tissue: tendons and ligaments
    • Elasticity of skin
    • Neural signalling: the ability of the muscle to relax
    • Temperature: internal core temperature
  • Temperature: warmer environmental conditions will favourably influence flexibility
  • Age of athlete: younger athletes are generally more flexible
  • Gender: on average females are more flexible
  • Timing and frequency of sessions: Consider how this type of training will fit into your training program. 

 

14024-10 Mobility

Mobility is the ability to move freely through various movements without limitation. Different sports or skills will have defined movement patterns that require the athlete to navigate uninhibited with strength and control. Through increased flexibility athletes may achieve grater mobility allowing these movements to occur more efficiently. Mobility can be improved through the implementation of specific exercises incorporating large ROM's with a focus on body control, positioning, fluidity and range.


Further resources and reading

References

  1. Ayala, F. & P.J. De Baranda Andujar. Effect of 3 Different Active Stretch Durations on Hip Flexor Range of Motion. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(2);430-436. 2010.
  2. Behm, D.G. & A., K. Chaouachi. A Review of the Acute Effects of Static and Dynamic Stretching on Performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11):2633-2651. 2011.
  3. Bradley, P.S., P.D. Olsen, and M.D. Portas, The effect of static, ballistic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on vertical jump performance. J Strength Cond Res, 2007. 21(1): p. 223-6
  4. Power, K., et al., An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance. med Sci Sports Exerc, 2004. 36(8): p. 1389-96
  5. Ryan, E.D., et al., Determining the minimum number of passive stretches necessary to alter musculotendinous stiffness. J Sports Sci, 2009. 27(9): p. 957-61
  6. Bandy, W.D. and J.M. Irion, The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Phys Ther, 1994. 74(9): p. 845-50; discussion 850-2
  7. Samson, M., et al., Effects of dynamic and static stretching within general and activity specific warm-up protocols. J Sports Sci Med, 2013. 11(2): p. 279-85
  8. Puentedura, E. J., e, Immediate effects of quantified hamstring stretching: Hold-relax proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation versus static stretching. Phys Ther Sport, 2011. 12(3): p. 122-6
  9. MacDonald, G.Z., et al., An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(3): p. 812-21

 



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