Stretching is very often overlooked but it plays an essential role in keeping your muscles and joints strong and pliable. As the muscles get more elastic and joints are able to move freely, you are less susceptible to injury.
Flexibility exercises, known as 'range-of-motion' exercises keep 'tension comfortable'. You must feel only the stretch and never the pain. A good flexibility exercise routine should be able to work on each of the major muscle group. You need about five to ten minutes a day.
Rules for flexibility exercises
Why flexibility exercises ?
Stretching is useful for both injury prevention and injury treatment. Muscle tendons are less likely to experience tears when used actively. Hence, stretching enhances athletic performance. Respiratory functions also improve with increased flexibility of neck, shoulders, upper and back.
There are three methods in flexibility (stretching) exercises namely static, ballistic and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation). While static method is recommended for majority of athletes as it causes less injury, ballistic and PNF stretching is reserved for the experienced few.
Stretching is recommended after warm up exercises as this tends to increase blood flow to the muscles, a key component for injury prevention. Gradually lengthen the time to hold a stretch and don't strain to hold it. Exercise intensity can be measured in two ways – by the feeling of perceived exertion and by the heartbeat.
Regular stretching after exercises can help reduce post exercise muscle soreness. Dynamic warm up routines prepare the muscles at the end of session and a five minute cool down followed by a series of static stretches can help target all main muscle groups.
Ankle flexibility exercise
Ankle flexibility stretches are designed to restore movement to the ankle and improve flexibility muscles.
Foot and ankle up and down: Move foot and ankle up and down as far as possible and comfortable without pain. Repeat 10-20 times.
Foot and ankle in and out: Move foot and ankle in and out as far as possible and comfortable without pain. Repeat 10-20 times.
Ankle stretches: intermediate exercises: Use foot and ankle movements to draw the alphabet from A to Z and use movements as large as possible and comfortable without pain. Repeat with lower case letters.
Lower back flexibility exercises
Lack of back flexibility can lead to lumbar injuries and pain. Certain postures and exercises help alleviate pain and prevent lumbar muscle and spine injuries.
Knee to chest exercises are designed to stretch the muscles of the lower back. This helps decrease compression on the lumbar region of the spine. According to Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, you should start by resting on your back on a firm surface. Clasp hands together behind one thigh and pull your bent leg toward chest while keeping other leg flat on the floor. Lower leg and repeat with the other leg.
Hip flexibility exercise
Hip flexion: Take knee to chest as far as possible pain free and repeat 10-20 times.
Hip abduction: Keep knee straight and take leg to the side as far as possible pain free. Keep your knee cap and toes facing the ceiling. Repeat 10-20 times.
Hip external rotation: Begin with knee and bent and foot flat on the floor. Take knee to the side as far as possible pain free. Repeat 10-20 times.
Hamstring flexibility exercise
Hamstring muscles are located behind the thigh, and aid in running, jumping and squatting among other major lower body activities. Tight hamstrings are prone to cause knee and hip injuries and limit athletic performance and could risk hamstring strains. Dynamic hamstring exercises are the key to increase flexibility.
Walking lunges are dynamic exercises that lengthen tight hamstrings. Lunges increase flexibility while strengthening leg muscles at the same time. For walking lunge, stand with feet hip width apart. Stand up straight, bend knees slightly and hang arms by the sides. Step left foot 3 feet in front of body and stack knee directly over ankle.
Lift onto the toes right foot. Slowly drop right knee toward the ground, stopping right before it makes contact with the floor. Push up through right foot's heel and bring next to left foot and return to standing. Step forward three feet with right foot and do a lunge on that side. Continue walking and alternating lunges until 10 on each side is completed.
Upper body flexibility exercise
We use our upper body including shoulders, chest and upper back for various routine activities such as brushing teeth, combing hair or typing on the keyboard. When one area of the body is weakened, we tend to transfer the weight and work on another area of the body such as upper arms, shoulders. This way, we create imbalances in our body which can lead to pain and restricted motion.
Scapula rotation is a flexibility exercise aimed at upper body fitness: Lie flat on back and raise legs and feet together. Keep arms straight at sides and feet in neutral position. Bend right elbow at 90 degrees so that hand is straight up in the air. Slightly move right shoulder down opposite of bringing shoulder to ear.
Knee flexibility exercise
Knee stretches are designed to restore movement to the knees and improve flexibility of muscles crossing the knee.
Basic knee stretch: Bend and straighten knee as far as possible and comfortable pain free. Repeat 10-20 times.
Quadriceps stretch is an advanced knee stretch. Use a chair or table for balance. Stand straight and take heel towards your bottom, keeping knees together and back straight until you feel a stretch in front of the thigh. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat four times at a mild to moderate stretch pain free.
Dynamic flexibility exercises
These dynamic movements can have the biggest impact among all other flexibility workouts. Sometimes these movements could be life savers. Free movements, as in children, are possible by such movement patterns. But you need to move the joints through a full range of motion in a controlled manner.
Dynamic flexibility is very different from the traditional stretching exercises in that it is not static stretching where one holds a stretch for a prolonged period of time. These dynamic exercises mean stability and strength.
Hip circles can be done to restore range of motion in your hips. Get on hands and knees. Start with either leg. Bring knee towards chest and out to the side and then back around to the starting position. The key to this is to keep back as flat as possible. Those with tight hips can compensate by tilting body to the side in order to lift the leg. Ten repetitions should be done on each leg.
General tips for flexibility exercise program