Even though Yoga and Pilates are really popular, many people, even those who regularly workout, lack flexibility. It is for sure that if your body is really rigid, it will restrict even your basic movement, such as walking, and we know it is not good for us. However, should all of us be flexible as a gymnast to be healthy?
Many people think that if you are flexible you don’t get injuries, such as pulling muscles during the workout. However, most of muscle injuries occur well inside of your mobility range. Therefore, flexibility usually does not prevent muscle injuries.
Does stretching alleviate the muscle soreness after workout? A simple answer is no. A major scientific study done about the relation between stretching and muscle soreness shows that there is no positive correlation between them.
On the contrary, if you are too flexible, you may injure yourself. Some women are really flexible without much training, and can do split. These women tend to have slightly dislocated hip joint due to the weak leg and hip muscles. They are prone to get joint problems, and that is not pleasant.
Then, why do we need flexibility? There are two main reasons; one is physical, and another is mental. First, if you are flexible (and if your muscles are strong), it makes movement much smoother and freer, and you can move your body with ease. For example, if your hip joints are strong and flexible, you can run with less effort, because there is less resistance while taking each stride. Even if it is a small amount of reduction in effort, if you are a marathon runner, it could end up 20 min difference at the final time.
Another physical benefit is your posture. If you are flexible, it is much easier to keep a good posture. In fact, many people have a bad posture, because muscle flexibility/strength imbalance. You can find people, even among young, who are hunched over. Many of them have the weak upper back muscles, and/or stiff chest muscles. The former tends to happen among women, and the latter among men, but it is often the combination of both.
Second reason is mental. When people stretch muscles, muscles get relaxed, and they feel relaxed. If you are a master of meditation, you can relax the entire body just by thinking about it, but most of us are not that good, and need to relax each body part one by one by stretching. Benefits of relaxations will be discussed in the next section.
There is another mental benefit; physically flexible people tend to be mentally flexible, too. Mentally flexible people can adapt to new situations easily, and won’t get stressed as easily as people with rigid mental attitude.
Now, we know the benefits of flexibility, but how much flexibility do we want? As I mentioned, the flexibility itself is not useful, and in fact, could be dangerous. You need to strengthen the muscle and then stretch it. The range of the motion is a secondary benefit of stretching. You should aim to relax your muscles first, and forget about the range of motion. It will come eventually, but not as a primary purpose.
How should we stretch? Before stretching, the muscles must be warmed up. Many people stretch before working out, but it is not only useless, but also dangerous. You cannot stretch muscles without warming up! You should spend 5 min or so on a light cardio workout, such as fast pace walking. Once your body is getting warm, you are ready to stretch. You can also do weight training session before the stretching session.
When you stretch, you need to hold a stretching position for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. At the beginning of stretching, when a muscle is stretched, the nerve system sends an emergency signal to the muscle to contract so that the muscle won’t get torn from excess pulling. After 10 to 30 seconds, this signal dies down, and muscle starts elongated. This is why when you are stretching, you feel sudden release of muscles after 10, 15 seconds of holding the same position.
If you have time, it is nice to do full body stretching, which takes 30 minutes to 1 hour, but you can also do a quick one, while you are doing weight training. For example, after one set of squat, stretch your hips, hamstrings, and quads. The stretching takes 3 minutes, and that is a good rest time for heavy squat!
Although there is more to learn, these are the basics. Now, let’s start stretching!