In the fitness world, misconceptions run rampant in regards to flexibility and stretching. Most athletes may have a general understanding of stretching and flexibility training due to their coach’s or trainer’s instruction before or after practices or games for a particular sport. Fewer gym-goers have as much, if any, exposure to flexibility training. Common misconceptions include differing opinions about whether or not to stretch before, during, or after a workout. Most people who workout will fail to ever stretch a single muscle. Some who do stretch may be over-stretching or simply stretching completely wrong.
There are two major focuses every athlete or individual working out should keep in mind:
1. Flexibility is essential in every fitness routine.
2. Don’t stretch cold muscles.
So how can you engage in proper flexibility training? Begin by defining flexibility. Flexibility is the ability to move joints through their normal ranges of motion. The key word in that definition is “normal”. It is very possible to over-stretch. Without going too deep into the physiology of flexibility training, it may help to briefly explain the principles of tissue elasticity, tissue plasticity, and tissue viscoelasticity.
Tissue elasticity refers to the ability of a muscle to return to it’s original form after an external force is removed. Our body is highly intricate, and this ability of our tissues is essential in preparation for activity. When our muscles are stretched to the point of their elastic limit, also referred to as the “yield point”, they are able to improve their extensibility. This is how regular stretching increases flexibility. Over-stretching, or taking a muscle tissue past it’s yield point, is called permanent set, permanent deformation, and more well-known as a strain. A simple way to avoid this would be to stretch to the point, or just before the point, of pain.
Tissue plasticity is the result of a muscle tissue deforming when loaded past a yield point. Continually doing this causes repetitive microtrauma to the muscle. Your tissue will be less efficient in their movements, less stable, and your range of motion will be decreased.
Tissue viscosity is what allows a muscle to resist load. Tissue viscoelasticity is a combination of both elasticity and plasticity, in regards to their behavior. For example, if you stretched a muscle with a low load, or simple pressure, it is going to react with an elastic behavior. Conversely, if you subject the same muscle to intense pressure, or a higher load, a plastic response will occur. The principle of viscoelasticity reacts to temperature. For this reason, it is vital to warm up the body’s fluids and muscle tissues before stretching. This reduces viscosity and allows for proper flexibility and extensibility. If you’re going to work the legs muscles, ride a bike for 5-10 minutes and then stretch.