Submitted by Corey Vanderwouw, MPT, 10/21/2019
Imagine a dancer whose body is so free that she can extend her arms, legs and spine in any direction, balance in numerous poses, and move with elegance, ease and agility. It seems so natural. In a dancer, such movements are performed as expressive physical motions.
Now envision a soccer player whose leg-swing moves swiftly from behind his body and extends forward, and then a swimmer whose arms move in about a complete circle when swimming freestyle. Consider the flexibility they are using in their movements. Their flexibility allows them to apply strength within their available ranges of motion for their desired movements.
Besides sports and recreation, adequate flexibility is required for healthy movements during daily tasks. Flexibility of the shoulders is required to reach to an overhead shelf, tuck a shirt into the back of our pants and throw a ball. Spinal flexibility is needed to look behind ourselves while driving a car, reach up to a high, overhead cabinet or pick up an item from the floor. Leg flexibility is utilized when bending forward, lunging and walking.
Flexibility refers to the suppleness of tissues and joints, and the ability to stretch and move through one’s full range of motion. When flexibility is limited, movement is encumbered. In these cases, the body often compensates by using movements which stress joints, ligaments and tendons. These compensatory movements commonly become stronger over time, which can lead to injuries and pain.
A common example is seen with people who have tight hamstrings (the muscles on the backs of the thighs). Hamstring flexibility is utilized when bending forward, as when a person bends forward to pick up a laundry basket from the floor. For this movement, the pelvis rotates forward on the femurs (thigh bones) utilizing hamstring flexibility which allows forward rotation of the pelvis (the spine follows the pelvis). When hamstring flexibility runs out, spinal movement must be used to finish the movement of bending forward. For people who have less hamstring flexibility, the pelvis stops rotating forward sooner, requiring a greater amount of spinal bending to be able to reach the basket. This type of bending, especially repetitively, is a common cause of low back pain and injury. Although it is the hamstrings that lack flexibility, the spine can become injured.
Spinal inflexibility offers other examples; the following is one. Often the spinal segments lose flexibility and stiffen into a forward-curved posture in which the upper back is rounded excessively, and the head is pitched forward. Lack of flexibility prevents erect posture. In this curved posture, the spinal bones are not stacked erect, one on top of the next, which is how body weight is typically supported. Instead, the head is forward and without necessary underlying support. Neck muscles become overworked, tight and sore. Upper back musculature is also often overworked and sore due to excess work to hold the upper body up. In contrast, a flexible spine allows erect standing, which is easier, more comfortable, and centers your weight over your feet, improving balance and therefore increasing safety.
In addition to benefits expressed in the above examples, additional benefits of flexibility include body symmetry, decreased likelihood of muscle spasms and enhanced physical performance. Common areas that benefit from increased flexibility are the shoulders, hips and legs and the spine; however, it feels great to be flexible throughout the body!
Static stretching is the type of stretching that is typically performed to gain flexibility. It is done by assuming a non-painful position of stretch and holding still for commonly 30 to 60 seconds at a time. An example is holding using one arm to hold the other arm across your chest to feel a comfortable stretch in the back of the shoulder. When done properly there is no bouncing during static stretching. This type of stretching can be performed gently on its own, in combination with dynamic stretching or after physical activity.
Dynamic stretching is more like a gentle warm-up and is performed by moving a joint through a range of motion. Examples include shoulder rolls, shoulder circles, hip circles, marching, controlled spinal rotation and bending, knee hinges, buttock kicks, and ankle rolls.
Dynamic stretching increases blood flow, lubricates joints and stimulates nerve pathways. It can be done for general loosening of the body, or to prepare the body for vigorous movement or static stretching. Static and dynamic stretching done together is a nice combination. You can alternate the controlled, gentle movements of dynamic stretching with static stretches to help you feel limber and invigorated. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance as needed. Move Better, Live Better.