by Craig Smith
Flexibility is one of the cornerstones of physical training and development. Yet it is the one most often overlooked by physical practitioners of all levels and activities.
A flexible muscle is a safer muscle, and a stronger one as well, able to more smoothly exert controlled force through a full range of motion, and to withstand greater stress under a variety of conditions. So if flexibility is so important, why don't more trainers and coaches stress it more?
The reason is simply that most people don't know how to stretch properly for developmental flexibility. Sure, they stretch a little before they work out, but they never seem to get much better. But, after all, some people are just more flexible than others, right?
Wrong, says American Martial Training (AMT), a provider of physical training programs to universities, medical centers, athletes, military personnel and martial artists. Flexibility, like anything else, is the result of proper training.
AMT says that anyone can reach any degree of flexibility they want to, regardless of age, sex or whatever, as long as there is no physiological problem to prevent it. It is simply a matter of working for it. But to do so, it is necessary to understand the principles of developmental flexibility training.
First, the time to stretch is after a workout - not before. Each muscle fiber is enclosed within a sheath of collagen. It is not the muscle fibers that need to be stretched - they are extremely elastic. Rather, it is the collagen that needs to be stretched. Collagen is the main component of connective tissue (tendons & ligaments), and is heat responsive. This just means that it relaxes and becomes more pliable (elastic) as it gets warmer. You can think of it like a garden hose that you leave outside. On a cold day, you can't do much with it. But on a hot day you can stretch it, tie it in knots - whatever. So it is with collagen.
Stretching before a workout doesn't do much good, because the collagen sheaths are not warmed up and pliable. But after a workout they are warm and much more elastic. That is the time to stretch.
AMT teaches developmental stretching according the three stages; introductory, preparatory and developmental. First, they say, take the component being stretched to a point of tension and hold it there for one minute. This is considered the introductory phase. Then back out of the stretch to a relaxed position for one minute. Re-enter the stretch, going a bit further than the first stretch position, and hold it for two minutes. This is considered the preparatory phase. Back out of the position, and relax for two minutes. Finally, re-enter the stretch, going still farther into the position, and hold for three minutes. This is the developmental phase, in which most of the sustained flexibility improvement will be gained.
Maintain slow, deep breathing throughout the stretching regimen, and never bounce in a stretch. Follow the regimen after every workout.
In order to get the most out of developmental stretching, it is necessary to know exactly what muscles you are stretching, and how they are affected by different musculoskeletal positions. For this, a qualified trainer can be helpful. But AMT warns that many certified trainers have a very limited understanding of developmental stretching, and suggests this - if a trainer tells you there is a limit, or if they are unable to help you continue to develop in your flexibility training, find another trainer.