Will being inflexible harm your physical performance or cause injuries? Get-Fit Guy answers a reader question.
Drake wrote in to firstname.lastname@example.org:
“I am trying to get back in shape after a long time of nothing. I did martial arts when I was young but for about the last 10 years I just quit. I am now in the worst shape of my life. The ray of sunshine here is the doctor says I am in great health to start getting back in shape. I was naturally flexible when I was younger, but now I can’t even touch my toes. Could you give me some pointers to help me regain at least normal flexibility?”
Great question, Drake! In this article, you’ll learn whether being inflexible can harm your physical performance or cause injuries, and how to improve your flexibility with a specially-designed workout.
Does Inflexibility Affect Performance?
In What is the Best Way to Warm-Up? we learn that static stretching, in which you hold a stretching position for 5, 10, or 20 seconds, can inhibit the amount of force that your muscles can produce and limit your physical performance in any jumping, running, or lifting activity you may do after that stretching session.
Because in most athletic movements, force is produced not just from the muscle contracting, but also from a release of elastic energy that is stored in the muscle’s tendon.
Take running, for example. When your foot strikes the ground, your ankle flexes backwards as your body absorbs the impact and your knee bends. When the ankle beings to extend for the toe to push off the ground, the energy stored in your Achilles tendon during the foot planting phase is released. This is called a “stretch shortening” cycle, and the tighter your tendons are, the more explosively they can release that stored energy.
One way to keep tendons tight is to not engage in repeated stretching workouts – which is one reason why sprinters, jumpers, and athletes in other power sports know to be careful with too much flexibility work – stiff tendons create big forces very fast.
But don’t confuse stiffness with the inability to move through a range of motion. These athletes do exercises such as skips, bounds, hops, and swings to ensure that they are able to move their muscles through a range of motion that is what they will experience during their sporting event – but not a range of motion significantly greater than that.
So if you’re getting ready for a run, warming up for weight training, or doing anything other than a relaxing yoga or stretching session, static stretching is not a good way to warm up. However, especially for activities that require improvements in flexibility, such as swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, static stretching can be an effective way to cool down.
Does Inflexibility Cause Injuries?
So can being inflexible to the point where you are unable to move a joint through your desired range of motion cause an injury?
But this can be confusing, because data has shown that static stretching doesn’t even reduce your risk of injury, which is one of the primary reasons that you may have been led to believe you should do static stretching before athletic activities!
So either static stretching doesn’t make you flexible, or it makes you flexible, but being more flexible doesn’t reduce your risk of injury. Which is it?
Fortunately, science has looked into this:
A study that reviewed over 360 other studies was published in the March 2004 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, and that study of studies concluded there was no evidence that stretching before or after exercise prevents injury or muscle soreness.
However, the study did conclude that stretching does improve flexibility – but being flexible doesn't prevent injuries. As a matter of fact, one theory exists that suggests that increased flexibility may actually allow your joint to move into potentially more strenuous positions, resulting in subsequent soft-tissue damage around that joint.
So it turns out that all you really need is enough flexibility to be able to move your joints through the same range of motion they’ll be moving through when you’re performing your activity of choice (whether that’s lifting weights, swimming, doing gymnastics, or playing basketball).
In some cases, that necessary range of motion is high and demands significant flexibility. But in most cases, not much range of motion is necessary, and the type of arm swings, leg swings, and dynamic movements described in What Is The Best Way To Warm-Up? will suffice.
How to Get More Flexible
So, if you do need to increase your range of motion for a sport such as swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, or you’re not flexible enough to move your shoulder through a pushup or your hips into a squat—and dynamic stretching just doesn’t do the trick?
The culprit of the tightness might be adhesions in the fascia. Think of your fascia as a giant sheath of connective tissue that covers your muscles. Just like any other connective tissue in your body, it can get tight, and the fibers that form fascia can become stuck together in what is called an “adhesion.”
Luckily, there are other methods, aside from dynamic stretching, that can make you less stiff and able to move through greater range of motion. Here are a few that can help to remove adhesions and improve range of motion while reducing stiffness:
Trigger Point Therapy
Deep Tissue Massage
Active Release Technique
Finally, I’m asked quite a bit if I personally do static stretching (the type of “stretch-and-hold” stretching performed in an activity like yoga). The answer is yes. I begin every day with a morning stretch routine, but not because I think it’s going to reduce my risk of injury or make me a faster runner. Instead, I’m relying on the proven blood pressure, heart rate, and stress reducing benefits of beginning each day with a healthy and relaxing stretch.
If you have more questions how to get more flexible then share them in Comments or on the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page!