Flexibility and Mobility
Flexibility training is often neglected but essential part of a fit lifestyle.
- Allows greater freedom of movement and improved posture
- Increases physical and mental relaxation
- Releases muscle tension and soreness
- Reduces the risk of injury
Some people are naturally more flexible. Flexibility is primarily due to one’s genetics, gender, age, body shape and level of physical activity. As people grow older, they tend to lose flexibility primarily as a result of inactivity but partially due to the aging process itself. The less active you are, the less flexible you are likely to be. As with cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength, flexibility will improve with regular training.
Time to Stretch
Time constraints keep many people from stretching. Some complain that they just don’t have time to stretch; others hurry out of their fitness classes before the cool-down exercises are completed.
Ideally, at least 30 minutes, three times per week, should be spent on flexibility training. But even a mere five minutes of stretching at the end of an exercise session is better than nothing to reduce potential muscle soreness. And all aerobic activity should be followed by at least a few minutes of stretching.
Stretch for Success
Before stretching, take a few minutes to warm up, as stretching cold muscles may increase your chances for injury. Begin with a simple, low-intensity warm-up, such as easy walking while swinging the arms in a wide circle. Spend at least five to 10 minutes warming up prior to stretching. The general recommendation for people starting an exercise program is to perform gentle dynamic-type stretches before a workout and static stretches after exercise.
Follow these tips to get the most out of your flexibility training:
- Before stretching, take a few minutes to warm up. Stretching cold muscles may increase your chances for injury. Muscles stretch more easily when they are warm. If you are unable to stretch at the end of a workout session, try performing the stretches after a hot bath or shower.
- Take a deep breath and slowly exhale as you gently stretch the muscle to a point of tension. Avoid holding your breath. Focus on maintaining a smooth and steady breathing pattern while you stretch. Don’t hold your breath during the stretch. Continue to breathe normally.
- Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, relax and then repeat the stretch two to four more times. Take your time. Try holding the stretch for 10-30 seconds, releasing and then repeating the stretch before moving on to the next exercise.
- Avoid bouncing or jerking movements. Static stretching (holding the stretch) is an efficient means for improving flexibility, and the risk of overstretching or injuring the muscle is relatively low with this stretching technique.
- “No pain, no gain” is simply not true. Stretching shouldn’t hurt. Stretch to the point of mild discomfort. Try to find a balance of ease andeffort in every stretch. Don’t strain or push a muscle too far. If a stretch hurts, ease up.
- Dynamic stretches are more advanced and often more efficient and effective. However dynamic stretching has a higher risk of injury if not performed correctly and should be instructed by a qualified professional.
Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) and Muscle Spindle
To keep muscles safe and healthy, we need to have a good understanding of the body’s most basic underlying structural components and how they work together, as this knowledge provides the foundation for effective exercise instruction. Two of these components—Golgi tendon organ (GTO) and muscle spindle—belong to the nervous system and function to influence movement.
The GTO and muscle spindle are two important proprioceptors that play a role in flexibility. They work together reflexively to regulate muscle stiffness. When a GTO is stimulated, it causes its associated muscle to relax by interrupting its contraction. When a muscle is inhibited by a GTO, the process is called autogenic inhibition. The function of the GTO can be considered opposite of the muscle spindle, which serves to produce muscle contraction.
Imagine a muscle spindle as if it were a thread spiraled (or wrapped around) muscle fibers near the muscle belly; as the muscle lengthens or stretches, it pulls on the spindle causing it to lose its spiral shape and also stretch. This signals the muscle to contract (after which, the spiral regains its shape), in turn protecting the muscle from being overstretched. This process is called the stretch reflex.
When a muscle spindle’s associated muscle is rapidly stretched, the spindle can cause two things to happen: (1) it may signal its muscle to contract to prevent it from going too far, too quickly in the stretch; and (2) it can inhibit the opposing muscle (the antagonist to the muscle being stretched) to prevent it from contracting so that it can’t contribute to any further stretching. The relaxation of the antagonist that occurs simultaneously when a muscle spindle’s contraction of its associated muscle occurs is called reciprocal inhibition. Ultimately, the muscle spindle functions to alert the brain that joints and soft tissues are in danger of being stretched too far. These are important concepts in understanding body awareness (also known as proprioception and kinesthetic awareness).
GTOs sense muscular tension within muscles when they contract or are stretched. When the GTO is activated during contraction, it causes inhibition of the contraction (autogenic inhibition), which is an automatic reflex. When the GTO is activated during stretching, it inhibits muscle spindle activity within the working muscle (agonist) so a deeper stretch can be achieved. GTOs are sensitive to changes in tension and rate of tension and, because they are located in the musculotendinous junctions, they are responsible for sending information to the brain as soon as they sense an overload. Static stretching is one example of how muscle tension signals a GTO response. So, when you hold a low-force stretch for more than seven seconds, the increase in muscle tension activates the GTO, which temporarily inhibits muscle spindle activity (thus reducing tension in the muscle), and allows for further stretching.
It’s also worth mentioning that autogenic inhibition can be induced by contracting a muscle right before it is passively stretched, which is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF is a stretching practice that promotes the response of neuromuscular mechanisms through the stimulation of proprioceptors in an attempt to gain more stretch in a muscle. A practical example of this method is to produce a low-grade (50% of maximum force) contraction within a muscle for six to 15 seconds immediately before having a partner passively stretch the muscle. The pre-stretch contraction reduces muscle spindle activity within its associated muscle (the muscle that is about to be stretched) so that the brain more willingly accepts an increase in range of motion during the impending stretch.
The muscle spindles and GTOs go through this cycle to help you stretch safely and effectively. This is also the reasoning behind holding a stretch for seven to 10 seconds to allow the stretch to deepen. GTOs and muscle spindles work together through their reflexive actions to prevent injury.
Let’s Get Flexible!
Coach Tim Garrett
Terms and Definitions
Antagonist Muscle – The antagonist muscle is the muscle opposing the muscle being stretched.
Autogenic Inhibition – Autogenic inhibition is an automatic reflex that inhibits muscular contraction.
Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) – When stimulated the GTO is stimulated, it causes its associated muscle to relax by interrupting its contraction, called autogenic inhibition. The function of the GTO can be considered opposite of the muscle spindle, which serves to produce muscle contraction.
Muscle Spindle – When a muscle spindle’s associated muscle is rapidly stretched, the spindle can cause two things to happen: (1) it may signal its muscle to contract to prevent it from going too far, too quickly in the stretch; and (2) it can inhibit the opposing muscle (the antagonist to the muscle being stretched) to prevent it from contracting so that it can’t contribute to any further stretching.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – PNF is method of inducing autogenic inhibition by contracting a muscle right before it is passively stretched.
Reciprocal Inhibition – Reciprocal inhibition is the relaxation of the antagonist muscle that occurs simultaneously when a muscle spindle’s contraction of its associated muscle occurs.
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