Engaging in a consistent and carefully planned flexibility routine isn’t something that we should do ‘just because’, rather because it is the right thing to do!
From my earliest memory of physical education class in elementary school, the importance of stretching as something we ‘should do’ has been ingrained in my prevailing thought. Cemented in my cortex as a high school and collegiate athlete and later in life as a recreational cyclist, stretching has now become something that ‘I just do.’
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?
(Spoiler Alert: The answer isn’t…” because my gym teacher and coaches told me to.”)
In 1998, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommended that athletes incorporate flexibility exercises in their fitness program to develop and maintain range of motion. The ability of muscles and joints to go through a full range of motion is termed flexibility.
In 2006 the ACSM recommended that preventive and rehabilitative exercise programs should include activities that promote the maintenance of flexibility.
Factors That Affect our Flexibility
Flexibility decreases as much as 50% in some areas of our body as we age, as Einkauf et al. (1987) noted when examining changes in spinal mobility for 109 women aged 20 to 84 years. Buckwalter (1997) proposed that a progressive breakdown of cell function in the cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and muscles with age is the cause. At the same time, Misner and colleagues (1992) believe that collagen, the main constituent of connective tissue, becomes dense (and stiffer) with aging.
Women have a greater range of motion than men for most body regions due to differences in joint structures and connective tissue anatomy. By assessing the upper body joints of a group of 41 male and female subjects, Doriot and Wang (2006) found females to have a significantly greater range of motion in several joint actions. However, the effect of gender on range of motion is much less than that of age.
In addition, physically active individuals have greater flexibility in the joints they regularly utilize when compared to their physically inactive counterparts. Misner et al. (1992), in a 5-year study, showed that regular exercise (3 times per week) improved mobility by up to 22%, which translated to a much more efficient performance of daily functional activities.
The Key Types of Stretches
This type of stretching involves bringing a muscle or joint into a lengthened position and holding it there without moving for a set period. This traditional type of stretching is taught as the safest when fitness professionals advise to “not bounce” for fear of damaging the muscle.
When the muscles and joints stretched are taken through their range of motion during movement. This type of stretching is more specific to preparation for certain sports, but care should be taken due to residual soreness and risk of injury if performed too forcefully.
PNF Stretching Techniques
The multiple variations of PNF were developed as part of therapeutic work with patients who have paralysis and muscular diseases. The contract-relax method involves initially contracting the muscle, followed by relaxing and then stretching. A variation of the contract-relax method is to perform a contraction of the antagonist muscle (muscle on the opposite side of joint) during the stretching phase to increase the stretch further.
This technique has gained much interest amongst fitness professionals recently following its Olympic swimmer Dara Torres endorsement. First, the athlete contracts the muscle to place it in a shortened position. While contracted, the muscle is taken through a full range of motion (stretched) while the contraction is maintained. In effect, it incorporates a strengthening component as well.
Both the PNF and Resistance stretching techniques are particularly aggressive. They can cause muscle damage and are safest when performed under the supervision of a skilled professional as part of a periodized training plan and not more than 1-2 times a week.
So which method is best?
A comprehensive review of the above techniques by Thacker et al. (2004) had shown all methods to be very effective in improving range of motion with no straightforward best approach. Ask a trusted fitness professional and consider that along with your personal experience to choose the one (or combo) that works best.
Is there a difference between Flexibility and Mobility?
Flexibility is how far you can move a joint without injury and is relatively equal to your passive range of motion (the motion you have when someone other than yourself is creating the movement). A static stretch will test the limits of your flexibility and relate directly to a muscle’s ability to lengthen fully.
Mobility is the ability of a joint to move through a range of motion. It is also the ability to control the movement of a joint through a range of motion. Good mobility is vital for athletes because it includes many factors, with flexibility being one of them. Joint and connective tissue motion, the nervous system’s ability to relax, and the neuromuscular activation of the muscles to control movement all contribute.
In short, flexibility is required for mobility, and mobility is required to perform the efficient movement patterns without restrictions or compensation required during athletics.
A Few of the Key Benefits of Stretching
1. Stretching can improve posture.
Prolonged sitting (or riding a bicycle) causes specific muscles to become tight and lead to poor posture. Specifically, the muscles of the chest, back (both lower and upper), and hips can cause our spine to become hunched and our shoulders rounded. We can improve this by stretching the affected muscles and concentrate on improving our posture.
2. Stretching can improve range of motion and prevents loss of range of motion.
3. Stretching can decrease back pain.
If we develop tight hamstrings or hip flexors due to poor posture, as noted above, the lower back compensates and can generate pain. Stretching the affected muscles will help to decrease back pain.
4. Stretching can help prevent injury.
Overstretching a muscle or tendon can cause it to become strained or torn. Therefore, in theory, if you stretch and increase the range in which a muscle can move, the likelihood of injuring it decreases.
The Most Effective Time To Stretch
Thacker et al. (2004) concluded that pre-exercise stretching doesn’t prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes. Stretching before exercise can cause an alteration in joint connective tissue compliance (the ability of the tissue to extend appropriately in response to applied pressure), leading to joint instability.
When examining the effects of stretching immediately before strength training, Rubini, Costa, and Gomes (2007) found that the research indicates that static and PNF stretching has shown decreases in MAXIMAL strength from 4.5% to 28%.
A comprehensive review by Shrier (2004) of the effect of stretching (static, PNF, and ballistic stretching techniques) on athletic performance, in a mixed sample of untrained and highly competitive athletes, revealed that regular stretching, when performed at times other than BEFORE performance, may elicit positive long-term performance outcomes. However, pre-performance stretching may produce adverse performance outcomes.
In short, it is best to stretch after training to avoid strength and performance deficits and to maximize the potential for injury prevention. Evidence suggests that incorporating a pre-exercise combination of resistance exercise, muscle activation, and gentle warm-up may be more helpful in preventing injury and preparing the body for activity.
A Few Key Stretching Tips
The latest ACSM stretching and flexibility guidelines include:
Frequency: Equal to or greater than 2-3 times per week. Daily stretching is most effective.
Intensity: When performing a Static Stretch, go to the point of feeling tightness or slight discomfort and hold.
Time: Holding a static stretch for 10-30s is recommended for most adults. In older individuals, holding a stretch for 30-60s may confer more significant benefits toward flexibility.
A few more tips to proper stretching technique include the following:
Warm-up first: Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of pulled muscles.
Don’t bounce: Bouncing as you stretch can cause tiny tears in the muscle, which leave scar tissue as the muscle heals and may make it tighter and harder to stretch.
Focus on a pain-free stretch: If you feel pain, you’ve gone too far and should back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain (the endpoint), then hold the stretch.
Relax and breathe freely: Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching.
Stretch tight muscles to address imbalances: Ensure your joint range of motion is as equal as possible on each side of your body and between opposing muscle groups.
Focus on the muscle to be stretched: Isolate to minimize the movement of other body parts.
Breathe slow and rhythmically while holding stretches: Slowly EXHALE as you reach the endpoint of the stretch for optimal relaxation of the target muscle.
Stretch the muscles in various positions: Stretching in different planes may improve the overall range of motion at the joint.
Stretching after exceptionally intense activity will relax your body and your mind.
Focus on proper form rather than the intensity of the stretch.
Conclusion: Implications For The Virtual Cyclist
Cyclists spend long periods in the saddle, often bent forward at the waist, not paying much attention as their back arches, their shoulders become rounded, their shoulder blades wing from their ribs, and their head cranes upward. Our cycling posture worsens as we fatigue and the passage of days and years spent pursuing our passion.
All of this time spent in a seated position increases the risk of tightness in the hip flexors. The loss of flexibility, in turn, causes the pelvis to rotate forward on the saddle, and when combined with tight hamstrings, weak glutes, and core, creates constant tension on the lower back muscles.
Consistently engaging in a generalized stretching program to maintain and even increase muscle and joint flexibility is essential for overall health, wellness, and ensuring that we are best prepared to enjoy our passion and function daily as we age.
A carefully planned stretching program that focuses on the excessively tight cycling muscles, and addresses imbalances caused by riding and racing, is imperative for the virtual cyclist to optimize pain-free enjoyment.
Stretching a few minutes a day, when done the right way, will keep us at play…riding that is!
Were you aware of the reasons behind the stretching decisions that we have been told to make? Now that you know, are you more motivated to make the time to stretch daily? Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know your thoughts and experience.
Einkauf, D.K, Gohdes, M.L., Jensen, G.M. and Jewel, M.J. (1987). Changes in spinal mobility with increasing age in women. Physical Therapy, 67(3), 370-375.
Buckwalter, J.A. (1997). Maintaining and restoring mobility in middle and old age: the importance of the soft tissues. Instructional Course Lectures, 46, 459-469.
Misner, J.E., Massey, B.H., Bemben, M., Going. S., and Patrick, J. (1992). Long-term effects of exercise on range of motion of aging women. Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 16(1), 37-42. 213-224.
Doriot, N. and Wang, X. (2006). Effects of age and gender on maximum voluntary range of motion of the upper body joints. Ergonomics, 49(3), 269-281.
Thacker, S.B., Gihchrist, J., Stroup, D.F., and Kimsey, Jr., C.D. (2004). The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic review of the literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36(3), 371-378.
Rubini, E.C., Costa, A.L.L., and Gomes, P.S.C. (2007). The effects of stretching on strength performance. Sports Medicine, 37(3), 213-224.
Shrier, I. (1999). Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local injury. A critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 9(4), 221-227.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit, and through its work and the pages of this site, Chris is committed to helping others with his bike. His gain cave is located on the North Fork of Long Island where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two college student children.