Hopefully, by now most people realize that stretching forms an essential part of any fitness program. But what is less clear is whether people know why stretching is important, how to do it safely and effectively, and the difference between mobility and flexibility.
Too often you will see people doing static stretches at the start of a workout, and then pulling a muscle within minutes of starting their strengthening routine.
Or you will see martial artists spending a lot of time doing split stretches but remain unable to deliver those powerful high kicks.
And, of course, you will still meet the occasional lifter who believes that mobility is for yogis and that lifting and endurance training is all they really need to do to get the optimal performance from their muscles.
All these examples show a fundamental lack of understanding of mobility, flexibility, stretching, and how to do it. So, in today’s article, we will try and throw some light on these topics and provide some top tips for incorporating stretching into your training routine.
Mobility vs Flexibility
First and foremost, it is worth noting that stretching is an essential part of both mobility and flexibility training. But, while many people use these terms interchangeably, they are two quite different things.
The term that most people will be familiar with is flexibility, which is basically how far your can stretch your muscles in a given direction. Being able to do the splits is often considered the classic sign of flexibility.
But just because you can do the splits on the ground, doesn’t mean that you could deliver a kick above your head, even though, in theory, your leg can reach that high. You’ve just done the splits, haven’t you?
This is because flexibility is passive. It is the extent to which you can extend your muscles when using something to stretch them out into that position. This could be your hand, a band, a partner, the floor, a wall, and so forth.
The point is that you aren’t using the strength of your muscles to get your muscle into the position.
The height to which you can do your kick, or simply raise your leg in front of you using only the strength of your muscles, is mobility.
Mobility is the range of motion that you have within your muscles, and it combines both flexibility and strength. To make that high kick you need to be able to both elongate the muscle and use your muscle strength to get it into the position, and in some instances hold it there.
So, flexibility contributes to mobility, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. You also need strength in your muscles and joints, stability, coordination, and more.
Why Train Mobility & Flexibility
Hopefully, it is clear why mobility training should be an essential part of any fitness routine.
If you can move a muscle group through a full range of motion, you are less likely to injure yourself by pushing your muscles or joints beyond their capacity.
If you practice a performance sport, such as martial arts, it will allow you to deliver dynamic movements, such as high and powerful kicks.
If you exercise just to feel healthier and happier, you will feel more comfortable in your body generally with a greater range of mobility.
What about stretching?
First and foremost, stretching done properly can help contribute to mobility.
Secondly, when you are working your muscles hard, stretching afterward can relax the muscles more quickly and aid in faster recovery.
Finally, being able to get into positions like the splits is cool, and many people find flexibility stretching enjoyable and relaxing.
These all seem like pretty good reasons to improve your mobility and flexibility.
Improving Mobility and Flexibility with Stretching
To improve your mobility and flexibility, you need to invest time in stretching. But there is more than one way to stretch, and different types of stretching should be done at different times in your fitness program and to achieve different things.
So, look at the main approaches to stretching, and how and when different stretching should be done.
Dynamic stretching is stretching that warms up your muscles and joints, loosening them up so that they can get into their existing full range of motion.
A classic example of a dynamic stretch is the leg swing, where you stand on one foot and swing the other leg up in front of your nose and back down to the floor.
However, one of the worst things you can do when dynamic stretching is start off my using the full force of your muscle to swing your leg up as high as you can. This is known as “ballistic stretching” as is dangerous for your muscles, especially when you are still cold. It is easy to use your full strength to swing your muscle into a position that is beyond its range of motion and injure yourself.
Dynamic stretches should be gradual and controlled. You start relaxed and gradually push yourself towards your limits, and never push yourself to the point of pain.
Dynamic stretching doesn’t really increase your baseline mobility or flexibility. Rather, it warms up your muscles and joints so that they can comfortably reach their baseline flexibility.
Dynamic stretches should be conducted at the start of a training session to prepare your body for more demanding activities.
Passive stretching is probably the most familiar type of stretching. This is where you try to elongate your muscles as much as possible, using assistance beyond your own muscles strength to push your muscles to their maximum stretch.
The most obvious example of this is the splits, where you use the resistance of the floor to elongate your muscles as much as possible. Another example is when you put your head on your knees, but you use your hands to pull your body closer to your legs and get deeper into the stretch.
This kind of activity increases your flexibility so that the next time you perform these same stretches you will be able to go deeper. But, if you do passive stretching alone, you will see only a very limited improvement in performance in activities such as kicks.
The main benefit of this kind of stretching is that elongating the muscles in this way can help relax them after use so that they recover faster.
To prevent injury, passive stretches should always be done after your body is already warm. They provide the greatest recovery benefit when done at the end of a training session, ahead of a recovery period.
Active stretching is when you stretch your muscles to their limits, but without the assistance of anything else (like your hands or the floor), using only the power of your muscles themselves.
An example of this is when you raise your leg in front of your and try and hold it as high as you can. Another example would be bending over and trying to touch your head to your knees, but without the assistance of your hands pulling.
This works muscle strength significantly. Not only will you see that you can’t lift your leg anywhere near as high without the assistance of your hands, but you will find that your muscles quickly start to tremble as your hold your leg in the position.
To try and improve flexibility in active stretching, you can move your body into position using assistance, as you would with passive stretching, and then remove that assistance and try and hold it muscle there on your own.
Active stretching is a strength-building exercise that stresses the muscles, so it should be done during your main workout, after dynamic stretching, and before passive stretching.
Isometric stretching is a combination of passive and active stretching. You stretch your muscles to their limits be getting into a passive stretching position, and then actively contract the opposite muscles.
For example, you could get down into a splits position, passively stretching your hamstrings and the other muscles on the back of your legs. You then tense your quads and the other muscles on the top of your legs, perhaps imaging that you are using those muscles to pull yourself back up into a standing position (though obviously staying where you are).
In this position, you are elongating the muscles on the back of your leg and strengthening the muscles on the front of your leg. This is essential for mobility. To be able to hold your leg in front of you in an active stretch pose, you will need to lift your leg with your quad muscles, while allowing your hamstring to stretch.
Like active stretching, isometric stretches stress the muscles and build strength, so they should be conducted during the main part of your workout.
How To Get the Most from Your Stretching?
Many people say that they just aren’t naturally flexible, probably because they have done stretches for years and they’ve never really seen any noticeable improvement in their flexibility.
But research suggests that the human body is highly adaptable and that your muscles, tendons, heart, and lungs will adapt when appropriately trained. So, the real problem is probably that these doubters aren’t doing their stretches quite right.
As with most things, the consistency and mindset with which you approach something matters. And there is good reason to suspect that this is especially the case when it comes to flexibility.
This is because scientific studies have shown that improvements in flexibility are not necessarily linked to structural changes in your body’s muscles or tendons. Rather, increased stretch tolerance seems to be linked to adaptation in our nervous systems.
The theory is that the limit in our muscle flexibility isn’t a physical limitation, but rather a mental one. For some reason, our brains have learned that there is a limit to where we can stretch our hamstrings, for example. When we reach that limit, our nervous system kicks in and sends us pain signals to get us to stop, so we involuntarily reach a point that we can’t pass.
That doesn’t mean that these limits aren’t real. If you try to ignore your limits and decide to have someone push down on you and force you into the splits, you will probably injure yourself.
But it does mean that when stretching, as well as working your muscles, you also need to work on your nervous system.
How do you do that? Controlled and deep breathing in coordination with your muscle movement. This has been shown to relax your nervous system and let you go a little bit deeper.
As you go deeper, your brain learns that your limits are a little bit further away than it previously imagined, and your nervous system will kick in a bit later, making you more flexible.
So, yoga then?
Yes, yoga is one of the best ways to improve your mobility and flexibility. Most practices combine all the different stretch types and use rhythmic breathing to relax the nervous system. So, yoga is an excellent way to work your mobility and flexibility, but it certainly is not the only way.
Interested in Yoga? Find our Yoga guides here.
It is also important to be consistent with your stretching. Gains tend to be cumulative, which means that you are better off doing a little bit of work each day than doing a long and intense stretching session just once a week.
Finally, don’t forget to rest. If you are doing active or isometric stretches to improve your mobility, you are stressing your muscles, so they need a chance to recover. If you do full-body stretching sessions, you should have a few days off a week. If you don’t like to take time off, you can alternate between upper and lower body days.
Though you should still give yourself rest days, as you might be surprised which muscle groups you use to get into and hold certain positions. For example, getting up into a holding a bridge position is hard work on the quads and glutes.
While most people these days accept that stretching is essential to any holistic training routine, few people know how to stretch both to get the results that they are looking for and not to damage themselves.
The most important thing to know is that flexibility is more nuanced than many people realize. Generally speaking, flexibility is passive, and it is the extent to which you can elongate your muscles with the help of an apparatus, such as your hands or the floor. Mobility is the extent to which you can elongate your muscles while holding them in position with the strength of your muscles alone.
Mobility is essential for performance and to protect your body from injury. Flexibility is good for relaxing your muscles and helping them recuperate.
Passive stretches such as the splits are good for developing flexibility and should only really be done at the end of a training session when you have already worked your muscles. Passive stretching when your body is cold can be a recipe for injury. Instead, you should start your workout with dynamic stretches, designed to warm up your muscles and get them to their baseline range of motion, without trying to increase flexibility or mobility.
To increase mobility, include active stretches and isometric stretches as part of your training session. These stretches work muscle strength as well as flexibility, so they do strain the muscles and you will need to rest and recover afterward.
If you want to stretch to improve your mobility and flexibility, you need to stretch consistently, and also with purpose. Overcoming barriers is as much in your head as it is in your body. So, while there is nothing wrong with stretching in front of the TV, you will see better results if your focus your mind and breath on the activity at hand.