First evaluate your current flexibility status by assessing various joints’ ROM. Specifically, performing the sit-and-reach test will assess your hamstring and lower back flexibility while using a goniometer can be used to assess your ankles, knees, hips, neck and shoulders. Instructions on how to perform these assessments will follow later.
Once you determine which of your joints are the most and least flexible, you can set some realistic goals to improve or maintain your ROM. Be specific when you set goals. Instead of just saying, “I want to increase my flexibility,” identify the specific area of the body you intend to improve. You will also want to make sure your goal can be measured. A better way to state your goal is, “I will improve my sit-and-reach score by 4 cm by the end of the semester.” Notice this goal, as stated, includes a specific area, is measurable, and includes a deadline. By stating your goal properly, you will increase the likelihood of achieving it.
Applying the FITT Principle
When designing a flexibility program use the FITT Principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type). Your flexibility program should include multiple stretching exercises that target all major joints, including the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, trunk, hips, knees, and ankles.
After selecting your exercises, follow the recommendations below when performing your routine:
- Frequency: Stretch a minimum of 2-3 days per week, ideally 5-7 days per week.
- Intensity: Stretch to the point of tightness or mild discomfort.
- Time (duration of each stretch): Stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds for very tight muscles with an emphasis on progressing to 30-90 seconds. Complete two to four repetitions of each stretch.
- Type (mode): Select the technique that best suits your circumstances: static, dynamic, ballistic, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.
When to Stretch
Although stretching can be done any time, the ACSM traditionally recommends that flexibility training be incorporated into the warm up or cool down phase of an exercise session. Recent studies suggests that stretching before an exercise session will compromise the force-producing capabilities of muscles and should be avoided. Therefore, it is recommended that stretching be restricted to after the warm-up or workout, when the temperature of the body and muscles has increased. Additional evidence pertaining to this concept shows that applying heat packs for 20 minutes to increase muscle temperature can increase hamstring flexibility more so than 30 seconds of static stretching. These findings confirm that temperature also plays a significant role in muscle ROM.
In addition to warming up your muscles before performing stretching exercises, additional precautions can be taken to ensure the safety of your routine. When muscles are stretched quickly and forcefully, the stretch reflex can be activated. This creates significant tension because the muscle fibers will not only be stretching but also attempting to contract. As mentioned previously, this is one of the reasons ballistic stretching may not be suitable for everyone. To avoid this, stretch slowly and in a controlled fashion while holding the stretch for 10 seconds or more.
Stretches to Avoid
Research indicates that some stretches are contraindicated, which means they are not recommended because they provide little to no benefit and may cause injury. A list of stretches to avoid, as well as safer, alternate stretches, can be found by clicking on the link below. However, this is not a comprehensive list of potentially risky stretches. To avoid injury, it is important to consider personal limitations before performing a stretch exercise.
Dawn Markell & Diane Peterson, Health and Fitness for Life. MHCC Library Press. Sept 4, 2019. https://mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe295