What did we do before rubber bands were invented? Rubber bands are one of those simple items that we take for granted but would be lost without. They are the perfect fusion of elasticity and strength to be able to stretch around a grouping of any item and retract to hold the grouping tightly. And then, its cousin invention based on the same principles, the bungee cord. While the rubber band is perfect for small jobs where elasticity is more important than strength, the bungee cord shifts the balance to the strength side to keep hefty items from flying out of your trunk or off the roof of your car while driving down the highway. But even the rubber band and the bungee cord can’t hold a candle to the combination of elasticity and rigidity residing in our musculature.
Behold our tendons (attaching muscles to bones) and ligaments (attaching bones to other bones). There are two types of amino acids, or proteins, that provide the rubber band/bungee cord properties to ligaments and tendons. Collagen is what gives these tissues rigidity. Rigidity lends strength and keeps the tissue from being over-stretched. Elastin allows for elasticity, making it possible for a joint or muscle to achieve full range of motion. Collagen and elastin also reside in muscle tissue, performing the same duties. But, when you consider the roles of the tendons and ligaments, you can understand how vital both rigidity and elasticity are to them.
In the case of athletes, it’s not enough to be strong and agile. If the ligaments and tendons aren’t trained along with the muscles, tears and strains of the muscles, tendons or ligaments would occur when performing basic athletic maneuvers. When injuries do happen, it’s either due to improper training or an extraordinary mishap on the field of play that stretched the musculature beyond the ability of the elastin and collagen to handle. But what about the average person? Many unexpected challenges for our tendons and ligaments occur throughout our days: turn an ankle, try a new move at Spin class, suddenly reach out to save a toddler from danger, lift a grocery bag that’s heavier than it looks, need I say more? And here’s the other cruel reality, the aging process breaks down elastin and collagen. It is unavoidable. As we get older, if we aren’t specifically training to re-build our elastin and collagen, range of motion in our muscles and joints becomes compromised leading to muscle imbalances and dysfunctional movement. This chain reaction eventually leads to muscle tightness, joint stiffness, pain and, sometimes, injury. Traditional cardiovascular and strength training don’t assist in the regeneration of elastin and collagen in ligaments and tendons, only flexibility-specific training does that. Stretching is the key to flexibility training and should be done every time you do a cardio or strength workout.
Static stretching is the extension and hold of a specific muscle or muscle group to the point of tension but without pain. The stretch should be held for 20-30 seconds for 1 or 2 repetitions. Examples of common static stretches are the seated toe touch, overhead triceps stretch and the cobra. Never do static stretches when your muscles are cold. The recommendation for static stretches is that they be done only at the conclusion of cardio or strength training workouts when muscles are warm and more pliable. The more muscle groups you stretch, the better. But, if you have limited time to stretch, prioritize by stretching all the muscles that were specifically involved in your workout. If you have a particular muscle group that is tight, it can be helpful to stretch them prior to beginning a workout as well as at the conclusion. In those cases, you should always do a 5-10 minute warm-up before static stretching prior to exercise.
If you play a recreational sport, you should incorporate dynamic stretching before a game or match. Dynamic stretches put muscles and joints through a full range of motion in preparation for explosive power movements. Downhill skiing, pick-up basketball, tennis and golf are just a few examples of common recreational activities that should be preceded by dynamic stretching. Examples of dynamic stretching are a swimmer wind-milling arms before a race, a sprinter high-stepping prior to getting into the blocks, or a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat while on deck. It is recommended to do a quick warm up before performing dynamic stretches. If you will be doing a combination of static and dynamic stretching before your activity, do the warm up first, static stretches next, dynamic stretching last. And always perform static stretches for all major muscle groups at the conclusion of the activity.
The Gold Standard of Flexibility Training
Regular stretching is the minimum of what we should be doing to maintain and preserve our collagen and elastin. In order to truly maintain flexibility and work its sister component, balance, there is really nothing better than yoga, Pilates or martial arts. It’s no accident that some of the most elite athletes in the world incorporate at least one of these forms of flexibility and balance training into their regimens. These mind-body exercises uniquely combine muscle strengthening and lengthening along with balance challenges. Many exercise studies have demonstrated a correlation between performing mind-body exercises and the alleviation of common muscle and joint ailments such as arthritis pain, chronic low-back pain and tight hamstrings. Consider also that these forms of exercise become more vital in that they provide a gentle form of functional training that can make a positive impact on our quality of life as we age.
Like rubber bands and bungee cords, flexibility is the one form of fitness that is often taken for granted and ignored. But, you cannot have a balanced fitness routine nor consider yourself truly fit without it.