Much has been written about the health benefits of exercise and staying fit, for people of all ages and all levels of fitness. But much less has been written about the tremendous benefits that accrue to people who also take the time to increase flexibility and mobility through stretching and range-of-motion activities.
It's common for workout enthusiasts to dive right into their conditioning and strength programs without stretching or loosening up joints, and it's just as common to skip it after the workout as well. But it would be a mistake to ignore or underestimate the benefits and the importance of flexibility and mobility--according to David Geier, Director of Sports Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, "Flexibility is the third pillar of fitness, next to cardiovascular conditioning and strength training."
You might also enjoy our article on how yoga can improve your flexibility and mobility.
The difference between flexibility and mobility
You may have heard these two terms used almost interchangeably, but they do represent different physical disciplines. Flexibility is defined as the ability of muscles to lengthen and become less tight. This in turn promotes better capability of the joints to move through a full range of motion, which is the definition of mobility. Since the two are so closely linked, accomplishing one of them will generally also achieve your goals in the other.
The benefit provided by greater mobility is that it allows for positioning of joints and muscles to achieve maximum power output. Without adequate range of motion in the joints, your body will lack the mechanical advantage that permits achievement of its full potential. Kelly Starrett, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and owner of the website MobilityWOD.com, puts it this way, "The typical athlete is brutally inefficient. Improving mechanics by resolving problems with tissue restriction and positioning is like taking the emergency brake off a Ferrari."
If mobility is important to you, you must read the bible of mobility training, by Kelly Starrett: Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance.
Flexibility on the other hand, is focused on muscles and the supporting nearby tendons. By stretching muscles before your workout, you actually cause a lengthening of the tendons that attach muscle to bones. The increased length of the tendons allows more muscle to be built up during the subsequent workout, especially in the case of a strength training session. When muscle is more flexible, it has a greater potential to increase in strength.
Why stretching should be part of your workout
Flexible muscles and mobile joints are necessary for more than just elite athletes--they can make everyday activities much easier and safer for people of all ages and all walks of life. As you age, you will experience a natural loss of elasticity and range of motion that will increase the risk of injury from sudden moves, significant stresses like lifting heavy objects, and slips or falls.
Scientists tell us that stretching and joint loosening helps to promote better circulation of the bloodstream, which can stave off the effects of such afflictions as kidney disease and diabetes. Flexibility has even been scientifically linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. From all this, it should be apparent that taking the time to help your body achieve greater mobility and flexibility is well worth the time and effort invested.
How to promote better flexibility and mobility
One of the most popular ways of achieving the goal of increased mobility and flexibility is through the practice of yoga. There are certain aspects of yoga that focus more on strength and stamina, but there are also some poses which are entirely centered around the lengthening of muscles and increasing mobility in the joints. Some yoga classes even take in the entire range of poses contributing to strength, breathing, flexibility, and mobility, so this can be a wonderful way to achieve all your goals at once.
If you are new to yoga, read this article about choosing the best yoga class for you.
If you prefer to do your stretching at home, the best approach is to start with around 10 minutes each day that's devoted to lengthening the major muscle groups of the upper body and the lower body. These will include the shoulders, arms, neck, lower back, calves, thighs, hamstring, and ankles. After working all these, you should then turn your attention to any areas which are personal problem spots for you, i.e. areas which you stress more, and which are frequently sore or painful. The specific stretches to do for each muscle group can be easily looked up online, or obtained in a video which can be used as a daily guide through your routine.
Gear for flexibility and mobility
There is no shortage of equipment on the market today that can help you in your quest to achieve greater mobility and flexibility. The PRO Flexibility Trainer is one effective tool which can be used for muscle lengthening and range of motion, and can be managed by you personally, so that you're always in control of how far to go with your efforts.
LOOP Resistance Bands are also valuable training aids, and they offer five different color-coded bands with varying levels of resistance. This allows you to start with a band of least resistance, and gradually progress to higher levels as your flexibility increases. The workout bands are accompanied by an e-book which describes some of the best stretches to do, and how your resistance bands can be used for optimal effect.
The professional quality Exercise Ball is fantastic for improving core strength, balance, and for keeping back muscles limber, or recovering from back injury. It can be used in conjunction with pilates workouts, yoga, and training for strength, mobility, and flexibility.