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Flexibility is the range of motion for a muscle and/or joint. Many factors contribute to flexibility or the lack of:
- The structure of the joint
- The structure of the muscle, ligaments and tendons that extend over the joint
- The size of the tissues surrounding the joint
- The amount of exercise
A good flexibility program is essential for total fitness. Before stretching it is important to increase the temperature of ligaments, tendons, muscles and other body tissues. It is recommended that the warm-up be light exercise that is similar to the activity that is going to be done. For example, if someone is going to run then a warm up should be a slow and controlled run before stretching. By doing a light exercise program before stretching the various muscle tissues will give more easily, helping to get a better stretch and preventing injuries.
A good flexibility program does not and should not include pain. It is counter productive to have pain while stretching. When first beginning a stretch the muscles first response is to contract instead of stretch. If the stretch is slow and controlled then the muscle relaxes and flexibility increases. If the stretch is painful then the muscle protects itself by contracting, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise and causing possible muscle soreness or injury.
The two types of stretching are static and ballistic. Static stretching is a slow and controlled movement. Once the stretch is performed, without pain, the muscle will relax and allow for increased flexibility. The other type of stretching is known as ballistic. It involves rapid, bouncing movement. Instead of increasing flexibility this form of stretching can cause the muscle to contract instead of extend.
Each muscle should be stretched thoroughly. Not only does flexibility vary from person to person, it varies from joint to joint. Many people will be more flexible in one area of the body and not as flexible in another. Therefore, it is important to maintain flexibility and improve where needed.
When first starting a flexibility program it is important to remember to stretch gently. A stretch should be done to the point of feeling the muscle, but not painful. The relaxation response for a muscle is approximately six (6) seconds; therefore a stretch should be at least ten (10) seconds, in the beginning, slowing working up to thirty (30) seconds as the muscles become more flexible over time.
Starting a flexibility program can be beneficial at any age. The more flexible a person is the less prone they are to injuries. To acquire a good range of flexibility it is best to stretch everyday for several months. Once a good range has been acquired then a person would only need to stretch three (3) to four (4) times per week to maintain.