As a recreational ballet dancer, flexibility is part of the package of practicing this difficult art form. Without flexibility, many moves in ballet are otherwise difficult to perform. But this flexibility must also be coupled with strength.
There is a myth out there that flexibility decreases strength in your muscles, which is flat-out wrong. Stretching after a warm-up before hitting the weights can decrease the force production your muscles produce, but that is only a temporary side-effect and a reason why you should only stretch at the end of your workout. It is not a reason why you should avoid flexibility training in your routine altogether.
Whenever I attend the gym, I’ll see people hit up the weights or cardio machines, but when they’re done, they’ll simply leave the gym without bothering to stretch. This is inadvisable for a myriad of reasons, injury being one of them. Flexibility is so crucial in your routine that to not have flexible muscles will become a detriment to your long-term physical health. Thus, if you’re an inflexible person, becoming flexible needs to become a prioritized goal in your long-term goals. One determinate of overall flexibility is in whether or not you can touch your toes. If you can’t, spend your time working up toward this goal.
- Flexibility can prevent injuries due to the pliability of muscles. If you’re constantly lifting weights without stretching your muscles afterward, you’re leaving them in a shortened state and increasing your risk of muscle knots. Muscle knots form to keep your muscles from tearing–but they hurt! And if you don’t take care of those knots, they will scar over and become increasingly difficult to remove. I had a minefield of muscle knots in my calves due to not stretching after pointe classes. And sometimes your muscles can tear. Imagine tight muscles pulling on themselves, like you’re pulling on a rubber band. Eventually the tension is going to become too much that it tears. This is why flexibility can prevent injuries.
- As well as strength, flexibility also assists with good posture. Flexibility and strength keep your muscles balanced. Otherwise, your muscles are going to become shortened and start pulling areas like your pelvis out of alignment. It also decreases the energy needed to move your joints through their range of motion, which can in turn prevent ailments that can occur within your joints.
- Flexibility may prevent DOMS, which is delayed onset muscle soreness. There is still no scientific consensus on why DOMS occurs a day or two after an intense exercise. All we know is that flexibility can keep it from occurring since the muscles won’t be as tight after a workout. This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t fall prey to DOMS, but any preventative measure like stretching can help.
- It can increase overall blood circulation. This can help since blood will be able to better carry nutrients to those tissues. Muscle knots, for example, are so painful because they inhibit blood flow to those areas; thus, muscle knots become hard to heal without myofascial release techniques to allow blood to flow to that area and repair the damaged tissue.
- Stretching can help reduce lower back pain, which is a common ailment among many people. As well as core endurance, flexibility in that area is just as important. Flexible muscles are relaxed muscles. In people with lower back problems, the muscles are often tense.
- Stretching in general can just be relaxing. Unless you’re a dancer or someone doing martial arts, who has to have extreme flexibility, stretching can be therapeutic after a tough workout in that it releases the felt tension in muscles you build up during intense workout routines.
Even though flexibility is just as important as strength, you don’t want to overdo your stretching. You can tear your muscles this way. You only want to stretch to the point of discomfort. I recommend trying to hold a particular stretch for at least 30 seconds so you can activate the stretch reflex in your muscle spindles. Now the type of stretches you do are completely contingent on the muscles you’ve worked out that day. For example, if you choose to spend your time at the gym working on your upper body, then stretching the upper body muscles is all you need to worry about.