Flexibility training is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated components of physical fitness. Mostly, because it is generally programmed at the end of a workout as part of a cool-down session. However, it takes time and many believe that once the “intense” workout is finished, the session is complete. However, if a client is serious about training, they need to also be serious about recovery.
Bear in mind there is a difference between mobility and flexibility, but they are interconnected. Mobility is a joint’s ability to explore its full range of motion (ROM) taking into account restricted muscle tissue, joints, joint capsules, soft tissue, and motor control. Flexibility, on the other hand, is a muscle’s ability to stretch. You might think of mobility as an active state and flexibility as a passive one.
Here’s how you can educate your fitness clients about the necessity and value of flexibility training.
Benefits of Flexibility Training
Practicing and prioritizing flexibility isn’t just about keeping the joints healthy and functional. The benefits of flexibility are profound. A healthy range of flexibility can:
- Increase movement range
- Reduce the rate of functional decline with advancing age
- Create postural symmetry and joint alignment
- Reduce stress tension, and promote tissue relaxation
- Reduce risk of potential injury
- Relieve muscle pain
- Improve quality of life
- Offer mental health benefits
Being flexible is more than having the ability to touch your toes; it’s about living pain-free and promoting a better quality of life.
The Role of Flexibility
Each joint has a predefined attainable range that affects the way it functions and performs. Optimal levels of flexibility allow for efficient movement with adequate stability and articular support. Without an optimal range of motion, individuals experience dysfunctional positioning or alignment (kyphosis, for example), which can threaten the integrity of the kinetic chain and compromise other areas of the body. While being flexible doesn’t directly build muscle or improve athletic endurance, it is an attribute that allows the human body to move functionally and optimally regardless of the type of training or exertion a client is engaged with.
There is a wide range of flexibility tests fitness professionals have at their disposal. Goniometers, field tests, and established tests (sit and reach, for example). Goniometers are the most accurate way to measure a joint’s range of motion as this tool measures the specific degrees of motion of a given joint. However, these tools aren’t commonly used by fitness professionals and are more common in physical therapy and clinical settings. For the personal trainer, field tests work well and allows for the objective identification of areas of stiffness, tightness, or dysfunction.
A few key reminders when it comes to assessing a client’s flexibility include the following:
- Each joint movement should be assessed unilaterally.
- Any limitation should be documented.
- Exercise recommendations should include routine activities to address identified deficiencies.
Incorporating Flexibility into a Client’s Program
It’s considered a best practice to include flexibility in the program design by adding exercises to the beginning and end of a workout.
Integrate dynamic flexibility exercises in the warm-up period prior to the exercise conditioning bout. Have the client mimic the movements they will perform during the exercise session. Select 5-8 movements and perform 2-4 sets of each movement. This allows the client to accumulate 1-2 minutes of active stretching time per muscle group.
Following the exercise session, focus on static stretches for the cool-down portion. For this, select 8-12 movements and perform 2-4 sets of each movement, holding the end position of the stretch for 15-30 seconds. Inclusion of static stretches at the end of a workout does take time – additional time a client may not have. Alternatively, a fitness professional can consider writing an “at-home” or “range work and recovery” mini-program for clients to use throughout the week and on non-training days. For additional flexibility training, you can lead your client through a series of Yoga poses instead of specific static stretches.
However you approach developing flexibility with your clients, start with educating them on the numerous and research-supported benefits of this important component of fitness. Be sure to reassess flexibility throughout your clients’ training program. This will demonstrate improvement and identify any remaining areas of weakness/tightness that need to be addressed through additional efforts.